Sterling and Noble Electric Neon Wall Clock, 2018.
history museums pragmatic historian

Advice on Hiring Museum Contractors

Sterling and Noble Electric Neon Wall Clock, 2018.
Sterling and Noble Electric Neon Wall Clock, 2018.

This might post might feel a bit off-topic for The Pragmatic Historian, but I know several of my colleagues in the Minnesota history museum field are in my audience and I need to pass along some advice. (Appropriately enough, today is Labor Day and the topic relates to the day.)

The Legacy Amendment & Grants

Some background for those not in Minnesota: In 2008 voters passed the Legacy Amendment, which provides sales tax funding for various environmental, arts, history, and cultural activities. This has injected much-needed cash into these sectors.

Within the history field, we have to write competitive Legacy grants in order to access funding from Minnesota’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund (the official name for this segment of Legacy funding). Many of these grants are written in order to improve museum environments for the long-term preservation of our collections. For example, because temperature and humidity control are so important to preservation, museums can write grants to upgrade their heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Or, in order to maximize the use of existing space for collections, a museum might write a grant for high-density mobile shelving. (My museum is in the middle of a mobile shelving project funded by a Legacy grant as I write this.) Legacy grants can also be used to produce programs, exhibits, and publications, among other things.

When we write Legacy grants, we have to know what it’s going to cost to carry out a particular project. When it comes to an HVAC, mobile shelving, or other building-related project, we seek out contractors with the skills, services, and products we need and get estimates to put into our budgets. Because state tax money is going into these projects, we have to follow the state’s procurement rules, which means seeking formal bids from at least 3 qualified contractors.

I explain all this to show that we have a specific process we use for contractors that provide infrastructure-related services. This all seems to fall apart when museums seek other sorts of contractors, like writers, editors or artists.

Would You Tell Your Plumber How Much to Charge?

I recently ran across a posting for a contractor to do editing of an exhibit script. The museum seeking the editing contractor naturally wants a person who has experience. The posting makes clear that this is a contract and the contractor sets their own schedule, which is as it should be.

However, here is where the posting takes a left turn at Albuquerque. The posting mentions the number of pages to be edited (good info), along with the allotted hours the museum assumes the job will take and lists an hourly rate of about $15.

Let’s stop and unpack what’s problematic about this by asking a question:

Would you tell your plumber, electrician, HVAC specialist, carpenter, or auto mechanic how much to charge in terms of an hourly rate and how long it will take them to do the job?

Your answer to this better be “No,” and if it’s not “No,” there are a whole lot of plumbers, electricians, HVAC specialists, carpenters, and auto mechanics who will set you straight in a hurry.

Why aren’t you allowed to tell these sorts of professionals what they will charge?

Because they are in business for themselves and they have to set rates that will allow them to stay in business.

Having operated a furniture refinishing business with my husband, we had to be conscious of how much we needed in order to cover expenses versus looking at how much customers were willing to pay us. At a shop rate of $60 an hour, we weren’t actually earning enough for my husband to bring home a living wage (or any wage) and also cover business expenses, so we weren’t charging enough. This is why you can’t always find specialists to fix furniture. The actual costs are more than customers are willing to bear.

You also can’t tell contractors how long a job will take due to the IRS’s rules regarding the classification of workers. Because there are lots of organizations willing to skirt the law by mis-classifying employees as contractors so they don’t have to pay taxes or benefits for those employees, the IRS has become a stickler for helping define an employee versus a contractor. Contractors, as stand-alone businesses, set their own hours. So, if the editing job takes more or less time than the museum has allotted, that’s not up to the museum to decide. The contractor decides that, just as the contractor decides the rate of pay.

Contract Writers, Editors, and Artists Are Operating Businesses

The larger point is that contract editors, writers, and artists are IN BUSINESS FOR THEMSELVES, just like other service professionals. If we are going to use these sorts of contract services in the museum field, we need to treat these “artsy” contractors the same as we would those in the trades. They are every bit as skilled as tradespeople, even though they are working with different skill sets.

You might argue that writers, editors, and artists surely don’t have the same kinds of expenses as tradespeople, but that’s also not for you to decide. They have to pay all of their own taxes (including the half their employer would kick in if they were in a standard employment situation), health insurance, benefits, technology expenses, space rental, office supplies, travel, professional service fees (tax preparation for businesses is expensive), continuing education, and etc. Tradespeople set an hourly shop rate and add on the cost of parts and supplies. While most writers and editors will bundle supplies costs within their hourly or per-job rates, artists may have considerable supplies costs outside of their work rate.

My Advice to Museums Hiring Creative Contractors

My advice to museums hiring contract writers, editors, and artists, or writing grants to do so, is to think of these contractors the same way you would electricians, carpenters, & etc. Decide what job you need done, including specific outcomes, and ask for estimates in order to determine your budget for such contractors. When seeking formal bids for your writing, editing, or artistic project, put together a request for proposals that these professionals can respond to with written bids.

Do not make a guess on what you think this creative work is worth. Do some research. I can guarantee from the hourly rate listed for the editing contract mentioned above that most people will underestimate the cost of these services. For the substantive editing requested for this job, the range is between $40-$65 an hour, which is considerably higher than $15. And, if you are asking for a rush job or specific expertise, the rate will be even higher.

