Museums are places of privilege. Of course they are. I’ve written before about how that isn’t inherently a bad thing – it just means we need to make changes to society in order to increase the access of people to this particular privilege. Museum workers making a living wage is critical. But what about our audiences and visitors, too? I am not an economist or a labor expert. I’m just an art museum educator with big dreams of a comfortable middle class. That being said, it’s simply not possible to have conversations about problems and solutions in the art museum world without talking about funding sources and finances, not to mention wages, therefore, we forge ahead and we cite our sources. I’ve delved into museum finance and unionizing for stable wages and no one’s sent me hate mail yet. If you want an even fuller picture of how economics affects the art world, I suggest learning about the art market itself – this is the book that made it make sense to me.
Since taking on an adjunct position teaching two classes of intro Art History this winter, I have realized I really can’t do it all – blog for fun, have a social life, work in a small museum where I wear many hats and work over 40 hours a week, and take care of myself. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to write this year, so I’ve been thinking deeply about why it’s still worth it to me to invest time and energy into this space.This is my FIFTIETH blog post! I think I’ve spent quite enough words on problems – this year, I want to spend what little time I can dedicate to this space to talk about resources and solutions. This isn’t to say that I don’t think the problems aren’t still important enough to talk about. Those 49 posts (which aren’t all about problems. Some of them are about movies! And Lizzo!) exist for us to refer back to as witness to what many museum professionals have been contending with for decades. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s rehashing the same conversation over and over. (My husband is cackling reading that as though I don’t come home with the same complaints about work every day. Whatever!) Even in the less than three years since I started this website, the number of people and voices taking on discussing the problems in the museum world has exploded. As a futurist and against-my-own-will optimist, I like to keep looking forward. What would it look like to solve some of those problems?
Now that we’ve cleared the preamble and you hopefully visited my “unions” blog post to reconnect with my deep and abiding love for Christian Bale, let’s get into today’s topic. Universal Basic Income, a.k.a., “give people money.” In an era where American politicians are banning drag shows and teaching history, you think I have any business spouting off about giving people free money? I know. But like I said, the optimism has a chokehold on me and I simply cannot ignore the possibilities of revolutionary change.
The interesting thing about UBI, though, is how it actually hasn’t been seen as radical for most of its history. Increasing social safety nets is notably unpopular in bootstraps America, but one of the reasons UBI was initially introduced was to manage the pitfalls of the welfare system and its been championed, at various points in American history, on both sides of the political aisle. Here’s an article detailing the history of the policy. I gleaned the most realistic applicable information about it from this book, which I’ve cited on the blog before, and have this one in the queue for a more complete account.
I don’t want to get super in the weeds on the history of labor in America, the 40 hour work week, the history of leisure time, etc., but suffice it to say, we’re working a lot. We’re not the “most overworked” population in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but we do have the least mandated paid leave. I had a hard time finding resources for the average numbers of hours the average American works that didn’t include part-time workers, but this source from 2014 states that the average full-time worker worked 47 hours per week – nearly one full workday more than what’s intended to be “standard.” And idk about for y’all, but in many sectors, this does not equate to overtime pay. It’s tricky to get a clear picture of whether or not having second jobs is actually on the rise or if Instagram girlies glamorizing the grind is just making it seem that way. This resource from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows at least a small increase between 2021 and 2022. And that’s without taking into account all the pitfalls of trying to record these statistics; this chart is broken into gender binaries, lots of people in the gig economy might not be reporting wages, undocumented people living in America, etc. etc. etc.
Museum WORKERS absolutely need a living wage – that’s non-negotiable. At one of my jobs I was one of the only full-time employees who didn’t have a second job. There are entire Twitter accounts and sites devoted to calling out unfair museum job postings. But our field’s poor wages are also just part of a general pattern in which salaries aren’t keeping up with cost of living. Besides the workforce, how else do low wages and overwork affect the museum sector?
Why I talk about UBI rather than simply raising wages in order to level out the middle class? The early history from the article on the history of UBI linked above really stuck out to me. “For much of human history, it was assumed that society would provide a basic standard of living for those who could not provide for themselves…Agriculture and urbanization whittled such networks down to the nuclear family or even the individual.” In short, urbanization and technology have continuously changed the fabric of society and instead of rethinking work, wages and how to guarantee a basic standard of living, we are content to continue to scramble to make a living through a meritocratic worldview.
