Salary Survey Shows Widening Income Disparities at US Museums

Last year, as the coronavirus spread throughout the globe, museums were some of the first to close their doors. They remained shuttered for most of 2020, reporting massive losses of income and announcing vast layoffs and furloughs of workers. But how has the pandemic affected salaries at museums? While the lowest staffers faced job insecurity and decreased salaries, a survey released this week by the Association of Art Museum Directors saw an uptick for some of the highest-ranking museum officials.

What’s apparent in the survey is that the wide income disparities between top officials and other workers continue to plague museums, only made worse during the pandemic. Museum directors brought home an average annual salary of $320,600, compared to $317,500 in 2019. Directors of finance saw their salaries jump by 14% from $139,100 in 2019 to $158,700 in 2o2o. Chief operating officers earned $183,700 on average and chief curators made $158,500. 

Meanwhile, visitor services associates, who were most impacted by job cuts, earned less in 2020: an average of $31,600 (full-time) compared to $32,600 in 2019. Part-time visitor services associates, many of whom were furloughed or laid off, made $14,400 on average for the year. Full-time museum security guards made $39,300 (a 10% increase from 2019) while part-time guard made $14,800.

The report shows that of the 151 US museums that responded to the survey during 2019 and 2020, museums in the Western and Mountain Plains have experienced the largest change in salaries from 2019, reporting a drop of up to 2.1%. These regions (covering museums on the West Coast and in the Midwest) were among the hardest-hit during the pandemic.

However, the report — based on responses from 207 museums in the United States, Canada, and Mexico — may not accurately reflect the full impact of the pandemic on museum salaries. That’s because the data provided is based on the fiscal years of museums, which begin on July 1, instead of a calendar year. Furthermore, the report doesn’t take into account the mass layoffs and furloughs at many museums during 2020.

With most COVID-19 restrictions lifted in the US, museums are now operating again at full capacity. But as past AAMD surveys and initiatives like the Art + Museum Transparency salary spreadsheet show, going back to business as usual means perpetuating the income disparities at these institutions. After a catastrophic year for their most vulnerable workers, will museums finally pursue salary equity reforms?

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