It’s Brave to Quit the Museum Field: Part One

 

Since August of 2015, I’ve written blog posts about how to survive in the art world , why we should pay interns  and more. Yet, after a confusing set of turns with getting into grad school and getting absolutely no financial aid, I’ve decided to walk away from the entire field. I became tired of feeling grateful for any opportunity, even if it stripped me of work life balance. I was happy to work part time for less than a living wage and work another job. Yet, once I realized that in two years, I would be around $140,000 in debt to possibly get paid $40,000/year I said “Absolutely not.”

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My brain after 6 years of this hustle. Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

 

           So I decided to apply for jobs in literally any field I was qualified, as long as it was in Minneapolis and paid a stable wage. After 6 weeks, I had two offers and two other opportunities in the pipeline, which only goes to show how more open the rest of the world is to people with museum backgrounds. I started my job last Wednesday in a financial non-profit with benefits and a work-life balance. My life lesson from this: It’s not cowardice to give up on an abusive field.

           I wanted to normalize my experience, so I reached out to a Facebook Group of Emerging Museum Professionals . I asked them to fill out an informal and unscientific survey about why people have left the field. In 25 hours, there were 49 responses from two posts, which just goes to show how badly we need to talk about this problem. My first draft was originally a listicle of a selection of quotes, but when talking to the rest of the staff, we realized the dearth of information out there about these decisions needed to be more. So keep your eyes peeled for bi-monthly posts about this issue.

Yet, Sarah said something that I think summarized it all for me, “Anything full time that would allow me to grow. I was not picky.” She was stuck working full time in Visitor Service with an MA, and could not get hired beyond the position in her larger museum. “It’s hard to get an “in” especially if you can’t afford to volunteer your time without payment.

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The ever pressing dialogue. Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Everyone I have talked to has given away their labor in some way or another, either by working more than 40 hours a week, unpaid “internships” or by writing for a blog. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s the fact that a solid career is typically started and based on that pretty high level of privilege to give away labor that makes it such a problem. This quickly blocks people, and may be why many of the respondents were college educated white women. They were the ones to even try and it’s worth thinking about how many others did not even get to try due to serious access barriers. It’s like people are watching a train go by, but with no way to buy a ticket to even try it.

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Photo by Alex Klopcic on Unsplash

We need to share our stories and start changing the dialogue about what is ok in this field. We are forcing POC, Women, LGBTQ*, low socioeconomic status and disabled people out before they can even change the systems. It should not depend on marginalized people to fight against these systems by themselves. We need to be honest, and real with how we pay staff, use unpaid labor, and overwork ourselves. It’s really stupid and at least in part unnecessary, to be entirely frank.

Stay tuned, we’ll have at least three more posts about this topic. Even if I’m not going to be cataloging photographs, I still care. I’m happy where I am now, that my paycheck is the same every week and I can afford the occasional avocado toast. Yet, I was forced out, and I’m mad. So I’m going to talk about it, since I no longer worry what is going to come up with a Google search of my name during a museum job hunt.

35 comments on “It’s Brave to Quit the Museum Field: Part One

  1. I really appreciate this. But I think this issue in the arts speaks to a larger problem. We as a society don’t value certain types of work. Witness your not getting grad school tuition paid for, or the fact that jobs require a Ph.D. or MA and barely pay a living wage. I teach journalism at a high profile and respected program, and my students are lucky to get an entry level job that pays $24K a year. If you have a history, English, or other A&S degree, you may struggle to find work. It’s not only that the museum system may be abusive: it’s that we’ve decided that only a certain element of our society “should” benefit and others are disposable. That’s criminal.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Absolutely I agree it points to a larger issue! I personally (as the writer) believe because since women have largely “taken over” the entry level jobs, we continue to be undervalued as a field. I’ll make sure to make it super clear in the next couple posts. Yet, also I think you can see it in art museums in particular because they always seem to find money for acquiring objects, expanding digital projects, expensive loan agreements for blockbuster shows, etc. (Or alternately incredibly high salaries for high level administrators at the big ones.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • There is money within museums, it’s just a matter of how it’s distributed. This was one of the aspects that was so frustrating working at a major museum. We couldn’t even get cost of living increases and yet leadership was receiving high salaries and large bonuses.

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      • Totally agree with Claire’s comment about paying plenty to boost high level staff salaries.
        I worked in a large museum where the Director of our department and I ran the marketing and Visitor Services dept together. Her salary increased 4-fold in 12 years maxing out at over $160k while my salary increased $1k a year to total just over $42k in those same 12 years. As fun as it was, I turned 50 with not a penny saved for retirement.

