Every museum, no matter what its size, needs a leader. At a smaller place, that person would wear many hats, ranging from paying the bills to giving tours to mounting exhibitions. At a bigger institution, the job would be mostly administrative, with a large staff helping to run the place.
In some ways, being a museum director is like being a director anywhere. Budget and staff management are the two biggest concerns a director has. Being a good leader does not mean sitting in a pretty office and attending monthly board meetings. A director provides direction for the entire staff, resolves conflicts, hires and fires people, approves projects, and serves as the “face” of the museum in the community. It is extremely important that a director can read financial statements, understand the intricacies of a non-profit’s budget, and manage money well.
The director is also the link between the Board and the staff, which can be a tricky role to play. It is up to the director to communicate the Board’s goals and vision for the entire institution, as well as demonstrate the staff’s hard work to the Board.
If the museum does not have a development department, the director works on grant writing and fund raising as well. Most directors would say their biggest stress is generating income, so that all of the wonderful people they have hired have the resources to do their jobs.
Some people start off working in the museum field with a goal of being a director someday. I was not one of those people. I want to be close to the “meat” of history – exhibitions, programs, and special events – which is why I became a curator. The director’s job is actually pretty far from all of that. They are more concerned with the day to day operation of the museum – keeping the lights on and the staff paid.
So what about salary?
As with any museum career choice, you have to understand the nature of the business before you get into it. This is not a “9 to 5” job, nor is it a field where you will get rich. To be sure, larger museums pay more money than smaller ones, and some directors make a pretty good living at the big ones. They are indeed the highest paid person on the payroll. But for most of the medium to smaller museums, a big salary in the museum field is about an average salary across the board.
Certainly an advanced degree in museum studies would benefit anyone seeking to be a museum director. It is important to understand all of the positions within a museum, so you should be well versed in what everyone does, from the curator to the conservator to the education team. Some business management, finance, and marketing experience would be useful as well. Some directors even have a PhD in the subject matter of their museum, or another kind of advanced degree that provides leadership and management training.
There are lots of smaller museums where you could probably find your first job as a director right out of graduate school. But beware! As mentioned earlier, a director will need to wear many, many hats at a small museum, and you might not be doing what you envisioned if you start there. If you are the only paid position, for example, you will be working with an exclusively volunteer team. And that presents its own unique challenges.
It is probably better to find a job at a medium or large institution as an Assistant Director. You will be involved in running the museum, but you will not have all of the responsibility of being a director quite yet. This will allow you to learn how things work, while focusing on the kind of career you want.
Some directors rise through the ranks from other positions within the museum. It is not unusual for a curator or educator to become a director after several years. That may be the path you choose.
Everyone in the museum field works hard for their paychecks. This is a field where you definitely do it because you love it – that is indeed the only reason to choose a museum career!