Art museum work is meaningful, as workers have overwhelmingly said in this study. Yet such workplaces are plagued with structural inequities that are not only detrimental to workers but also in deep conflict with stated institutional priorities about equity and diversity. The findings are clear: most workers can barely afford their basic living expenses with their museum compensation, including nearly a third of executives. Women and non-binary workers are having worse experiences in their workplaces compared to men. And white workers are having an easier time and more favorable careers than anyone else in art museums. They are getting promoted the most and staying in the field longest. They are the most satisfied with their level of pay and job security, and they are better able to cover their living expenses from their compensation than their POC peers. They also believe at higher rates than most that their museums celebrate diversity, and they experience less discrimination than their POC colleagues.
Though it’s often said that the art museum field has a pipeline problem, the findings from this study suggest otherwise. It turns out art museums are not struggling to find diverse workers; they are struggling to retain them. Diversity retention needs to be a fieldwide effort. If we truly focus on this, it will shape the future of museum leadership and impact the field’s capacity to better reflect the demographics of American society at large. It will also have a substantial impact on improving organizational culture.21
This study provides a picture of today’s art museum workplaces through an equity lens and strives to reveal key areas of opportunity moving forward. Museum workplaces can transform into incredible spaces of collective growth, where workers are proactively nurtured and empowered and their work more sustainably drives the missions of institutions across the nation. Rooted in the lived experiences of art museum workers at all levels, here are five ways to move museum workplaces forward in 2023.
Five Ways to Move Museum Workplaces Forward
Psychological safety—which can be defined as the fundamental condition allowing workers to take risks and to speak up without fear of negative consequences—is the foundation upon which all healthy organizational cultures are built.
- Commit to creating a “bill of rights” for workers. As most discrimination in the field goes unreported, this would make rights specifically regarding discrimination clear and actionable.
- Measure and track specific forms of discrimination happening within the museum and tailor prevention strategies for those experiencing the most harm.
- Make anonymous reporting channels more available to workers so they feel safer sharing experiences.
- Combat the widely held belief that nothing can or will be done to rectify discrimination by creating a culture of accountability based on trust, where there is always follow-through on investigations of discrimination and their outcomes.
- Share as much information as possible about the process so workers understand what is happening at every stage. Be transparent about when information needs to remain confidential and why.
- Protect whistleblowers and those reporting discrimination from retaliation or marginalization. Beyond legal compliance, HR needs to take care of those brave enough to speak up.
- Participate in MMF’s ongoing study to collect fieldwide data from workers on these critical issues while protecting privacy.
Emotionally Intelligent Leaders
Emotional intelligence is the most critical tool in a leader’s toolbox today. Art museums have an opportunity to elevate this skill set by assessing leaders’ performances, not just based on their outcomes but also on the way teams are led. Since burnout culture is driving workers out of museums, it is ever more important to evaluate leaders’ holistic skills, like the capacity for self-awareness and an ongoing reflection on how one’s actions impact others, or the ability to stay calm under pressure and have empathy for others.
- Add metrics for assessing emotional intelligence skills including empathy, effective communication, and self-awareness in performance evaluations.
- Commit to annual 360-degree evaluations—whereby feedback is solicited from all directions, including supervisor, direct reports, and peers—for all leaders that cover the treatment of others and the ability to support and unlock potential in direct reports.
- Ensure that all hires and promotions into management positions, and especially to executive leadership, be tied to a person’s ability to contribute to a healthy workplace culture.
- Acknowledge burnout as an occupational hazard and actively seek ways to prevent it.
- Safeguard against unmanageable workloads through regular manager check-ins that ensure job duties and performance expectations are sustainable.
- Improve work-life balance with added flexibility for workers across levels and departments, including policies for initiatives such as reduced hours, hybrid work, and sabbaticals. Executives also need to model work-life balance by taking vacation time and being offline.
- Normalize wellness in art museum workplaces by providing and encouraging adequate breaks and time off, mental health resources, and disability accommodations.
