Museum Workers Are Plagued by Widespread Precarity, New Report Finds

A new report published last week by Museums Moving Forward, an advocacy group centered on equity in the museum field, detailed a precarious state for workers at art museums based in the U.S.

The findings of the new report, “Workplace Equity and Organizational Culture in U.S. Art Museums,” showed that employees who work at art museums in the U.S. face an array of financial and professional challenges.

Of the 1,900 museum staffers surveyed—based at 54 US arts-focused institutions—74 percent reported an inability to cover the cost of living. 29 percent of that group reported being in executive positions. Meanwhile, 68 percent of those surveyed said that they had considered leaving the field, while 47 percent said that lack of opportunities for growth were a factor in considering leaving the sector.

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The Fondation Beyeler building in Riehen, Switzerland, 07 March 2017. Around 350 modernist and contemporary works are housed in the Swiss art museum. Photo: Patrick Seeger/dpa | usage worldwide   (Photo Patrick Seeger/picture alliance via Getty Images)

High turnover and a lack of development opportunities also plague the museum sector, the report found. On average, the survey found that it takes 12 years before a museum worker receives a promotion and that generally a “significant” portion of employees who make up the museum sector’s workforce are not consistently able to support themselves financially without outside subsidies, like aid from family or generational wealth.

71 percent of full-time staffers reported an inability to always cover living expenses, while 97 percent of part-time workers said the same.

Only 31 percent of museum employees reported ever having received a full promotion. White workers are the mostly likely to be promoted, the report also found.

Funded partially by prominent New York-based cultural non-profits Ford Foundation and Mellon Foundation, the aim of the study, according to MMF’s website, was to showcase a “field-wide view of trends and patterns in art museum workplaces.” In an executive summary published with the release of the report, its authors, among them the former Los Angeles-based art curator Mia Locks, pointed to the recent post-pandemic financial state of museums and a wave of escalating union negotiations among museum workers as indicators of a “dire” situation and ongoing “inequities” that the report’s findings illustrate.

Labor issues in the museum field have been an ongoing battle in recent months. Between March and August of this year, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Minneapolis Institute of Art ratified new union contracts after negotiations.

Institutions represented in the report included New York’s Guggenheim and Brooklyn Museum, Houston’s Menil Collection, and Los Angeles’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Absent from the survey were some of the country’s largest-endowed art institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The report’s findings also showed a disparity in views of museum governance between leadership and staff. According to the study, a staggering 70 percent of non-executive staffers reported that the “priorities” of museum board members are the driving factors behind decisions affecting their institutions. This differed vastly from the views of executives surveyed for the report. 85 percent of said that institutional decision-making was based on “the museum’s missions and values” with only 56 percent attributing board member goals as the driving factor.

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