Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

June 3, 2019; Hyperallergic

A crowdsourced, anonymized Google Sheet released late last week records the salaries of museum and art nonprofit employees.

Michelle Millar Fisher, a Philadelphia Museum of Art Assistant Curator, created and shared the spreadsheet on May 31st. (The list conceals names but not job titles; early contributors masked their institutions’ names but later entries for the most part reveal them.) When the arts and culture news site Hyperallergic initially reported on the phenomenon, the spreadsheet had 660 entries. As of June 6th, it had grown to more than 1,800 entries, including prominent art institutions from across the US. New entries are still being welcomed via a Google form.

A comprehensive glimpse into the state of working conditions in the arts, the open spreadsheet includes details such as whether the position includes health and retirement benefits or parental leave, and any academic degrees required. (There’s an optional space for respondents to leave any gender or racial identifiers, too.) The page also has tabs with the salaries of top staff, links to the 990 forms of some of the institutions, and a collection of resources for worker support, making it a rich self-help tool for users.

This spontaneous act of “radical transparency” calls attention to the unsustainability of these wages. Its immediacy and collective response makes it difficult to dismiss. Also, as Zachary Small writes,

Those who contributed to the spreadsheet hope that transparency will lead to some sort of remuneration reform that may also contribute to further diversifying the field across socioeconomic categories. Even as museums are described as “cash-strapped” and expensive to run, their employees (and the public) are increasingly aware of how infeasible it is for people from low-income or middle-class backgrounds to work in such institutions without other independent sources of income.

The Nonprofit Quarterly has reported before on nonprofit wage ghettos. While the coverage has largely focused on obvious culprits like the home care and child care industries, where nonprofits are significant actors, Ruth McCambridge pointed out the “unending supply of rationalizations for creating wage ghettos” sector-wide. The glaring gap between top executives and line workers in the case detailed in her article, where a nonprofit executive director’s salary was $667,063 and a home health care aide made $23,000 with no benefits, is comparable to that between the president of the Art Institute of Chicago earning $593,895 a year when multiple positions listed in the spreadsheet pay salaries of $45,000 and less.

While there are encouraging signs, such as emerging pay parity between nonprofit and for-profit businesses and the average nonprofit salary in Minnesota overtaking that of the public sector, nonprofit sector wage struggles continue—the recent CAMBA legal workers strike being one example. NPQ’s call to adopt “sustainability of the workforce as a core principle” is as relevant as ever.

What will it take to make the shift from the unjust operating environment of the default enterprise model to treating workers as if they mattered? In addition to policy and contract negotiation strategies and alternative enterprise solutions, NPQ has suggested that actors in the sector in positions to make change ought to pay close attention to workers when they speak up, as the museum and art workers have here, even getting into common cause with them, as has happened in some states where fields of nonprofits pushed back against substandard compensation.

Nonprofit workers outside the art and museum arena should consider what they can take from this movement and how they might respond. These ideas might lead them to call to account not just their employers, but also the policymakers and funders who allow for wages that people can’t live on.—Kori Kanayama