On Collaboration, AHTR, and Work in the Arts: A Conversation Among Friends
The following conversation was recorded over Zoom on Sunday June 9, with Michelle in Philadelphia, Karen in Maplewood, New Jersey, and Ginger in Silver Spring, Maryland, and has been edited for publication.
As three of the many people behind the joint AHTR project, we sat down recently to talk about the year, to celebrate the eighth (!) anniversary of the birth of AHTR, and to reflect upon AHTR as a collaborative and community-based project that advocates for the arts and the value of visual arts education. The conversation was precipitated in part by widespread attention to the Salary Transparency Spreadsheet that Michelle co-created with colleagues and friends two weeks ago, inspired by Joshua Boldt’s 2012 Adjunct Project spreadsheet, Kimberly Drew’s 2019 AAM keynote, and the POWArts Salary Survey, which will be released later this week. AHTR was founded on such acts of solidarity around our love of art (history) and the academic labor of teaching, and we treasure the community it provides.
Now that it’s summer, we’ll be busy planning for the coming year and invite readers to submit proposals for next year’s AHTR Weekly. The efforts of AHTR’s editorial team amplify the resources hosted on the site from the many contributors who devise lesson plans, share their ideas through the AHTR Weekly, participate in AHTR’s conference panels, and work to advance the conversation about pedagogy in the visual arts and design. This is truly important labor in our field and we are proud to support it.
The AHTR team comprises the following invaluable co-conspirators, without whom this project would not exist:
Karen: How has AHTR shaped your ideas about collaboration?
Michelle: Collaboration over the life of our AHTR project has been a model for how I want the rest of my professional life to be. I think the way that we’ve collaborated as a team, we’ve allowed ourselves to bring our whole lives to each other as colleagues to have a holistic understanding of who we are both personally and professionally. We have often found the structures of our field, whether in academia, in museums, or in another part of the art world, to be quite unyielding, a contrast to the strong basis and model for collaborative community and for the joy that we all find working together. I’m so proud of the ways in which we’ve been able to transcend our training as individual territorial art historians and been able to work with one another and build this project from the ground up. We have eight years, over one million views, and hundreds of individual and masterful contributions from our field on this site.
Ginger: I like that AHTR suggests a collaborative model for professional mentorship that cuts across generational lines. While our leadership team shares an interest in pedagogy, we come from distinct backgrounds and scholarly fields, and we are all at different stages in our careers. Working together so closely has fostered really rich mentoring relationships among our group, which I think extends into how we work with the site’s contributors and advisors, and even the role we’ve taken in conference settings. I also have to mention the personal support that comes through collaboration with this group of women. In addition to our work with AHTR, we’ve seen each other through major life changes and struggles that face many women in establishing themselves professionally.
Karen: I want to echo what the two of you have said. For me, I’ve been able to take the AHTR model in working with emerging professionals at Baruch. Dysfunction is widespread in many academic departments and museums, so it’s rewarding to get together with graduate teaching fellows and adjuncts to discuss our expectations and goals for the semester, to reflect on what worked or not, and to have a place to share our experiences. AHTR has really inspired me to build that level of community in both my teaching and mentoring practice. When I hear people sharing their ideas, I find myself thinking “how can we all work together?” I find it very empowering. We take care of each other, and when we take on too much (which we sometimes do), we know we can ask for help.
Michelle: That comes from trust, knowing that when you ask for help, that someone is going to see an opportunity to work together, rather than a weakness to exploit.
Karen: Exactly–that’s incredibly important. I think it’s too often perceived as a weakness in a professional field that emphasizes individual accomplishment. And we’ve worked to make reaching out and involving others a strength at AHTR.
Ginger: Michelle, how did the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency spreadsheet develop?
Michelle: It started about a week ago after having a conversation with colleagues, and friends. We had gone out for a drink and were talking about next steps in our careers. I’m moving into a new job, so I shared my salary history. I think whenever we talk about careers—either in the classroom or one-on-one situations, it’s a powerful tool of collegiality to let others know what they might expect or ask for in similar job positions.
If you are going to talk about ethics, politics, or any buzzwords of the 21st century art world, then you have to support salary transparency because it allows not only for your own agency and advancement, but for that of others. We often discuss how we can help other people advance in the field, whether that means addressing racial inequity, gender inequity, or any of the many imbalances that exist. If we’re serious, that means putting money where our mouths are–with a degree of anonymity, which is good and necessary and safe. But I just think if that’s what your talk is, then you have to walk it too.
On the way home that evening, I made a Google spreadsheet and shared it with the people I’d been talking to. The next morning, I thought about sending to the CUNY listserv, but worried at first if it would be rude or uncomfortable to ask people to share salaries. Or transgressive in a way that people wouldn’t appreciate. CUNY’s PhD program has tons of people in professional fields who are working on graduate degrees at the same time. That’s why I chose to go to school there. I figured, well, if anyone is going to give us good feedback on this as a model, and be politically connected to it, they’re at CUNY. So, I sent the spreadsheet out and immediately people started saying, “Yes, this is super helpful.” Then I posted it on social media.
Karen: And we shared, and shared, and shared . . .
Michelle: And everyone shared, and then every brave person who shared it or added to it, or who spoke about it with a colleague, they made it this document which has very quickly become this thing. We’ve now gathered 2300 entries in a little over a week. It’s unbelievable. It is a true team effort, and the mouthpiece where those behind it speak up and out is the Art + Museum Transparency Twitter account, here.
The next thing we’d like to do is create a similar document specifically for internships. It hurts to see all the zeros on the spreadsheet. If people are working for nothing in this field, it hurts us all. I think most of us agree that people shouldn’t be doing unpaid internships, and that we shouldn’t be posting them.
