Last June, the activist group Art + Museum Transparency dropped a bomb: a Google spreadsheet that disclosed art workers’ salaries. In just a few days, thousands of people shared it online, with workers at institutions of the caliber of the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago making their annual incomes public. Founded at the end of May 2019 by a “nonhierarchical group of arts and museum workers who are friends and colleagues,” Art + Museum Transparency prefers to answer questions collectively. ARTnews contacted the group to inquire about what it took to put the spreadsheet together, and the good they believe it can do.
This interview was conducted in January and appears in the Spring 2020 issue of ARTnews.
Did you have any idea that the salary spreadsheet would go viral?
Why do you think it was so popular?
One of the first places we sent it to was the CUNY graduate student listserv. It’s 300 or 400 people strong in the art history program, and there are many, many former students. They’re politically active. Very quickly, we got responses on that listserv. [Members of the listserv] have excellent networks, so I think it really mushroomed from there.
We weren’t sure how people were going to take it because asking people for their salaries is such a taboo thing [in America]. We wondered if people would find it offensive or gauche, but they responded quickly. In general, it’s [reflective of] a growing dissatisfaction across fields about the disparity between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, to use to an Occupy Wall Streetism. So many people from undergraduate and graduate programs came into museums around the time of that movement with rising student debt. They just thought, “Fuck it.”
When the survey came out in June, there was a renewed emphasis on workers’ rights, with the New Museum and the Frye Art Museum having recently unionized. Over the coming months, the Shed, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim Museum were among the art institutions to follow suit. Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are currently trying to unionize as well. What do you think precipitated the push toward unionization at museums across the art world?
About a decade ago, new graduates were coming out of programs where they were out $20,000, $30,000 a year for a degree in arts administration, and then had student debt and absolutely no prospects. If they stayed in museums, those people are about 10 years into their museum careers, and not a lot has changed. Except for the few lucky ones, their mobility, professionally, is totally curtailed. There’s a rising feeling of: “Well, if we don’t try this, I’m going to be exiting the field, anyway. I have nothing to lose.” Some museum workers also come from graduate programs that are unionized. A growing push to unionize graduate students could [have caused this]—one union effort leading to another.
The New Museum Union workers were able to strike a contract with management that guarantees a new wage structure, and MOCA voluntarily recognized its union. Do you think the art world is becoming more acceptant of unions?
It’s too early to know. All these questions must be couched in a much larger landscape, not just in terms of museums, although in that field, you’ve also got to think in terms of how museums are structured, generally—which is through their boards. People may have success in a union, but there’s not going to be a great moment of equity anywhere else. These institutions are beholden to very rich individuals, and those individuals have no real compulsion to make them democratic spaces. If you want to go even further, you have the sense of capitalism in the U.S. and beyond. We don’t know that there’s going to be some miraculous change in culture.
A lot of people think that U.S. museums are not transparent, but some have found that there’s even less transparency abroad. Occasionally, you’ll find that some British museums—like Tate in London, for example—post salaries with their job offerings, but they are the exception.
It depends what level you’re looking at. It’s true, to some extent, that in the U.K., it’s like a caste system. If you don’t come from the right caste, you might not get a job in a museum. Transparency is less necessarily about the wage, but about the fact that most of the people there are from a very specific social class, at least the ones that have made it to the top. The new generation has yet to make a real dent.
One of the most useful aspects of your salary survey is that there’s a list of resources people can rely on. We wanted to give the spreadsheet context that can show how easy solidarity and online research can be, in terms of knowing one’s rights and knowing one’s employment landscape. Some of us hadn’t looked at a 990 form [a federal tax form that discloses information about tax-exempt organizations, including the annual compensation of high-ranking officers] before doing the spreadsheet. It was like, “Oh, yeah, who are the top ten highest-paid people in our institutions?” We had no idea!
On the spreadsheet, there are columns where you ask people to reveal certain identifying factors, if they feel comfortable doing so. When you go through the survey, you notice that many respondents who chose to answer that question were white. Is there any way in which revealing salaries can raise awareness for a lack of diversity in the art world?
Transparency and solidarity can only help get to the root of the issues surrounding diversity. On the spreadsheet, we said, “Be safe, be comfortable,” and it would have been uncomfortable for many people who identify as anything other than white in most cases [to share their identity]. The art world is so white that it would be much easier to identify someone if they specified that they were something other than white, even in the broadest details. If candidates from underrepresented minority groups don’t have a network, now there’s a spreadsheet explaining what they might be able to expect when they get a job. That can be a really powerful thing.
A lot of the only resources of this kind are only available on jobs websites like Glassdoor, which allows users to post reviews of their prior employment experiences along with their salaries, and even there they’re somewhat limited.
The salary survey breaks down some barriers, and the art world has so many gatekeepers. Allowing more transparency opens those gates and allows those people to come in. One hopes that that would allow someone who is not as well-represented to come in as well.
Another major facet of your work has focused on unpaid internships and calling on institutions to stop offering them. You wrote an op-ed for ARTnews about that last year. Why did you call on institutions to stop offering unpaid internships?
A lot of the structural inequalities that we see in museums can be traced back to these unpaid internships. It’s about putting your money where your mouth is, as an institution. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to anyone who works in a museum—to a director, an intern, whomever—that you can’t really have the equitable working situation that everyone would prefer, if you are asking historically underrepresented or marginalized for free or for low pay. It just doesn’t add up. [Internships are] a pipeline into certain jobs, especially curatorial ones that can very difficult to clamber into, and that pipeline is being tested in recent years. Through curatorial fellowships and internships, people are coming up through those pipelines, and we’re realizing we need a plumber when you get past the fellowship stage. There’s just not enough jobs to go around, and when you do get to the stage where you can have a job, it’s not adequately paid enough to start a career.
One of the things that’s important about our work is being able to highlight when places change or when institutions are doing better. The Guggenheim just added a stipend to their internship this summer, which is amazing. There are institutions that will not let people work for free, and by taking such a clear stance, we’re able to highlight who is doing the important work. It’s not that it doesn’t happen anywhere! Change can happen. It can be done.
The Association of Art Museum Directors calling for an end to unpaid internships at museums just before the op-ed probably contributed as well.
It’s realistic to start asking: Do we need hordes of unpaid volunteers and interns, because we can’t match jobs at the end of those internships? We were psyched to see that AAMD resolution, but it allowed for-credit internships, and it’s important to keep in mind the preponderance of those internships in the U.S. because universities make [students] pay for credits to work for free, which is insult to injury and unethical. The resolution is amazing, but it needs more spine.
What are areas that are worth focusing more on in the future?
One is paid family leave. It’s very important for people to bring their whole selves to work, and we think that’s what we’re asking people to do. It helps advance diversity, in terms of gender, racial background, and so many intersections that we talk about when we talk about pay transparency. There are also larger structural changes. We need more diverse leadership so that we can think more diversely across the board. That’s only going to happen when we think big picture about the policies that undergird the museums we work in.