How a Google Spreadsheet Broke the Art World’s Culture of Silence

Nearly 2000 museum workers have shared their salaries online – the vast inequity is difficult to ignore

There’s one entry on ‘Art/Museum Salary Transparency 2019’ – the Google Spreadsheet currently turning heads in the art world – that stands out from all the other anonymous respondents, which at the time of writing totals nearly 2,000. Listed as associate curator at MoMA PS1, it features a starting salary of US$90,000, but under the column headed ‘current salary’ there is no figure. Instead it says: ‘Never started – job offer illegally rescinded.’ Anyone who follows these things is likely to make a connection to the 2017 case of Nikki Columbus and the job she thought she had, but then didn’t after telling her future employer she’d just had a baby. It’s a story of alleged institutional discrimination that seems to starkly sum up the impetus behind this initiative. ‘Yes, Nikki was a precipitating factor,’ says Michelle Millar Fisher, the public face of the spreadsheet which she set up with help from friends and colleagues and posted online on 31 May. ‘I have great respect and admiration for her.’

Fisher’s respect isn’t just because of the treatment Columbus says she experienced – she settled a legal claim against the museum in March, although MoMA PS1 maintains it was ‘at all times compliant with the law’. It’s also because she had the guts to make a fuss. In a measured, unconfrontational way, this campaign for salary transparency in the contemporary art and museum sector is similarly about getting things out in the open and highlighting what the employment landscape is actually like. ‘In the US there’s a real culture of fear in talking about this,’ says Fisher.

MoMA PS1 and New York skyline, 2005. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Timothy Vogel

MoMA PS1 and New York skyline, 2005. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Timothy Vogel

Despite this fear factor, people sharing how much they get paid still shouldn’t be a particularly political act – should it? But when you see the vast disparity in the annual salaries listed on the spreadsheet – unverified figures that range from zero for unpaid interns to over US$300,000 for a chief curator job at MoMA – the inequity at play is hard to ignore. And this in a world that so often presents itself as big on social justice. For Fisher, an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who has worked at MoMA, the Met and the Guggenheim, that’s a crucial reason for doing this. She says: ‘We’re being bombarded now with really fantastic projects in exhibitions, in programming that take on these conversations around inequity. But the stuff of museums is also about the people and the staff, and you can’t be having these programmatic shifts to a more inclusive paradigm if you’re not also doing that in your HR departments too.’

It’s not, says Fisher, about calling individuals out for their high salaries. Rather, it’s that the disparity between top and bottom needs to be challenged; that a culture of silence around pay favours those best able to negotiate and articulate their worth. Not that she has been surprised by the information that people have added to the document (originally via an editable spreadsheet and now, due to the amount of interest, by filling in an online form). ‘I worked at MoMA for a long time and we’ve had to protest twice there to keep our healthcare, and at that point in time it was very clear how much some of the people at the top were making.’ What is a ‘wonderful surprise’, she says, is seeing people move away from ‘that culture of fear to do something that can make change, which is to be open about what they make. Because if you can see that massive inequity, then the next step is to say that no-one should be getting zero.’

MoMA Union members hold protest, 2018. Courtesy: Instagram and @momalocal2110

MoMA Union members hold protest, 2018. Courtesy: Instagram and @momalocal2110

The rollercoaster take-up of the spreadsheet to nearly 2,000 entries in less than a week clearly demonstrates that there is a thirst for more transparency. As one of Fisher’s anonymous colleagues told me, the act of making salaries transparent ‘empowers staff within these organizations to advocate and organize for higher wages and better benefits. It also communicates beyond the sector what those within it have long known: these salaries are not sustainable or equitable […] At a time when museums are seeking to diversify their ranks, they cannot ethically do so with such low wages and dismal benefits.’

Fisher, who’s happy to share that she earns US$61,000 in her current job and will be getting US$83,500 when she takes up a new role at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in July, believes that museums can afford to address these inequities, that it’s all a matter of priorities. And that the fact that so many people remain fearful of openly revealing what they earn is an indictment of a sector that should thrive on openness. ‘I deeply respect the need of the colleagues and friends I’m working with on this to be anonymous,’ she says. ‘I have the privilege of a steady wage and they don’t – but it would be great if people could live in a different culture.’

Main image: Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019, screen shot. Fair use

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt

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