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This is a recorded session from the 2021 AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.
A relationship is a two-way street, and it’s no different for independent museum professionals (IMPs) and the museums that hire them. This session, hosted by IMPs, aims to make sure that contractors are not left out of the DEAI discussion. It will highlight current issues facing the sector and present a practical framework to ensure ethical and fair treatment.
Melanie Adams, Director, Anacostia Community Museum
Julie Govert, Exhibit Developer & Writer, Independent Museum Professional
MJ Hagan, Registrar & Collections Manager, MJH Collections Management
Ernesto Mendoza, Owner & Graphic Designer, One By Design
Anne Young, Director of Legal Affairs and Intellectual Property, Newfields
Julie Govert: Welcome to Ethical Contracting: is your museum doing it? Hosted by independent museum professionals and the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists. This session is being recorded. I’m Julie Govert, an independent exhibit developer and writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I serve on the Steering Committee of Independent Museum Professionals, a network of AAM, and as its Vice Chair, and I’m [inaudible 00:00:39] programming co-chair. And thanks so much for joining us today.
During this virtual session, we acknowledge that Chicago, the city we celebrate during this annual meeting, is the land of the Three Fires Confederacy, Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, and 30 sovereign nations who consider Illinois part of their homeland. The area was also a site of trade gathering and healing for more than a dozen other native tribes. We pay respects to their elders, past and present, as well as to the indigenous peoples, past and present, on whose lands all of our panelists reside and work today.
A relationship is a two-way street and it’s no different for independent professionals and the museums who hire them. This panel session aims to make sure independent and contract professionals are not left out of the diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion discussion. We’re going to talk about current issues facing the sector and key sticking points in these kinds of relationships. Our goal is to demystify the process and present a practical framework, benefiting both museums and independents, to ensure ethical and fair treatment. With contracting expected to increase as museums tighten their belts post COVID, and a surge of newly laid off professionals entering the field as independents, now is the time to have this discussion to ensure that these working relationships are based on fairness and equity. I’m really excited to introduce our panelists, who represent both museum leaders and IMPs, to help talk about these very important issues.
We have Ben Garcia, Deputy Executive Director and Chief Learning Officer with Ohio History Connection. MJ Hagan, Independent Registrar Collections Manager and Consultant at MJH Collections Management, LLC, based Washington, DC. MJ is the chair of the ARCS Member Advocacy Committee and is the Secretary of IMP’s Steering Committee. Ernesto Mendoza is an Exhibit Graphic Designer and owner of One By Design, based in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He serves as the Programming Chair of [inaudible 00:02:47] IMP Professional Affinity Group. And Anne Young, Director of Legal Affairs and Intellectual Property at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.
So before we start, I just want to share some basic principles that we want to cover before we’re jumping into our discussion. First of all, we are not providing any legal advice. And so you should still always follow all state and federal labor laws. Secondly, our discussion is actually based on some new resources and guidelines, and we put a lot of stuff in the handouts tab. So I encourage you to look at that, download it.
The first things that we’re using for this are the Principles of Professional Practice for IMPs, which was developed by IMP. And Working With IMPs, which was developed by IMP and ARCS. So encourage you to download those two documents, check them out, distribute them widely with your clients and contractors and colleagues. Also in the handouts is a one-pager with definitions and resources that we might mention today, as well as some sample contracts that Anne has graciously provided from Newfields for reference. So you can find info about IMP and how [inaudible 00:04:06] get involved as well. So all of that’s in the handouts. Encourage you to look at that. Also encourage you to look at the polling section. We’ve put through some questions up there. Just kind of want to know where you are in this discussion.
So I’m just going to share… What is ethical contracting? Ethical contracting is ensuring that contract opportunities follow federal, state, and local labor guidelines, provide fair and equal pay for equal work, promote diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, or DEAI, employ a fair and transparent procurement process, are appropriate for an IMP, as distinct from an employee. And an example of that is that some of the main differences is that an IMP is typically project based and a museum shouldn’t be hiring IMPs to avoid paying benefits and other things that an employee should get. And IMPs should not intentionally take jobs away from staff. Ethical contracting ensures that these opportunities do not request or require an IMP to complete work for free. And they treat IMPs with dignity and respect at all times.
So the rest of this time, we’re going to spend just in conversation about some of these sticking points. And then we are also going to leave a little bit of time for Q and A at the end. And then immediately after the session, we encourage you, if we run out of time, to join us in the IMP discussion group, anyone can join, whether you’re an IMP or not. We’re going to be there from 11:30 to 12, Central Time, with follow up discussion, if you have additional questions. And we’re all going to be there. So, first of all, I want to start with kind of the first step in contracting, which is hiring an IMP. So this process can include a more formal RFP process, or a request for proposal. It could be an RFQ, which is a request for quote, which is typically less formal. What would you say are some areas where this process could be improved to make it more equitable?
Ernesto Mendoza: Sure. Well, I’ll go first. Thanks for having me, Julie, and I’m glad to be here amongst some great panelists joining us here. So, okay. So I’m coming from the independent side. So it really is helpful for museums to understand all the unpaid labor that goes into responding an RFP. We like to see an RFP as complete as possible. An accurate and well-thought out scope of work allows us to assess whether or not to spend the time or effort to go after a job. Really. I mean, I think that is sort of the key here, is really completeness of everything. The end results really is for the museums to get better responses from the bidders. So the lack of information can sometimes be an indicator of museums that maybe they have inexperience, and lack of understanding of the process. So it may result in withdrawing from the competition. They may be difficult to work with as well, and may not be worth the time and effort, especially if the budget is low.
