What You’re Worth

LAA_salary_statsWhat is a person worth?  Often, especially in the arts (but I think almost anywhere, whether out of necessity or guile), that doesn’t seem the question, really.  It seems more often to come down to what a person is willing to take.  I first started thinking about this issue back when Rocco Landesman launched his #supplydemand earthquake in that now-infamous conversation with Diane Ragsdale.  Rocco, talking about the ongoing existence of more arts institutions than there were patrons to really fully support them, sparked a lot of different conversations—but for me, at the time and, really, now still, my main question was: if there isn’t sufficient demand, then why is there still an overflow of supply?  And in the context of individuals—if there’s not sufficient money, then why are there people (usually highly educated, often educated to be something else first) to do the work?

Yesterday, Americans for the Arts officially launched a report called Local Arts Agency Salaries 2013, which provides a variety of interesting informational tidbits about the salaries and disparities at local arts agencies around the country.  It has a whole lot of information, which I hope you will read (to make it easier, we’ve broken the report into small downloadable sections based on whether you want a little information or a lot, including a summary, infographics, tables by title, and the full report).  While the report only looks at local arts agencies, it provides an interesting snapshot of wages for a variety of positions at those organizations, as well as some fodder for two important conversations.  As I say in a note at the beginning of the report co-written with AFTA CEO Bob Lynch:

Beyond being a comprehensive compendium of salary and benefits information, Local Arts Agencies Salaries 2013 provides critical, data-based insight into two important issues that must be addressed if our field is to prosper in the coming decades: (1) extreme underrepresentation of all non-white racial/ethnic minorities across all positions, and (2) relatively high inequality in terms of both upper-level representation and salary of women in the LAA field.

From 1980 to 2010, the population of the United States shifted from 76 percent white to 63 percent white, according to the United States Census—a drop of 13 percent in 30 years. The next 30 years, if Census projections are accurate, will yield an acceleration of that trend, and whites will no longer be the majority of the population by 2043. In comparison, the overall respondents in this report are 86 percent white—a decrease of only one percent from 2001. Ninety-two percent of those that identified as Executive Directors or CEOs are white. Local arts agencies play a central role in shifting the demographics of their communities’ arts organizations and encouraging ongoing conversations about the relevance of the arts and their place in community development and ongoing sustainability.

Sheer numbers are not the problem regarding women in the local arts field. In fact, nearly three out of four of the people who answered the survey were women. Those women, however, are about six percent less likely to hold the top office in an LAA than men; and when they do hold the top office they are more likely to do so at smaller organizations. Overall, women in the study earn an average $6,500 less than their male counterparts. Female executive directors earn an average of $18,000 less per year than their male counterparts—in part because women are underrepresented in the lead role at the largest (and best-compensating) LAAs.

LAA_salary_stats_2I was on a call yesterday with a job candidate and he spent part of our interview talking to me about his tremendous (and tremendously detailed) passion for art.  His story was incredibly personal and heartfelt, and of course we all have them—and it reminded me of Rocco’s #supplydemand discussion and the hullabaloo it inspired.  There is always more supply, of course, because there is always more passion.  What was interesting to me, as I listened to the candidate, was to stack up that passion against the salaries often associated with arts positions, and to understand that in that moment I was grappling with a pretty fundamental question: how many dollars can such a level of passion make up for in an arts salary?

I, personally, spent a long time with my passion filling in that hole between what I made and what the work I was doing was worth.  When I started out, I was new, and I didn’t really know that that’s what was happening, and then after a while I did, and I did it anyway, because everyone at my organization, from the CEO on down, was making that same sacrifice—passion for dollars—and because the idea of not working in the arts didn’t seem appealing except on the worst days.

