museums pragmatic historian

Wealth Disparity in the Museum World

Recently, the museum Twitter community was abuzz with a report from the trade union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), specifically from AFSCME Cultural Workers United. The report, called “Cultural Institutions Cashed In, Workers Got Sold Out,” presents information on the cultural sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, including museums of all types, historical sites, zoos, and botanical gardens. It explains how the pandemic hit the sector in terms of closures and the resulting furloughs and layoffs of front line employees (these are the guest services, admissions, education, and maintenance staff).

It also discusses how cultural institutions took PPP (Paycheck Protection Plan) loans. PPP loans were fully forgivable so long as they were used to pay for staff costs and specific utilities. Full disclosure, the small museum I lead (annual budget between $165,000-$170,000) received two PPP loans that were fully forgiven.

What the report shows is that the largest cultural institutions, the ones that had plenty of financial resources to weather the pandemic, took PPP loans and also laid off workers. These layoffs not only affected the workers who lost their jobs in terms of loss of income and stress, they also affected those who remained employed due to an increased workload and the attendant stress. An effect the report creators may not have been aware of but that occurred in my museum’s case is that we provided additional hours to a part-time staff member after they were laid off at another, much larger cultural institution.

The report points out that while furloughs and layoffs were happening to frontline staff, directors and upper management at these large institutions continued to make six-to-seven-figure salaries and the revenues of some institutions even grew during the pandemic, with some organizations ending up with a budget surplus.

The report is full of helpful charts and graphs that show how the largest cultural institutions received the majority of PPP loan funds (83% of the loan funds went to the largest 20% of cultural institutions) and which institutions had budget surpluses in fiscal year 2020 after receiving PPP loans and laying off workers.

The wealth disparities between the smallest cultural institutions and the largest are both explicitly and implicitly revealed through this report.

“Museums have undergone structural changes that impact the workforce, lessen accountability to the public and increase the influence of rich donors. Over the past 30 years, government support has dwindled as a share of the sector’s revenue. As of 2019, only 9% of the sector’s overall revenue came from public sources, down from 38% in 1989. A 2019 analysis showed that 35% of total museum revenue comes from patrons (also known as “earned revenue,” comprised of admission fees, merchandise sales and membership dues as its largest components); 29.2% from private donors, 13.8% from investments, 12.9% from other and 9.1% from government sources.”

Museums with the greatest access to wealthy donors have more financial resources available to them than do smaller museums. Basically, the accumulation of wealth in the hands of fewer people that we’ve seen in American society over the past several decades has also happened in the museum field.

One of the things I find most interesting about this report is that it was put together by a union. After decades of decreases in union membership, unions are active again, attempting to unionize in sectors they haven’t before considered. Cultural institutions are now considered union-worthy, probably because so many have gotten big enough to unionize both in terms of staff and finances.

Many museums started out as volunteer endeavors, a handful of people trying to save something culturally important. If you visit small, rural communities, you’ll often find that all-volunteer museums and historic sites remain part of the cultural landscape. These institutions can’t unionize because there is no employee-employer relationship to bargain over. While museums with staffs of at least one person can unionize, unions don’t seem to have worked in the sector until recently. Here in Minnesota, for example, employees of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) are currently trying to form a union. (One person on Twitter commented that they were surprised MNHS wasn’t already unionized.)

Unions are critical for attempting to shift the wealth and power away from the few and back to the many so that more people have an opportunity to be successful in society. As larger cultural institutions unionize and workers negotiate for higher wages, there will be a ripple effect on smaller cultural organizations. Workers will expect higher wages and if small museums can’t afford to pay them because they don’t have the same access to adequate funding that larger museums have, they will go elsewhere to work, depriving small museums of the professional skills needed to manage their collections and institutions. This is already a problem in the museum field, but it will be exacerbated as larger institutions unionize. (This may sound like I am anti-union, but I’m not. Just give me a moment to complete my thoughts.)

You might think, “Well, boo-hoo, small museums. All the important stuff is in bigger museums, so if a bunch of you close your doors due to a lack of staff, that’s just fine.”

Except that all museums, large, medium and small, work as a web of institutions that contribute important culture to our communities and to society as a whole.

I once had a researcher examine the axes within our small museum’s collection. He said that one of them was “Smithsonian quality” in its importance. While I was flattered by this at first, very quickly I realized that it was more important to our local history and maybe we ought not make these value judgments based on whether items belong in a larger “more important” museum.

Larger institutions, for all the resources they have, do not have the resources needed to collect the culture in every tiny hamlet in the state or nation. They also may not know what is culturally important to specific locations. This is something that requires local community knowledge. In addition, collecting all of our culture in one giant institution is not a safe practice. If disaster befalls that one institution, there goes everyone’s cultural heritage.

Instead of watching small museums and cultural institutions shrivel due to an inability to pay wages commensurate with those at unionized institutions, we need to find ways to increase funding for smaller institutions so they can pay living wages and benefits to staff, whether unionized or not. That starts with recognizing the challenges small cultural institutions have and examining every source of funding (government, donors, earned revenue, investment income) to see how we can even out the wealth disparities in the museum world. This is a problem we must tackle together. Our cultural heritage and the health of small institutions depends on it.