Here’s How Much Money U.S. Museum Directors Make—But a Growing Backlash Could Soon Change That

The disparity between directors' salaries and that of rank-and-file workers is huge.

The Museum of Fine Arts staff went on a one-day strike on November 17, 2021 to protest low wages and benefit issues, picketing in front of the museum's main entrance on Huntington Ave in Boston. Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

If you’re a museum director in the U.S., chances are that you a pulling in a pretty hefty salary. But with many institutions struggling financially, and a growing call for pay equity for staff, some of the perks historically associated with the job are being phased out by some organizations.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, sold the Fifth Avenue apartment it used as tax-free executive housing for former director Thomas Campbell and his predecessors for $5.4 million in 2019. The money went toward reducing the museum’s deficit, and current director Max Hollein now gets a housing allowance on which he pays taxes. His total compensation is $1.4 million, according to recent tax filings.

“I don’t think it’s justifiable for museum directors to earn such high salaries when so many museum workers continue to earn low, unsustainable wages,” Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110 at the United Automobile Workers, where many museums now have chapters, told Artnet News in an email. “This is precisely why so many museum workers are organizing unions—to push for fairer compensation, more job security, and sustainable jobs that allow people to survive and continue doing work they love doing.”

Hollein’s salary is near the high end of the market for U.S. museum directors, according to a recent report from the New York Times that compiled the total compensation packages for close to 30 of the country’s leading arts institutions.

At the top of the heap was New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where director Glenn Lowry brings in a cool $2 million, and also gets a rent-free apartment worth $6 million in the tower above the museum.

“As a condition of employment and convenience to the museum, the director must reside in the museum-owned apartment on premises,” a MoMA spokeswoman told the Times. “This supports the museum’s essential operations and mission while dually serving as an important on-site venue for official events the director is required to host.”

The tax code says that when an employee is required to live on “business premises,” free housing provided by the employer should not be viewed as income.

But for museums, such arrangements have become less common in recent years. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, arranged to sell not one but two homes previously provided rent-free to those in his role. The $6.5 million and $2.4 million provided a much-needed cash infusion for the institution, which now gives Govan—who ranks second in the country with a $1.9 million salary—a housing allowance instead.

And the new director of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, Sean Decatur, has opted not to move into a luxury apartment on East 79th Street owned by the institution that his predecessor, Ellen Futter, had occupied for some 30 years. The museum board will decide the future of the property at its upcoming fall meeting, and will provide the director a housing stipend moving forward.

Directors and other top brass at cultural institutions can receive other additional forms of compensation, including first-class travel accommodations—sometimes with an additional budget for a spouse or companion—life insurance policies, membership dues at social clubs, and a car and driver. These benefits can help attract the best talent in arts administration from an admittedly small pool, but also create a marked disparity with lower level workers who may be struggling to make rent or pay off student loans.

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors 2022 salary survey, the average museum director makes $343,600. That income level stands in stark comparison to what the rank-and-file employees can make at these museums.

The director’s assistant, for instance, takes home an average of just $65,600; an assistant curator, $60,000; and a curatorial assistant just $50,300. In the southeast, where salaries are lower, that curatorial assistant averages a mere $35,700.

The mean for security guards is $39,700 and it’s $36,800 for visitor services associates. Those roles can also be part-time, which in both cases command an average hourly wage of less than $16.

This income disparity has helped drive a wave of labor organizing at museums across the country in recent years, especially as COVID forced longterm closures with furloughs and layoffs at many institutions.

One of the primary goals of these newly formed unions is to compel museums to offer livable salaries across the board, allowing people to continue working at these institutions on a longterm basis.

Other top art museum director salaries include $1.6 million at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; $1.5 million at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; $1.1 million at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and $1 million at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.


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