Let’s Talk Labor

In late 2018 the CWAM board convened a sub-committee to foster critically-needed dialog on labor issues. Our intent was to gather data on how paid, under-paid, and unpaid labor vary between our states. The sub-committee committed to: an online survey, follow-up interviews with those who expressed willingness to answer more detailed and nuanced questions, and an in-person town hall. We hoped that these research strategies would inform efforts to create space for honest dialog, and perhaps ‘tool-kits’, workshops, annual meeting sessions, or other ways to support museum professionals in addressing labor issues.

For my part, I must say that it was an honor to speak with museum professionals who openly shared their successes regarding volunteer and internship programs, while also candidly discussing past failures or current shortcomings of their organizations. There were many encouraging conversations about ways to improve, and some truly inspirational ideas for how CWAM can help! This blog post is only the beginning of what I hope will be a multi-year effort.

One takeaway that is already clear is that there is strong desire to learn more about estimated cost of living, with 66% of respondents indicating an interest in the topic. Respondents from museums of all sizes and governance types, from across both states expressed interest. Cost of living, especially when compared with salaries for job postings, was a hot topic. This is an area CWAM can easily address by providing access to, and consultation on, cost of living compared with salaries offered for positions. As there is great economic variance within our two states, this could provide a valuable service to our members by promoting transparency.

Pay inequity was also a big topic, interviewees pinned this as one of the biggest issues facing their area. However, it proved multi-faceted. Some interviewees were concerned with implicit devaluing of departments that typically received lower salaries than others (education or visitor services, for example). For others, the ratio of pay between top-tier management and mid-level management vs the responsibilities of the positions was the core. Still others cited the inequity of pay between museums and other industries with similar educational requirements or skill sets (marketing and communications or project management, for example).

A lot of the labor issues discussed boiled down to a need for greater transparency. Interviews with employees of municipal/university institutions inspired a new tactic: let’s look to these types of institutions for benchmarks on salaries. Since the salary information for these types of institutions is publicly available, CWAM could compile a report with this data to guide private non-profits in setting salaries. Such a report would empower job seekers to evaluate salaries listed for positions they may be considering. We hope to prototype this report soon!

Another ongoing tactic CWAM will continue to utilize is to hold space for dialog on labor and salary transparency so that there are opportunities for museum employees to ask questions and seek guidance among peers. As these issues will undoubtedly evolve with the field and with the changing economic realities of both states, CWAM is committed to supporting dialog on unpaid labor (and museum labor more generally) at the state level, in both states. Stay tuned for more updates, and please reach out if you have questions, concerns, or ideas!

by Jessica Brunecky


About the author:

Jessica Brunecky is vice president of the Colorado–Wyoming Association of Museum’s board of directors, and Director of Visitor Experience for the University of Colorado Art Museum. In 2018 she co-authored two white papers for the University of Colorado’s Academic Futures Initiative: “Is It An Art? A Case Study of Teaching at the CU Art Museum” and “Informal learning at CU Boulder’s museums and the impact on student experience: now and for the future”. Her 2015 paper “Enticing and Engaging the Millennial Audience” was included in the University Museums and Collections Journal Volume 8.