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.”
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.”
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.
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.