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  2. I think part of this problem is people’s willingness to take any job at any pay in the museum field. Stop! Know your worth…negotiate a salary. Don’t accept the first offer. At every museum job I’ve been offered I have asked for more money…and have received it. Museums are going to try to pay you the lowest possible salary they can. Don’t let them get away with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ka! Thanks for your comment. I think it is very important to negotiate, yet the barriers that we will be discussing are largely before the negotiation stage. People accept the low pay after months or years of job searching, and there is little real discussion about any stage of any part of the process. People aren’t even getting offers for interviews, or funding to get the “right education.”

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I love this. It’s spot on. I left the museum field as a profession a year ago, and while I still volunteer with museums (because I love volunteering and have the time), I love the steady paycheck, development and advancement opportunities, and ability to sill make a difference that higher education administration is giving me and my husband. THANK YOU for doing this and I can’t wait to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re going to make me cry! I’m both really happy this is hitting a nerve and helping normalize experiences but also really upset that this is how I’m meeting so many people like me. I’m glad the new job is going well! Stable hours are THE BEST.

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  4. Thank you for this! I got my undergrad and masters in art history and worked countless internships and volunteered my time… all of my time. I kept pushing and pushing out applications and finally had to take a retails job until “the right one came along”. I finally realized the abuse going I on was able to strategize and see what skills I could transfer and am now on a career path I’m actually enjoying!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reposting because I need this to not list my full name! Thanks for understanding. Can you please delete the previous post?

    Thank you! I interned, unpaid, for SIX years while working an unrelated job nights and weekends. My big “break” was a full time curator position for 30k and no benefits. Even took my Saturdays. I still had to work my unrelated full time job to pay my student loans and have health insurance.

    My most recent museum job was 35 hours, no benefits, in 6 month contract periods. This was in Los Angeles, so I was paid a whopping $15 an hour. They strung me along until 3 days before to tell me if my contract was renewed. I still had to keep that full time unrelated job.

    My education? A masters AND certificate. I’m done. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. After having to take time off from my profession to reassess my choices and get my health and life back into shape, I can identify with your struggles. It is a different type of struggle but with the same re-examination. Thank you for sharing so open and honestly. You are brave and you deserve to be well and fulfilled.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Not long after getting my master’s, I returned to an old temp job at a tech company. I fell in love with the challenge. Everyone keeps saying “Don’t give up on your dreams,” but I’m not even sure that’s my dream job anymore. In fact, I can say it isn’t. I’m happy where I am, but I am a grateful for my experience getting a master’s degree regardless.
    Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Upon graduating I had all the experience and education I thought necessary to get a solid start in the museum world: degrees in archaeology and museum studies, and for years I had worked for the family business, an exhibit design and fabrication firm, as well an interned with a smaller museum.

    This base of knowledge certainly got me work but nothing stable, I worked the entire spectrum of unstable jobs:

    Three months on, three months off
    Part time on-call
    Regular part time
    Full time contract, with renewals every three months
    Full time one year contract

    These covered positions from collections technician, to exhibition manager. The pay was generally OK, though I was generally working at least two jobs concurrently. There was no escaping the uncertainty however. Moving up in these positions was nearly impossible. Contracts ended before I could make a real impression or before other positions opened up, union rules prevented me from advancing due to a lack of seniority, and the need to keep myself employed meant I would sometimes have to take whatever work was available when a contract ended and those jobs didn’t always fall in line with the upwards trajectory that most careers should follow. You try applying for a curatorial or management position when your current title is: part time assistant collection movement technician.

    In my last position, which was at a major museum, my hours were cut back so significantly I had to take another job doing maintenance work at the very same museum. At this point I had had enough and started to apply to jobs in the US (I’m Canadian, but fortunately have dual citizenship). I was truly surprised at how many opportunities there were south of the border by the responses I got. After a couple months of searching I was offered a director position and mid-sized museum.

    I left a city with no fewer than five major museums and easily 50 smaller ones to come to a much smaller town with one art museum. I find it incredibly frustrating that the only way I could find stable, sustainable work in this field was to uproot my life and move half way across the county. I’m happy where I am now, but it was a hell of a ride getting here.

    Thank you for posting this. For a while I felt like I must have been doing something wrong to have had such a hard time making it in this field. I’m glad I’m not the only one. I still love museum work though, but whenever students ask me for career advice I feel it would be irresponsible not to warn them that they need to be prepared for uncertain years before they find their place and if they’re not passionate then they should find work elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the story. I think it’s always important to center, like you did, about the opportunities we were able to take that others may not be able to even try. Like the five unpaid internships I did, that I was able to make due to a lot of luck and financial privilege!

