How Much Money Should a Museum Director Make?

A recent survey of the tax filings of cultural institutions pulled back the curtain and sparked a conversation about the pay and perks afforded to those at the helm.

The American Museum of Natural History. Credit: Iwan Baan

For many who aspire to it, even becoming an assistant—let alone a president, CEO, or director—at one of New York’s premier cultural institutions is a dream few will actually realize. The reasons why can vary: there simply aren’t that many positions; the earning potential of such a role (an average of $43,000 for the title of curatorial assistant at the Met) pales in comparison to the costs of higher education, minimum-wage internships, and costs of living in cultural epicenters. But for those who can hash out a career in arts administration and balance the pressures of maintaining a world-class collection, ever-growing fundraising goals, and tempering operating expenses in an inflation-weary economy, the material rewards can be considerable.

Last week, the New York Times took inventory of the earnings and tax-free perks afforded to those in director, president, and CEO positions at the country’s preeminent arts institutions. The numbers ranged from $2 million, a gym membership, and “free” housing in a luxury condo atop the museum for MoMA’s director, to a comparatively modest-sounding $548,000 for the top job at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum. The numbers sparked a conversation that culminated in a question with no easy answer: what is a fair salary for directors of these institutions, especially given how some of them only recently resolved drawn-out union pay conflicts, while others have undergone an umpteenth round of layoffs?

One of the homes LACMA formerly housed its director in, but sold during the pandemic.

The most surprising takeaway: Even the highest salaries on the list make up mere fractions of a percent in the scope of the institutions’ total annual spending. As a part of the “federal establishment,” it comes as little surprise that the salary of the Secretary of the Smithsonian ($810,000) accounts for a scant 0.05 percent of the complex’s annual spending. That cushy-sounding MoMA gig, meanwhile, accounts for just 0.81 percent. As far as real estate goes, the American Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Met recently quit providing rent-and-tax-free residences to directors—they now provide a taxable housing allowance. MoMA, by contrast, has doubled down on the importance of the museum-owned luxury condo in which its director is required to live, with a reminder that even the most glamorous gigs come with nights and weekends.

During the early pandemic, LACMA director-CEO Michael Govan vacated his museum-provided housing—a move that allowed the institution to sell $9 million worth of real estate. “It was the one thing that would achieve cash in the bank and would not negatively impact our balance sheet, so all arrows pointed to the house,” he said in an interview. “There has also been a revolution in museums; people were calling for more accountability at the same time we were under duress.”

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