While it is useful to use hourly rates for budgeting purposes, many writers, editors, and artists will likely provide you with a total job rate, rather than breaking down their bid into hours. Make sure to be clear about your outcomes or deliverables for the project by using an Independent Contractor Agreement. Berkeley Law has a really good Sample Independent Contractor Agreement that is downloadable so you can edit it for your needs. You’ll have to search for it in a browser because I could find no direct link to the agreement.

Here’s hoping we in the museum field (and every other field, frankly) will come to treat their writing, editing, and artistic contractors like their HVAC and electrical contractors.

8 thoughts on “Advice on Hiring Museum Contractors”

  1. Thank you Mary! Since going into business for myself, I have been very concerned about this issue. The hourly rates plugged into most grant projects ARE insufficient to support a independent contractor of just about any sort.

    1. You’re welcome, Claudia!

      I understand that most museums are not used to hiring contractors for this sort of work, or even work involving processing collections, and it’s easy to assume that you pay contractors the same way you pay employees. As we well know, the museum field does not typically pay people what they are worth because we are all supposed to be doing it for the love of the field … but love doesn’t buy groceries or pay the mortgage.

      In coupling that idea of low wages with not knowing how contractors of the creative type work, we end up with projects demanding complex work that doesn’t support a contractor’s business, much less allows them to make a living. And that’s the deal … in being in business for themselves, not only are contractors running a business, they are making a profit in order to support themselves and grow their business. Contractors are raising their own income in order to buy groceries and pay the mortgage. That $60 – $125 per hour they are charging for their services may make you choke if you are used to working as an employee wherein your employer covers all the hidden employment costs and the costs of running a business, but that’s what it realistically takes.

  2. Excellent post, Mary. As we write these grants for intellectual skills, the budget page becomes instructive to our boards of directors and will hopefully lead to better wages for society employees too.

    1. You are correct, Merlin, better wages for those who work in museums is definitely needed. But we need a lot more community support to get our organizational incomes up. I do hope seeing the true costs of intellectual skills of contractors helps board members and people within the community understand that museum employees are doing work that deserves appropriate compensation, not poverty wages.

  3. Oh my goodness, thank you for a thoughtful and timely post. I wish everyone involved in the Legacy grants could read this. I’ve essentially quit applying for any of those contracts. I’m a freelance exhibit developer, researcher, and writer. I love what I do. I’m passionate about what I do and I generally go beyond the projected hours. Most of the Legacy Grants I’ve seen aren’t even paying the equivalent of $15 per hour. And to be clear, my college-age sons can make $12 to $15 per hour in their part time jobs when I’ve got 20 years experience as an exhibit developer and 35 years in the museum field in general and graduate degrees! It’s gotten to the point that it feels insulting when I look at those postings. I went and interviewed for one a couple years ago that wouldn’t even have paid the going rate for the fast food industry. It’s a little heartbreaking to be at this point in my career, when I feel like I’m kind of at my peak, but my skills and talents just don’t have value. I’ve decided that the Legacy Grants are most likely being used to hire entry-level professionals so it’s not even worth it to apply.

    1. Kathryn – Thanks so much for your comments. You are absolutely right in indicating that the museum field is expecting loads of experience but is not willing to pay what that experience is worth in the open market. How many of us, due to poor wages in the field, end up supplementing our incomes with side gigs? I have. Not only that, my husband and I have run a couple of creative businesses in our lives, a neon sign shop and restoring mid-century modern furniture, not to mention my side gig of editing/writing, which is its own business. When you run a small business, you very quickly come to realize how much money it takes to keep that business running and you learn market rates. Museums have been so insulated from this world that most folks in the field writing these grants have no idea about these market rates, but they are also unaware because their own wages are so low. It’s a vicious cycle.

      Having managed the finances of my museum for years and now serving as the executive director, I also see how difficult it is to raise funds for the appropriate amount of general operating needed to pay employees a living wage and full benefits. Personnel is the largest portion of our budget and, truly, personnel is what makes things happen at the museum. You’ve got no program without good employees. They are worth paying well for their experience and talent. As Merlin said above, if we can help museums understand how to deal properly with knowledge-based contractors in terms of pay, perhaps that will raise wages in the entire field. However, we really need to get our communities (members, donors, grantors, foundations, etc.) to chip in more financially to support the museum services they depend on.

  4. Amen, my friend!! I might add that if you are setting the work schedule for the person and they are using your equipment, they would qualify as an employee with all the benefits you supply your other employees, under State law.

    1. You are correct, Wendy. And it’s not just state law, but federal law. We are seeing a huge struggle between Uber and Lyft drivers regarding whether they are employees or contractors based on how much control Uber/Lyft have over their drivers. This is all part of the definition of an employee versus a contractor according to IRS rules. Companies try to fob the costs of doing business off on workers by hiring contractors, but they want to maintain control by treating those contractors as employees. Basically, they want the best of both worlds and could care less if workers are screwed in the process.

      Anyone want to start a museum labor union? 😉

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