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Image Credit: Frankie Cordoba on unsplash.com

If you want to make it in this field, you’ve got to pay your dues. That’s been the ethic in the arts and culture sector for generations. And it’s such a familiar concept—akin to the iconic American “bootstraps” mythology. Alas, it is just as mythical.

Because what lies behind this “pay your dues” ethic is a very different logic, namely pay to play—an inherently elitist system that makes entry into the field of the arts exceedingly difficult for anyone who doesn’t already derive their financial security from other sources.

The result is a far less diverse workforce and leadership pipeline, high turnover, low morale, and ultimately, arts and cultural offerings that are less vital and fail to reflect the values and visions of our communities.

A Regional Coalition Emerges

In western Massachusetts, in a region known as the Berkshires, and across the state line in Columbia County in New York state, a group of arts organizations have come together to do something about elitism in the arts and to advocate for fair compensation.

For over a year, a group of six (later expanded to eight) arts organizations coordinated and carried out a survey to systematically understand the real experience of entry- and mid-level workers, humanize their experience with first-hand stories, and make recommendations and commitments to increase pay equity—both as individual organizations, and as a growing movement. My role, as a consultant, has been to support this coalition.

The resulting effort—the Pay Equity Project—was inspired by a few separate informal grassroots whistleblower efforts initiated by brave arts workers in the region.

The coalition members, who were initially brought together by a local organization called Multicultural BRIDGE, are: Art Omi, Berkshire Art Center, Community Access to the Arts, Flying Cloud Institute, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, WAM Theatre, and Williamstown Theatre Festival. A local community foundation, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, has supported this effort and was the study’s primary funder.

The full report, published in June, can be found here.

“It’s really difficult to feel passionate about your work when you can’t get out of debt, afford a house or a car that actually gets you to and from work.”

Survey Findings

The study’s results are based on surveys with 188 entry- and mid-level workers. The participants came from 43 area arts and cultural employers and held 33 different position titles.

A few highlights include:

  • About half of respondents consider their pay and benefits “unfair, and expectations unreasonable.”
  • The average hourly wage ($19.49) barely exceeds the livable wage rate for the region ($17.78) for households with no children and no unemployed or dependent adults, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. For workers with children and/or adult dependents, $19.49 becomes severely insufficient.
  • Over half of respondents (56 percent) have additional jobs to get by.

Beyond the numbers, we solicited long-form insights from respondents and conducted two focus groups. Here is a sample of those verbatim responses:

  • “My life isn’t sustainable. I get further and further behind in all ways: financial, social fabric, health, education.”
  • “It’s really difficult to feel passionate about your work when you can’t get out of debt, afford a house or a car that actually gets you to and from work, or even enjoy a nice dinner out. I gave up all my free personal time and still struggled to make ends meet and was pushed even further into debt.”
  • “It is not worth it in the arts anymore.”

Employers were also asked to share anonymized data about salaries and benefits for their entry- and mid-level staff, which we consolidated into a database. Compensation information for the highest paid employees in nonprofits is easily accessible for free online using GuideStar or ProPublica to access IRS 990 forms. But compensation information for people on the lower rungs is much harder to find. That made our new database, fed by 38 participating employers representing 963 total employees, extremely valuable.

Here are some highlights:

  • A third of the employers reported that some or all their interns are unpaid.
  • Employers reported that 30 percent of their full-time employees earn less than $50,000 annually (before taxes), and some are earning much less than that.
  • Nearly two in three employers (65 percent) lack plans to increase pay equity or aren’t sure what steps to take.

A National Problem

Of course, the issues uncovered in our local survey are not unique to our region.

Two larger scale initiatives with similar objectives are:

  • Valuing Our Nonprofit Workforce Survey 2023: This effort is led by Third Sector New England. The survey stresses persistent disparities: “Compensation benchmarks across the nonprofit sector have changed drastically since the start of COVID-19. But there are still disparities when it comes to ensuring equitable wages for nonprofit employees.”
  • The national Arts Compensation Project is led by the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) and AMS Analytics. The survey is framed as “an important step towards greater pay transparency, parity and equity for arts workers.”

