The Unseen Obstacles: Reimagining the Museum Professional Pipeline

Museum Professionals Seminar

Three people on Zoom
Elizabeth Gowans
Kennedy Jones
Ashleigh Smith


As the museum field works to diversify, there has been a call to attract creative, bright, and driven people of color. To be clear, there has never been a shortage of them, but institutions are waking up to the fact that the field has not done well to bring them in. We are now seeing a rise in entry-level fellowships and paid internships with a special focus on underrepresented groups. While these initiatives do support the equity goals that many institutions have recently promoted, in some ways they continue to contribute to a culture of exploitation and precarity. These fellowships and internships can open doors, but they lead us to wonder: What comes next? How will these fellows and interns find full-time employment, and when they do, will they make enough to sustain themselves? Who is invested not only in introducing bright and talented professionals to the field but also in retaining and promoting them?

To retain talented colleagues of color and bring new professionals to the field, there has to be more than just entry-level fellowships. There has to be a culture shift in the industry to prioritize people and not just objects.

In this essay, our goal is to start the conversation about what equity measures can look like beyond the very beginning of the pipeline. For years, many frustrated museum professionals have felt like they’ve been shouting into the void, and our goal is to move beyond the void. How can we turn our personal experiences and frustrations into tangible change for this generation of young professionals? At the moment, we believe that supporting early-career professionals both financially and structurally, along with giving them a seat at the table with boards and key leaders, could be a pivotal starting point.

Phrases such as “great exposure” and “hands-on experience” are too often used to cloud the reality that early-stage professional opportunities in the industry lack a clear path for progression. On top of that, many of these fellowships require a minimum of a master’s degree, and even if someone does meet that educational requirement, entry-level pay doesn’t reflect the education they’ve received. And finally, some entry-level positions are temporary as well. The lack of job security and low wages create a class of young professionals living in a state of uncertainty, and with little vision of how to progress.

While corporate industries such as finance and consulting work tirelessly to set their young professionals up with competitive salaries, mentors, networking opportunities, and affinity groups, arts and culture spaces tend to leave their employees feeling like financial and career growth and learning can only occur by switching roles and institutions. Institutions need to wake up to their deficits in career development and human resources, and understand that they have an obligation to their employees—not just to passively provide opportunities for personal growth, but to take an active role in teaching and development. Institutions need to create a framework for progress for the people who make them work: mentorship programs, clear career progression pathways, and better resources for learning and development. Museums need to look at ways to create depth in employment structure that goes beyond assistant and senior positions. These oversimplified department structures lack nuance and result in overqualified and underpaid assistants who are underutilized. Arts and culture institutions need to ask themselves what they are offering their employees beyond the prestige of an institutional name and learning by doing. What would it look like if human resources departments were as big as development departments? What if employee retention rate was a marker for success instead of just visitor numbers? How many institutions look to provide competitive salary and benefit packages?

More often than not, these bright young professionals find themselves in a revolving door of fellowships and internships that don’t provide the financial compensation or professional advancement many professionals need—and can find in another field. The field has simply accepted that low wages and limited positions are part of the landscape, the cost of working with talented artists and exciting works. However, we’d like to encourage the field to think more expansively. What would it take to make sure all museum professionals are more fairly compensated for their labor, their experience, and their worth? There is a need for the industry to reframe its outlook on professional growth and development, and realize that “investment” and “curation” should not be reserved for the works in their collections, but also applied to the people that make up their institutions. And we’d be remiss not to mention how wages influence diversity outcomes. We know race, class, gender, and other identities are often intersectional, and socioeconomic concerns are disproportionately carried by people of color. Many professionals of color can’t afford to take on low-paid work or pursue graduate study without financial assistance, and loans can be extra-crippling for this demographic (especially when the jobs don’t promise wages that will ensure the ability to pay off those loans). If we aren’t willing to look at the financial implications of the field beyond unpaid internships, we’ll never achieve the equity the field seemingly wants.

We don’t want to misrepresent this as an issue for human resources departments, but rather want to cast it as an institutional issue. When making changes to benefit young people of color, there must be institutional change on all levels, which brings us to our push for board representation for these early professional roles. Often boards operate from such a zoomed-out perspective, with lots of stakeholders with personal interests, that it becomes easy to leave employee career development off the agenda. Representation of young professionals would not only benefit the people in this cohort but entire institutions. Harkening back to the adage to “lift as we climb,” board seats would provide a platform for these early-career professionals to be heard, and bring to light the often-overlooked internal issues of institutions, with the fresh perspectives of these young people.

Just as endowment preservation and growth are important to the future of institutions, so are the day-to-day people who make them up. By having people represent and give voice to this group on boards, everyone can feel more valued and work harder to advance the institutions.

The board of trustees serves as the governing body of an institution, and to make sure that young professionals have opportunities, there should be a seat at this exalted table for one (or more) of them. Having someone on the board who is a young professional would ensure they are kept in mind in policies that affect how the museum stewards and develops employees who need to be paid for their labor and given chances for mobility and professional development. Young professionals benefit both the internal culture of an institution, as well as its financial future. Filling boards with only wealthy older individuals does not help young professionals avoid getting stuck at a career dead end. Boards that connect across generations will have a positive impact on retention and the longevity of institutions themselves.

By prioritizing young professionals on museum boards, museums communicate to the public that they value young people’s perspectives and the issues that they face, which will make them attractive to new, young patrons, as well as new, young donors. A new focus on social justice issues brought about by younger board members may also sway museums to invest more in their surrounding communities, who will in turn be invested in the museum’s mission.

What unites the art and culture institution workforce is a passion for people, objects, and community, but passion alone isn’t enough to develop a career, and it certainly isn’t enough to sustain a livelihood. When we think about issues of equity in this context, it only exacerbates the situation. With significant education requirements, low pay, limited job openings, and little representation in leadership, the museum field is a tough business for people of color. In the recent calls for diversity, fellowships have been seen as the fix to a problem that’s far deeper than a missing pipeline for diverse candidates. The issue of diversity in the field isn’t fixed by these fellowships. This will take a sustainable approach that calls into question all of the factors that inhibit the success of people of color in the field. If we aren’t willing to talk about structural and financial support in the conversation about representation, then we’ll never make the progress we desperately need to make.