I worked for and with wonderful people, around wonderful art, working with grand ideas and the true ability, I thought and think, to affect change, and that got me through unpaid internships, part-time cobbled-together work, title-but-no-money promotions, me-or-my-staff trade-offs, furlough days, lack of cost-of-living increases, uncomfortable conversations with friends doing the same work for twice as much money, conversations with my parents, and conversations with myself.  As my annual salary slowly just eeked over the annual cost of my college education, my passion kept me working not just 40 hour weeks, but 60, 80 hour weeks, doing crazy things like hand-inputting thousands of surveys on early morning bus rides, writing and editing long papers and, eventually—over the Christmas holidays—writing chunks of, editing and designing a book, working through evenings on barely-funded projects that nevertheless had to get done.  And I never did, and still don’t, begrudge the reality of what my life was for the first ten years of my arts career, not because I think it’s fair, but because I did it all with my eyes wide open, and I used the successes I worked hard to win as stepping stones along the way, and my work helped people, and I understood that I had at least found people that were underpaying me while also (a) being underpaid and (b) recognizing that I was worth more than that—knowing truly that if they could, they would have absolutely given me that salary bump, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

I’m lucky to not be in that situation now, which is an interesting and still-new experience.  But many are not as lucky, and many are still, it seems, filling in compensation holes with passion.

We, as a field, need to get out of the cycle of allowing passion or lack of knowledge to displace financial worth—especially when this (and other) data show that such passion likely in part allows for disparities that should not exist.  We, as a field, need to better understand that we have inherent disparities, that we have created systems where moving up is challenging in part because our leaders are being paid in passion as much as they’re being paid in salary, and that passion isn’t something that you can retire on—systems where talented would-be leaders reluctantly fall away, frustrated at or unable to afford the reality of working in it—systems where some of our brightest cannot devote their whole energies to what they’re doing and also afford balance, family, time, space.

We have a great opportunity, which is the other big thing that comes out of the new LAA Salary survey report for me—while women are less often in the highest positions at large organizations right now, they outnumber men in 12 out of the 15 more junior positions in the survey, and make more money than the men in 8 out of the 15.  While the sample data on race was too small to tell us much about whether racial diversity increases in the more junior positions, all you have to do is look at an Emerging Leaders convening to see that we are on the verge of a sea change.  All (all!?) we need to do is to keep these people working with us, in our organizations—to help them survive that in-between period where things get hard and the cohort falls away and the path gets harder to see, to guide them forward and provide them the financial support they need to allow their passion to carry them through the rest of the way without burning out, so that we can seed our leadership in five to ten to fifteen years not with the usual suspects, but with people who know what they are worth, and who have felt valued and supported all along the way.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Douglas Clayton says

    This will only change when those with power/authority actually think it is important to change it. I’m looking at YOU, Executive Directors, Board Members and Funders.

    As long as you can ‘get away’ with not paying folks competitive salaries, then it’s far to easy to just not do it. Unfortunately, the people who are being taken advantage of here because of their passion aren’t usually the ones who have the leverage to do anything about it. They have to decide if they’re leaving our sector or not – those are their only options.

    Make caring for your employees a top priority – that alone would transform our whole industry.

    Doug Clayton

  2. says

    There is much to respond to here, both from an analytic level and a personal one. Rather than get into all that, though, my first response is that the the problem on a larger level lies with the out-dated mode of thought that says nonprofit organizations shouldn’t spend money on business functions, only on their mission. It’s true across the board and, frankly, one that is very off-putting to a lot of the “emerging leaders”, especially those of us who have families and households to support. No, there isn’t an easy answer, but transparency in reporting to the public/funders and doing the math to show how paying a living wage will be a larger benefit to the outcomes of the organization will help.

  3. says

    There’s a lot to talk about here, and I look forward to reading the report. This made me think immediately of Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk on non-profit “overhead” which I’m sure you’ve already seen (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong.html)

    You get to a very important point right at the end of your post: “provide them the financial support they need to allow their passion to carry them through the rest of the way without burning out.” It’s important to remember, and easy not to realize when you’re starting out, that this passion is not infinitely durable, and that relying on it to heavily can begin to wear it out. Now that I’m on the outside of the arts industry, peering back in as a volunteer, audience member and very occasional contractor, I wonder how long it would take me to recover adequately to jump back in.