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  9. I’d love to collaborate with you.

    I left the nonprofit world to be a stay at home mom for 8 years. (The pay was the same as full-time day care) I went back to work four years ago at a museum- which I loved but saw abuse and mismanagement everywhere. I took a job a social service nonprofit a year ago, and just got laid off. I love the arts, museums and heck, nonprofits, but I don’t know if I can even begin to think about working at another one.

    I would love to be part of the change, not sure how.

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    • Feel free to email me if you’d like, or find me on Fb to send a chat. I’d be glad to learn from you! I don’t know if anything will happen beyond this series, but the more we talk about it the more pressure we put on decision makers to change it. It doesn’t have to be mass strikes, but more in pushing back against decisions or making it clear why we are leaving. The place I left knows exactly why I left, and what caused that decision.

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  10. A Facebook friend posted this and wow, is it timely, because I have literally two days left to go before I leave the museum field. I’m one of the “lucky” ones – I got a paid fellowship right out of grad school, and that led into a full-time position with no employment gap (though I was at one point working five separate part-time gigs during the fellowship). Living the dream, right? But,

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    • I’m really glad that this has helped to validate people’s experience. It’s also shocking though to my new field to think that people (like I was!) to be so jazzed about non-permanent positions with a graduate degree!

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    • (WHOOPS posted early) But, it turned out to be a job that was extraordinarily demanding – nights, weekends, with no backup or additional staff to help me out, no sense from upper management about priorities or where to cut programming when I brought it up – to the point that I’m leaving now mainly for the sake of my mental health. I stuck it out for half a decade – that’s long enough.

      The point is, even if you can GET a job, there are still a lot of problems. It’s hard to get into the field, it’s hard to stay in the field, and there is no shame in realizing that fulfilling your dream might actually be a nightmare.

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      • Beth: I just wanted to say that your comment really resonated with me – particularly the last paragraph. My museum employment history is similar to yours, and I’m only two years into my “dream museum job” which has quickly becoming a nightmare. The outrageous demands, including an average of 55hr -60hr work week and almost no weekends or holidays, make feel like I am going insane. There’s an incredible amount of shame and guilt associated with holding a coveted position in the museum field and hating every. single. moment. of it. So– thanks for addressing that issue succinctly.

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  11. Thank you for writing this article. Three years ago I walked away from being a museum professional and was convinced I had failed, that I was the one the was broken, wasn’t smart enough, my ideas weren’t good enough & I wasn’t working hard enough. Luckily I have a partner and friends who point me to many facts that refute this outright. But this article along with the recent staff walkout at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art are telling me in a louder voice that there is something rotten in the state of museums. Thank you for being brave enough to be a quit. And welcome to the club of Former Museum Professionals.

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  12. Hi there! I just want to say THANK YOU so much for this. I am based in the U.K. and have been in the exact same position. A year ago I decided to just stop looking for museum jobs all together and it felt like breaking up with an abusive lover. My struggles to get into the career felt like a personal slight on my ability and personality and as someone who had to take out a bank loan to even do the MA, one with a rigid repayment structure, I lacked any kind of financial flexibility to take the sorts of jobs I was expected to be prepared to do. I had worked front of house for two years prior to my MA and felt like at the end of the day, why should I still be going for those roles again when they were a step back when I had learnt all I could from them.

    Leaving museums has been good for my self esteem and other sectors tend to appreciate your skills far more! But there is something so elitist about museum careers and I find the attitudes of people in paid museum roles to be that of ‘oh I know it’s really hard’ but unwilling to fight the system within. I used to feel judged and I used to judge others myself who gave up, because you’re made to feel like you just didn’t want it enough, whatever that means. I know as an intersectional feminist with white privilege that wanting something means nothing when a system is doesn’t value you or others who don’t fit a particular mould. And also working in museums doesn’t make you more valuable and it doesn’t make you a better person! (Going to refer back to this next time it gets me down) I could go on about this forever. Thank you for putting this out there.

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  13. Dear Claire,

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking and heart-felt piece, and the forum it is providing to discuss these issues. The museum field is not unique among highly-competitive fields for being “abusive.” Leaving any field or career path that no longer works for you is smart and good self-care, not necessarily “brave.” Shining a spotlight on these issues, however, is, and I applaud you (and other commenters) for that.