Two completed initiatives provided additional insight and inspiration. Racial equity is the focus of The Burden of Bias in the Bay State: The Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap in Massachusetts, undertaken by the Building Movement Project in 2019. Insight regarding Massachusetts and national trends helps underscore the added burden for people of color. That report found that more respondents who are people of color experienced bias through “organizations that lack ladders, succession planning, or effective mentoring, as well as nonprofits in which favoritism and inconsistent standards yield unfair outcomes;” that fewer people of color reported receiving cost of living and performance-based raises; and that about half of people of color surveyed said their race had been a barrier to career advancement.

The most important recommendation is for employers to develop compensation frameworks which outline how compensation is set.

A second important initiative is the Pay Equity Standards certification program, which was developed in 2020 by a small organization in Chicago called On Our Team. Originally created to address labor and pay equity issues in costume design and other theatrical design areas, the program has expanded to other sectors and other cities. To earn the Pay Equity Standards gold badge, employers must satisfy a series of criteria, such as a maximum five-to-one salary ratio between CEOs and the lowest paid employee.

Recommendations and Commitments

The following recommendations were the culmination of quantitative and qualitative insights from entry- and mid-level workers themselves, anonymized compensation data from employers, and a national scan of compensation equity initiatives. As such, these recommendations are also commitments that all eight lead organizations have made. The recommendations and commitments fall into two categories: recommendations for employers, and recommendations for movement building.

The most important recommendation is for employers to develop compensation frameworks that outline how compensation is set, including minimum pay rates, targets based on living wage data, and consistent and transparent salary bands based on job titles and responsibilities.

Additionally, the report calls on sector organizations to analyze and track the compensation ratios across the organization between the highest and lowest paid employees. Many of the recommendations concern transparency, such as listing rates of pay on all job descriptions and hiring postings, as well as having transparent protocols regarding overtime.

The report also emphasizes the need to eliminate practices that foster exclusion, such as unpaid internships. Related changes outlined include valuing lived experience in making hiring and promotion decisions and adjusting job training and professional development strategies to increase retention and help a broader range of people to succeed.

Finally, the report calls for incorporating concrete targets for compensation equity into planning, including incorporating equity commitments in multiyear financial projections and making compensation equity a regular board agenda item.

From Report to a Movement

The members of our coalition are under no illusion that a report alone will change practice and culture in the field.

Once employers practicing pay equity reach critical mass, assumptions and expectations will shift.

We now have the data. The next step is to move toward advocacy. To this end, We plan to host an annual regional Pay Equity Summit, with broad participation among arts and culture organizations, as well as other nonprofit and for-profit regional employers, to track progress, showcase pay equity initiatives, and increase accountability.

Additionally, priorities of the group are to advocate for pay equity both at the governmental level—local, state, and federal—and in the private sector, including individual, institutional, and corporate donors. Part of this work, too, is narrative in nature—that means both challenging still commonplace notions that justify exclusionary practices such as unpaid internships, as well as amplifying stories that highlight the essential role of arts and culture workers in communities.

How Do We Pay for It?

One of the most common reactions to the project and our findings is, “Sounds great. How do we pay for it?”

There are several answers to that important question. One is to increase funding for the field. While the extent of the increase in donor backing for racial justice can be overstated, the racial reckoning of the past three years does create greater possibilities to generate donor support for transformative change.

A second answer is cultural. Once employers practicing pay equity reaches critical mass, assumptions and expectations will shift, and it will make no more sense to ask how to find resources to ensure equitable compensation than to ask how to free up resources to ensure the presence of bathrooms at a workplace.

A third answer is simply about setting priorities to pay workers what they are worth.

Sometimes, this can be fixed internally, by narrowing the gap between executives and staff. But in cases where that won’t work, programming should be aligned with actual human and financial resources. In the short term, pay equity is achieved by reducing workload. In the longer term, the message is sent about what the real costs are to provide a full program without exploitation.

Clearly, the Pay Equity Project is part of a larger national conversation. Individual organizations, regional coalitions, and industry associations throughout the nation are gathering data, changing pay structures, advocating for legislative reform, and more.

One important discovery from our survey is that there is an extraordinary cultural divide between entry- and mid-level workers on the one hand, and board members and donors on the other. Making visible the experiences of what remains a largely invisible arts underclass is critical to changing how the art world functions.

So long as working in the arts is considered a privilege, the privileged will dominate the field. Not only is this result unconscionable, but it also diminishes the quality of artistic expression, and it ultimately threatens the viability of the sector.