Opportunities for Growth
All workers need a greater sense of career and professional growth pathways to feel excited about the future. It is time for art museums to get more creative about career growth for workers at all levels, rather than perpetuating the outdated belief that purpose-driven workers are okay with career stagnation.
- Encourage collaborative conversations between workers and managers about career advancement, with the dual goal of clarifying what a worker needs and what an institution can offer.
- Once a worker has identified a professional development need, work with them to meet that need. This might mean offering funds for classes, conferences, or travel opportunities. Offer opportunities for learning and skills development on and off the job, and tailor roles to best fit workers’ skills and interests.
- Be honest about what is and, importantly, what isn’t possible for career trajectories within a particular institution. Communicate transparently about the rates of promotion at each level.
- Normalize alternative models for career growth beyond the traditional ladder climb, such as moving to other museums or taking on new functions within existing workplaces. Jumping between jobs and even between museums is a key strategy for career advancement for those unwilling or unable to wait it out in a single institution (where the average rate of promotion is twelve years).
Diversity Retention Plans
Art museums have an opportunity to increase diversity in the workforce by focusing on retaining the diversity they already have. Doing so not only supports workers already on staff but also creates more incentive and excitement for other workers to join a diverse, supportive workplace.
- Conduct a staff demographic analysis at least every two years across all museum departments with the goal of highlighting which departments need extra attention to diversify staff. This analysis should include data (from AAM, AAMD, and/or MMF survey results) to see how a museum is performing when compared with peer institutions.
- This analysis should be done in full transparency, meaning workers should be adequately informed about what data is being collected about them and why, and results should be shared with everyone on staff.
- Incorporate more inclusive hiring practices, such as at least one group interview conducted by key staff members with whom a candidate would be primarily engaged.
- Strengthen the career pipeline through training initiatives designed specifically for early-career (entry and non-manager) workers (where the data shows the most diversity across all measures), such as a cross-functional rotational program that provides pathways to growth within museums and exposure to various departments and skills.
- Offer more resources for early-career workers to gain professional development outside of their jobs or museums as well. Empower them to consider what skills they need and work collaboratively to help them acquire these skills. Retaining the diversity of this cohort across the field means setting them up for success for future opportunities at the associate (non-manager) level, even if it’s at another institution.
Pay Equity and Transparency
Today’s business model for museums is broken. The data shows that 58% of art museum budgets are already being allocated to staff compensation and benefits, and yet 74% of workers cannot always cover basic living expenses from their compensation. This is clearly unsustainable. The future of the museum workforce will necessarily look different than it does today—museums will either need to increase their monetary resources to pay workers fairly or they will need to contract their operations to meet budget limitations. More equitable pay structures and greater pay transparency are crucial steps to undoing the status quo of underpaid museum workers.
- Conduct annual assessments to ensure all museum workers’ salaries provide more livable wages that can cover at least the cost of living.
- Establish open communication with workers to better understand expectations and the level of satisfaction with pay, through ongoing staff-wide surveys or annual compensation reviews with managers.
- Reimagine museum compensation approaches for the modern era, considering dimensions such as race/gender pay gaps, worker caregiving responsibilities, and student debt.
- Demonstrate a sustained commitment to pay equity through an actionable five-year compensation plan and accompanying budget that sustainably increases worker pay.
- Share salary bands for all positions at the museum so that workers can have a more realistic understanding of what is possible for their career trajectories. Given that 71% of art museums are already sharing salary bands for open positions, this is the next logical step in expanding pay transparency.
The above data-driven recommendations for moving museum workplaces forward are based on the findings from this report and qualitative insights from MMF’s convening program.22 They are intended to be strategic starting places for museums and should be further tailored to fit individual contexts, tested through iterative processes, and workshopped for efficacy. If you have tried one of these recommendations and have feedback to share, please submit a comment by clicking the red button or emailing us at [email protected].