  4. says

    There is a telling self-absorption that this rigorous study by arts administrators focuses on the income of arts administrators and says so little by way of context about the support and availability of the arts, or the support of artists.

    This weird self-absorption has become quite common. As one example, I was just looking at the website of the Arizona Opera. Under the link for “Our Team” there are extensive listings for the people in Marketing, Development, Patron Services, and Finance-and-Administration, but no listings for the company’s singers or instrumentalists. Silly me, I thought the principle team of an opera house was the musicians. Arts organizations are no longer made primarily of artists, but rather arts administrators. And of course, we see a corresponding discrepancy between the pay of artists and arts administrators that continues to grow.

    The second weakness of the report is the premise that supply and demand in the arts are natural laws rather than social constructs. The arts are not a necessity in the sense of basic needs. Demand for the high arts will always be a consciously created social construct shaped by many complex factors such as education, availability, support for regional cultures, ticket costs, subsidies, moral suasion, out reach programs, etc. A study of supply and demand in the arts without a comprehensive contextualization of what has been done to *create* demand is absurd.

    It increasingly seems that one of the principle problems facing the arts today derives from the rather narrow market perspectives created by the “professionalization” of arts management. The arts cannot be defined by the market – though I know that principle is almost incomprehensible for Americans. Much of this problem could be solved if our training programs for arts management were taken out of business schools, where they hardly belong, and put into departments that deal with public administration. This would allow for a much wider range of perspectives and training that are essential for good arts administration. Anyway, we once again see here that all those MBA types in arts management keep a keen eye on their salaries and that they increasingly define arts organizations in terms of themselves rather than artists.

  5. says

    I enjoy statistics so I very much appreciate this report. One of the things I notice is the small sample sizes. 2199 “Local Arts Organizations” were contacted. The category with the best response rate was for CEOs, but that was still only 12%. For the important category of “Development/Fund Raising,” the response rate was only slightly over 1% — 24 responses out of 2199 organizations surveyed. (See page 5 of the chapter “Executive Summary.”) Surely a lot more than 1% of the organizations contacted have such a position.

    Especially in the category of CEOs, I think there might be a tendency for those with the largest salaries not to respond, since there has been notable criticism of their high compensation packages. As one example, Reynold Levy made about $7,000 each weekday as president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He is only one of several administrators who make such sums. See:


    The omission of their compensation could significantly skew the results (especially for the mid Atlantic region,) as could a preponderance of responses from smaller organizations. More information about which organizations responded and which didn’t could be helpful. And what does Local Arts Organization mean? What is the breakdown by genre?

  6. says

    Great article – except that demographics need to be more detailed to provide a clear picture. I think it’s important to also look into the ages of people who work at every level – even internships – because if you study unemployment studies being done in recent years, you will find that middle aged people are NOT being hired for management positions – even if they are qualified for jobs & have graduate degrees. I’d like to see some studies that actually factor in age of job applicants, and those holding positions at all levels.

    Additional issues include businesses being required to provide health insurance to all full time employees (which will be mandated in 2014) and that this is keeping many businesses from hiring full time staff. Lastly, the hiring process needs to be examined across the board because the majority of people seeking full time work can share (from their own experiences) that unfair practices or unethical behavior is common. So, it begs the question of who’s unemployed as well – or seeking work.

    There are also issues of job satisfaction & job security for those who are employed. How many people feel overworked, or complain about being understaffed? What other variables can be examined about the current working conditions that people face?

    In conclusion – there are many factors that affect who ends up working for organizations yet very few of these factors seem to be investigated at length – and therefore no resolution seems to be in sight for the plight of the average person seeking to find a sustainable income.