It’s been three weeks since we last discussed the insanity that is the museum world. Last time was just an introduction into the subject that it is in fact brave to leave the Museum World. Most of us have been conditioned to buy into the idea that silence is preferred to an honest and real critique of what we go through in the pursuit of the ever elusive full time job. This discussion will be very heavily framed by the fact that I was a white, private college educated, upper-middle class, straight woman trying to make it in the art museum world. I had it relatively easy. So today, I want to be uncomfortably frank in focusing on the educational requirements and the barriers that presents for the vast majority of people.
The problem is that we have a problem of a pipeline of privilege: those who can get into the best colleges, afford to do unpaid internships, graduate with low enough debt to do very underpaid or unpaid work , get into the better graduate schools end up with full time salaried benefited jobs. They then take their own experiences as a baseline for future decision making. It requires either a ton of privilege, a ton of luck or a serious stomach for poverty. Usually it’s some combination of all three.
Our field demands graduate degrees. Of course, there are those who do not get them. Yet again, they tend to be open to those who grew up rich in large cities. It often demands graduate degrees from the “right” schools, which are usually reserved for those who had enough support to get into the “right” undergraduate institutions. It was not uncommon in my private college to insinuate that those attending state funded universities were inferior in some way. And sadly, in some ways, they were right about the trend that we were more employable. Many people who attend those East Coast colleges do end up making it in the field. They have the connections, the illusion of greater intelligence and awareness of the finer things in life. They can connect with the rich who make it all seem easy.
I hope it’s obvious to you, dear reader, that much of the world’s educational system is problematic. I hope that if you live in the United States, that you’ve heard that the cost of college is in fact insane and increasing at a break neck pace. We are drowning in student debt. So when graduate degrees are required for an entry level job, what these institutions are really saying is, “We sincerely you got lucky enough to get an undergraduate degree with minimal debt, garnered at least 2-3 internships there, and then got into a prestigious graduate school also with minimal debt. We hope you’ve been able to afford to give your labor away for free, because graduate degrees alone will not be enough. Only then will you beat the competition to work at our institution.”
It’s 100% not ok.
We train ourselves to think it is acceptable to have this as our entry level bar, because it “eliminates those who can’t cut it.” We then take it as some weird badge of honor that we as individuals made it, or we dismiss our hard work that made it happen. If you’re like me, and you are healing from emotional abuse, you will recognize this as a form of self-gaslighting. We either minimize how bad it was to succeed, or we pretend we didn’t have serious privilege to get where we are.
What we should be focusing on is not the individual success but the systematic barriers for all people to enter this field. It continues to be an intellectual circle jerk, where the same people talk at each other. Where are the people of color, women, LGBTQ*, and low income people in positions of power? The fact that those who make the decisions are by and large are white, highly educated and straight should be screaming out at us. If you want to talk about accessibility, then you need to be accessible to people entering the field who are marginalized. They should be checking themselves whenever they say a $33,000/year contract curatorial job requires a masters.
So if you’ve left the field, I’d hesitate blaming yourself. It’s because we have so many barriers and so many people defending a terrible system that barred your entry. And you need to talk about it. You need to tell your professors that told you to pursue the field that their advice was no good. If you do have a job in the field, you need to be actively questioning why most job listings only go to those with Masters, or require it. While you’re at it, also ask why job listings never have a salary listed.