    Graduate programs are churning out far more graduates than the field can support. As you mention, the economic realities following graduation make it super challenging to repay student loans and build a stable financial future. Post-graduation employment figures that are often bandied about do not tell the full story. So many in the museum field are vastly underemployed! The hustle is real. Graduate programs (my own included) need to be more upfront about the true nature of the field in 2017. It’s the ethical thing to do. (Yet, as an undergraduate, I was hell-bent on working in museums, and I doubt even the prospect of a bleak financial future would have persuaded me otherwise. Letting passion reign king over economic reality, though, is totally on me and must be acknowledged).

    I have grave concerns about the future progress and success of the museum field, as I watch my friends and colleagues begin to burnout before they’re placed in high-level leadership positions and able to impact real change. If our best and brightest get to mid-level management positions (at best) before burning out, but still ultimately leave the field, we lose hope for change.

    Not all museums are equally abusive. With the greatest respect to those who have left the field and made the best decisions given their personal circumstances, those of us who can hold out, must.
    This may mean changing positions or institutions to find a healthier work environment and work/life balance or moving to a less desirable (but less expensive!) location. We all must keep fighting until we are finally MAKING the decisions, LEADING institutions and have the power to CHANGE the field for the better. This might also mean changing fields entirely, but serving in an advisory capacity or on a local museum board. We can’t leave leadership positions open for those migrating over from other fields (tech, for-profit corporations, etc.). This means picking battles strategically and conserving energy (emotional and otherwise) for the long haul.

    Thank you for such an empowering article. Looking forward to future additions and wishing you the best in your endeavors.

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  14. Thank you for raising this issue that obviously resonates with so many both who have left the museum world, and are still working in it. As someone who left museums to work in tech I was surprised by how much better my work/ life was, as well as the companies investment in me as a team member who couldn’t easily be replaced.

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  15. Thank you for this post! There is something horrifying that an entire field has normalized behaviour that most professional workplaces would find absurd. Nearly a decade in the field, and I have yet to work in a museum where crying at desks/in closets, verbal abuse, or similar behaviours wasn’t the norm.

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  16. Hi, Claire.
    Your article was like a punch in the guts to me; I can’t wait for the next posts.
    I’m 23yo, about to finish my second MA in the Arts field and… i’m already burned out. It feels awful to admit it because it’s like I just I found out why I wanted to work with museums (to promote art and get people close to it independet of their background -I want museums and art to be accessible!). Still, after three years of volunteering and interning in important museums/cultural institutions and spending money in academic formation to not get any oportunities… it’s desappointing.
    I’m Brazilian, came to Italy to learn about Conservation and Promotion of Cultural Heritage, which now I think was a mistake. As someone else said in the thread, I was determined in working for museums, but it’s not enough now. Museums around the world are oversaturated, they don’t want to pay their entry level professionals and, most of all, they use interns for jobs without the payroll. Student loans are common place nowadays as well, and if you move away, there’s housing and so many other bills…
    (Does it sound redundant to me as it does to you? Everyone who wrote here talked about it).
    My point it: I’m already in dispair and considering changing fields -I just don’t know what I’m qualified to do. I keep thinking why didn’t i listen to my family and studied Law instead of Fine Arts. Thanks for sharing your experience and allowing the rest of us to know we’re not alone.

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  17. I’m currently an undergrad majoring in Art History and am really thankful for your post. Although I’m leaning toward academia, the museum world was something I wanted to explore or at least lean on; this has given me a healthy dose of reality tbh, esp b/c I imagine that academia has somewhat similar problems in that it’s not a system that’s friendly to marginalized people.

    I’m so saddened as I face this reality because I love this work and I am so passionate about making art and art history accessible to the public, as I’m sure a lot of other people are too. I’ve been having to more seriously consider whether or not I should apply to a Masters program right out of undergrad but god knows I can’t afford it..

    Anyways, I’m sorry for rambling. It’s just all really sad! This work is so important and it’s so saddening that people who want to contribute simply cannot because they are not given the proper support…

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  18. I am also working as Science Communicator in the biggest Science Centre in the Indian subcontinent, Science City. I think that who are working at Science Centres are tagged as Museum Man! Which makes a hindrance for him to get another work. Like, as I did Graduation in Chemistry, I don’t find any suitable work in Science Centre, but I can explore myself in chemical field. When I went to attend any interview I had to hear that “Oooohhh! You are a museum man?? Hmmm, ok we will let you know!” I became very much frustrated. So, after working 11 long years in the Science Centre I feel totally unsatisfied! I become fade up to explain the people about my work schedule. In my office, I have to hear also the phrase”You don’t work at all! Work work, work hard!” At the last I can say that my family life is also ignored by my work schedule so I am not satisfied here.

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