Why do US museum workers want to quit?

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Two-thirds of museum workers are thinking about leaving their jobs, if not the field altogether, according to a survey out this month. The top reasons? Burnout and low pay.

The startling finding comes from the inaugural report by Museums Moving Forward (MMF), an advocacy group formed in 2020 to improve equity and organisational culture in the field. The survey of 1,933 staff members from more than 50 US museums digs into everything from career satisfaction to experiences of discrimination and harassment. But one of the most striking findings is just how pervasive burnout is in the museum field, and the potential it creates for sector-wide brain drain.

The issue is most pronounced among those in the middle of their career trajectory, whether they are working in a curatorial department or building operations. A whopping 76% of millennial workers say they are considering leaving the industry due to burnout, low pay and a lack of opportunities
for growth. If even a portion of them follows through, the future of the museum sector looks considerably more meagre.

Burnout is a frequently misused buzzword. But it is about more than feeling overextended, according to Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of multiple books on the subject. It is also characterised by feelings of cynicism about one’s job and negativity about one’s abilities, as well as reduced effectiveness at work. While those experiencing burnout tend to feel hopeless, the situation isn’t, Maslach says. There are ways to manage burnout if employers are willing to acknowledge and confront the problem.

A survey published in February by the research consortium Future Forum found that more than 40% of workers with desk jobs were experiencing burnout, a pandemic-era high. But museum workers are particularly vulnerable. The MMF report found that they were less contented with their professional lives than US workers overall—48% of US workers were satisfied with their career advancement opportunities, for example, compared with just 28% of museum workers.

Part of the reason burnout is so insidious in museums is that the field is competitive, prestigious and genuinely rewarding. “The last ten years of my life have been professionally fulfilling, but there’s a disconnect between my body and my mind,” says Michelle Millar Fisher, a curator of craft and design at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “In order to have a curatorial career, I had to push myself to the limit, working 14, 16, 18 hours a day.” She and her colleagues have suffered from the field’s reliance on curatorial fellowships, whose one- to three-year terms mean that “you can’t take your foot off the pedal” and feel the need to work at full capacity. (Fisher is currently on her sixth round of IVF treatments. Having gone through exhaustive medical testing, she recently concluded that “work is the final variable” that may be affecting her fertility.)

Like many non-profits, museums attract idealistic employees who, especially since the pandemic, have been asked to do more with less. But many museum workers say that a lack of resources alone is not what is responsible for their burnout. The hopelessness and cynicism come when they realise that the values that attracted them to museum work do not align with the reality of their workplace.

“There is an appearance of liberalism, and when you get into the mechanics of the institution, it’s very conservative,” says Alison Ferris, a curator who left the museum world in 2020, after three decades, to pursue an MFA in writing. “It’s whiplash.” Maslach describes this phenomenon, which is also common in other burnout-heavy, mission-driven fields—like medicine and public interest law—as a “reality shock”.

Confronting burnout requires what Maslach refers to as the three Cs: collaboration, customisation and commitment. Adam Rizzo, an educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) and president of its new union, says that organising his workplace helped him shift from a state of burnout to what Maslach describes as its opposite: engagement. “Building a community that felt supportive, where we weren’t just sitting around complaining but trying to propose solutions, was reinvigorating,” Rizzo says. “Big museums like the PMA are super siloed and hierarchical, so creating those connections made work a much more fulfilling experience.” 

Measuring emotional intelligence

Collaboration can be cultivated in other ways too. Mia Locks, a co-founder of Museums Moving Forward, advocates for museums to adopt regular 360-degree internal reviews which enable workers to deliver feedback about their managers. “People need to be assessed, not just on individual performance but also on how they lead a team,” Locks says, noting that emotional intelligence and the ability to foster a healthy work culture can be measured, like any other skill. “It’s not going to cost museums a lot of money to do that,” she adds.

Another way to address burnout before it snowballs is to bring staff into the strategic planning process, according to Holly Shen, a director at the consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources. That way, staff can help customise the plan and identify potential problems that management might not see.

Some museum veterans cite a fourth C required to tackle burnout: creativity. “If the budget doesn’t support a pay increase, could you offer more paid days off, or volunteer days?” asks Yayoi Shionoiri, former associate general counsel of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the current director of the Chris Burden estate and Nancy Rubins’s studio. “Are there ways in which the institution can support training and attending conferences?”

The thorny elements of museum work—from low pay to a lack of diversity to minimal avenues for career advancement—may require changes to the way the sector is structured. But research shows that even modest adjustments can start to chip away at burnout. “A small positive change helps build the notion that problems are fixable,” Maslach says. The key is to confront the challenge—and remain engaged with it over time. “Museums run the risk of losing a lot of talent if they aren’t paying
attention to how they treat the people they hire,” she says.

Julia Halperin is a journalist and co-author of the Burns Halperin Report

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