Ensuring that every person has a baseline of funding to simply exist would mean changing the way that we approach our day to day lives and help break the cycle of fixation on making ends meet. As many of my readers probably know, the website Know Your Own Bone has tons of data on visitors to museums, zoos and aquariums, etc., and their financial status. One that has always stuck with me is that repeat museum visitors, who likely fall into a higher tax bracket than who you’re targeting, are the most likely to visit on free admission days. The audience who is already comfortable are the most likely to visit on free admission days. On the other hand, the museum I work at now has a program in which all students who visit on a field trip receive free family admission for a year. A lot of those families return repeatedly within that year. They drop in during the day when they can, they attend programs, they become “regulars.” We’ve removed one of the barriers – they no longer need to justify spending some of their hard-earned income, and there are visible results.
And what about the times that they are able to drop in? Most households today, if they have two adult caregivers, have two adults working. (Again, despite Instagram making it seem like every woman in my age demographic is a stay at home mom.) More on this under the “membership” heading below but, if most people are working during the same hours museums are open, the math isn’t mathing. (Except for field trips, which do a lot of heavy lifting for the mathing of museums!) A benefit of UBI is that it could, possibly, reduce the number of hours adults spend at work. Not only could this translate to more visitors during weekday open hours, but also, more visitors during late hours and weekends, because the visitors are less exhausted from their jobs or had time to do their chores on Wednesday and can spend Saturday doing something for leisure.
I don’t deceive myself into thinking that the sole reason more people don’t visit museums is because of the cost of admission. It’s been interesting to hear others in meetings finally saying, “we’re competing with people’s’ couches.” Have you stayed in on your couch lately? It’s the best. I don’t subscribe to the idea that museums try to be all things to all people so I don’t see this as a silver bullet to increase visitation. I just like the idea of people not having to spend all their energy on making a living, so they could use that energy to do something else.
Yes, unpaid labor is a controversial topic in museums and non-profits because relying on volunteers and unpaid labor when you can’t pay living wages is bad, and only using volunteers who have the privilege to work for free to interface with your audience is also bad. I’ve delved into it before. But there are ways to use volunteers that are less morally fraught – and do we want to discourage an entire society out of volunteering? As I wrote in “In Defense of the Docents” (I know, drag me), America famously does not care about its elders. We don’t want people to work until they drop dead. Not for them – and not for us! Once they’ve left the workforce, elderly people still deserve to participate in society. Volunteering is a great way for people who are done working to socialize, find purpose, and continue to lead fulfilling lives. I’m not sure I’m prepared to make a cogent argument about this yet, but I also don’t think it’s realistic for nonprofits to decide that they can do it all without any volunteer help. Anyway, if people can’t afford to retire, they can’t afford to volunteer. This has been the argument against docents for a number of years now – and what happens when the increase only gets worse as middle class retirement safety nets and pensions dwindle? Is anyone reading this in a job where they’re going to qualify for a pension?
This is relevant to something I want to explore in a future post, too – a loneliness epidemic. With the dissipation of faith communities and the expansion of focus on individual achievement, plus many other societal factors, group identity and connection has eroded. I wrote about this on an Instagram post about a year ago when my grandmother passed away. She was a museum docent for years, and even after she became “honorary,” the community gave her a sense of belonging and respite from her role as a caregiver to my grandfather. How can we leverage volunteering and cultural organizations against increasing isolation and loneliness?
There’s an increased focus on diversifying audiences in the past few years that’s conjoined with conversations about decolonizing and representation and belonging in cultural institutions, but these conversations were urgent long before the pandemic and social justice uprisings. Not to say that many of the people talking about it now didn’t know it then, too. To turn again to Know Your Own Bone, this article published in January 2017 focuses on issues of perception and attitudes – “this isn’t a place for me.” An updated look into “negative substitution” from last March, 5 years after the first linked article, showed small improvement, but not enough.
We can talk as much as we want about diversifying audiences from a place of increasing belonging, inclusion, equity, accessibility – and we should! – but if the vast majority of society still doesn’t have the resources to visit cultural organizations, we’ll still continue to lose audience. It isn’t just about money. But money is never just about money. “Having money isn’t everything, not having it is.” (I can’t attribute that lyric. The person who wrote it doesn’t exist anymore. IYKYK.)
I’m not sure if I’ve achieved saying anything of substance here today, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for years. Universal Basic Income represents a shift in priorities – to guarantee people that no matter how they choose to earn a living, or how they spend their free time, that they deserve to simply exist. UBI alone won’t solve inequity issues in general and especially not those faced by cultural institutions. It must exist within a web of other social reforms such as paid parental leave, raising the minimum wage, and valuing diverse perspectives and professions that help and better society. What would you do with a little bit of breathing room? What policies do you think would radically change museums’ reach?