When we agree to work with someone who is unpaid, our labor–and our pay–is based on somebody else’s who’s working for free. I always said if I could get to the stage where I could manage on my salary, I’d pay it forward by putting it into a pipeline program. I now make $61,000 and back in January I commited to pay $3000 annually to support one needs-based internship here at the museum each summer. I want to eliminate the practice of unpaid internships. If the staff are able to contribute, then surely the donors and the institution can as well.
Karen: I was really inspired by the spreadsheet and its connection to similar projects that support adjunct faculty. The issues facing adjuncts in higher education is a huge problem that is near and dear to my heart, and it leads us back to the origins of AHTR. We started the site to help instructors teaching art history survey courses exchange ideas and resources. These classes are important for students to understand and value art historical study, and since faculty typically lack pedagogical training, we wanted to help fill that gap. Although we didn’t specifically target adjuncts, most disciplines—including art history–increasingly rely on contingent faculty to teach their foundational courses, so adjuncts naturally make up a large part of our community.
Ginger: You’re right there’s a lot more we could say about this issue, but I think a key point is that adjuncts often feel disconnected from the campus community, especially if they teach online and/or work at multiple institutions. Likewise, they may not be able to take advantage of educational development opportunities offered by a school’s center for teaching and learning. As an open digital platform, AHTR helps address these problems by giving them access to a broad professional community with specialized content knowledge, as well as useful resources on teaching and learning.
Karen: That also speaks to AHTR’s work to highlight the value of teaching in higher education, and as well as the broader question of salary equity in museums and the academy. I think a lot of academics find themselves underpaid because so many of us start as adjuncts. We’re paid so very little for so much academic labor that it causes us to devalue our own work and expertise. When we get our first offer, it seems like so much more money than our adjunct pay that we don’t even negotiate or question if it’s fair compensation for the job.
Michelle: Did either of you have a general idea of how much you could expect to start on as a salary when you went into grad work?
Karen: I really didn’t have any idea. Coming from the Midwest, then living in Asheville, North Carolina, getting paid $2,500 as an adjunct professor seemed like a lot. I thought that would change considerably when I got to New York City, but it was almost exactly the same. When I was starting my career, I had no understanding of what a salary would be in my field as a professor. And I’ve been surprised at the discrepancies among faculty salaries that exist at different schools, even when the cost of living was roughly the same.
Ginger: This is a hard question because it’s tied to my own life choices and changes in the economy since the start of my career. When I was in grad school in the 1990s, I had mid-level museum position that paid around $35K, and then after getting my Ph.D., I took a tenure-track job in North Carolina where my salary was near $50K. However, I left academia due to a “two-body problem” and since moving to DC in 2009, I’ve not been able to find a full-time position that I could afford to accept. I had to decline a great museum job a few years ago because the salary was only $39K, which wouldn’t have offset the added cost for child care. So, I teach as an adjunct, do some contracted work, and help with AHTR, and while it is professionally rewarding, it still leaves me struggling financially and wouldn’t even be possible if my partner didn’t have a good job with benefits. I say all this because it also underscores the limitations for people in the field who lack the privilege I have.
Michelle: You’ve hit on something that drew comments on the spreadsheet. Several people asked to add a column indicating whether you’re single or with a partner. It’s a different thing to earn x salary and have to pay all the bills yourself, than if there’s someone else who can help shoulder life’s burdens. That can make a small salary go just a bit further.
Karen: How would you describe the professional value of the work we’ve been doing at AHTR?
Ginger: In academia, we’re not taught leadership skills in an intentional way. Individuals move up the ranks based on their own knowledge and seniority. We all probably know people who have leadership roles, but are not very effective in managing staff or other administrative responsibilities. So, from a professional development standpoint, AHTR has allowed me to cultivate those skills and recognize their value. I think we’ve all found this experience useful as we’ve progressed in our careers over the past few years.
Michelle: I agree.
Karen: I do too. I like what you said about leadership. A lot of the posts that we have and a lot of the content that we offer readers is about how to be a good leader or facilitator in the classroom. And so I think that’s incredibly important because even if these just very small pedagogical assignments, that can translate into a larger context.
Michelle: We not only offer models of leadership, but we’re also offering a platform for us to continue learning because we are so often posting content from people who are teaching us things as well. And so we have trust along many different vectors. And one of those vectors is that we are not a voice of authority, but voice of collaboration.
Ginger: Well, I think that goes back to AHTR’s emphasis on collaboration and collective leadership. It really reflects broader trends toward student-centered learning and recognizing that true leadership doesn’t mean authoritative command. It’s about embracing the collaborative process, acknowledging varied experience, and using those ideas for the greater good. We can all teach each other, and we have to recognize that we can all learn from each other as well.
Karen: I find that extends beyond the AHTR website into our conference outreach at College Arts Association, Southeastern College Art Conference, and others that we’ve attended. I also find it a real strength that we’re constantly evaluating the content on AHTR. We’ve had these lesson plans up for several years, so now we’re asking: how we can re-engage with them to reflect new scholarship on teaching and learning and current disciplinary concerns so the site does not remain static? We’re all willing to learn from one another and our colleagues as we invite them to contribute to this project. It’s the labor of so many people who continue to support this work.
Michelle: So we remain open. AHTR is not just an open educational resource in that it is free and accessible. But it’s open in a really fundamental sense in that it continues to allow growth, and to change and to be challenged, even at its core tenets. That way it can continue to be relevant and useful for the widest possible number of people now, and in the next eight years.