And it also allows for the visitor to determine if a job is too big or too small to even go after. A good RFP should ensure that there’s a clear understanding of what is required so that all parties respond consistently. So really simply put, be clear as to what you are looking for, when you need it and how much. So when I get an RFP, this is what I look for, right off the bat. A series of things so that I’ve listed. Scope of work, project schedule, square footage, criteria for evaluation.
So essentially, what are you looking for in specific to the project? Lowest bid, creativity, relative samples of work, what have you. History of your organization is somewhat important so that we know who we’re working with. So the background or impetus of why you are hiring an independent. Is it a public offering or are we hand picked? How many will be going after it? Is there a pre-bid meeting? A timeframe for a Q and A? So last, but certainly not least, the budget. This budget could have a ceiling budget. So there’s a ceiling to the budget itself or a budget range.
MJ Hagan: That’s such an important point, you bring up there, Ernesto, about budget. And I’d like to just expand on that a little bit, because whenever… I think a lot of museums don’t realize that it’s fine to disclose your budget and it’s actually encouraged, and it benefits you as a museum. So you might be thinking, “Wait, why would I do that? Why would I tell a contractor how much I have to spend? Wouldn’t they just bid at the top of the budget?” The answer to that is no. And I’m going to quickly explain why it’s actually to your advantage as a museum to include a budget. How it can better serve you in this process. So a great way to think about it is in the same terms as the move towards including salaries in job announcements. Doing so promotes transparency and fair pay, as well as it lets the applicant know in advance if your budgeted salary works for them.
So it saves you the time of going through that whole interview process, only to find out they can’t accept your budgeted salary. So it saves you time, it ensures you’re only considering viable candidates for the role, and it promotes equity and fairness, which is something we all want to do as an industry. So the same principles apply for contracting, really. If you provide at least a budget rate up front, it promotes transparency and equity. It, again, saves you time because it ensures that you’re only getting relevant and appropriate responses. And like Ernesto said, it will increase the number and the quality of bids you get. So otherwise, you could find that all the bids you get back to a proposal are above your budget range, or that you didn’t attract enough qualified candidates, and you have to start the process all over again.
And the RFP process, it’s an investment in your time as a museum. It’s a long process. So if you put that budget up front, you’re saving yourself time. The other way it’s beneficial for you is when you’re evaluating the proposals. So when price is less of a factor, you can focus on, who’s the best candidate for the job? Instead of, who’s the least expensive? So when all candidates are within your budget range, then we’re competing based on value and quality of service. So we’re telling you, what can we deliver with the funds that you have available? Rather than competing with each other in a race to the bottom to put in the lowest price. So you actually get a better sense of how each candidate would use your budget, and you’ll end up with a more successful project in the end. So it’s really a win-win for both the independent and the museum.
Ben Garcia: Yeah. Thanks, MJ. I feel like for me, I know in this conversation, that has been a really big “aha moment,” because I absolutely believe in posting salary ranges when you’re posting a job as an issue of transparency and equity within the organization and for the field more broadly. And I’d never really thought about the fact that not posting a budget range… I never thought about the ways in which those are analogous. So I really love that idea, through an equity lens. I love what you’re saying also about, it takes the pressure off and you’re really comparing apples to apples in that situation. The budget’s sort of understood, and then you’re really seeing sort of how people conceptualize the project.
So I think the piece that I struggle with is, often we’re bringing in a consultant to do work where the expertise doesn’t exist within the organization. And so an understanding of the work required, or the scale of the financial commitment, is sometimes hard to ballpark for someone who doesn’t really understand it. So what [inaudible 00:13:16] recommend museum professionals do, if they want to do the equitable thing and post a budget, but they also don’t want to be so completely off base that, sort of to Ernesto’s earlier point, an independent museum professional will take a look and say that doesn’t make sense for the task at hand.
MJ Hagan: I’m really glad you bring that up, because that’s a really common issue I think a lot of museums have. Especially, like you said, when you’re contracting for work you haven’t done before. In that case, or if you have a complex RFP for a large project, you can definitely hire an independent to write that for you and give you guidance. You can also contact a few IMPs ask for their advice. We’ll be happy to give you a ballpark idea for our project, not as a formal quote, but to give you a realistic idea for the RFP. You just need to be upfront about your intentions with that, so make it clear what you’re asking for and that, especially if you’re going to go out to a competitive bidding process, that we know it’s not that you’ve selected me as a candidate, you’re just asking for some advice. And you also, of course, need to make sure that this is permissible with any procurement rules that you’re bound by, especially if you’re a federal or a state agency.
I’m always happy to do this when someone calls and asks what the going rate for a registrar is in DC, because I think putting that information out there promotes appropriate expectations in the field. The more people know what a registrar should be paid, the more likely it is for fair and transparent salaries to happen. So I’m always happy to do that. And I just want to make one point while we’re talking [inaudible 00:14:50] about grant projects, because that’s an area where I often see temporary positions or contract position advertised as part of a grant and the hourly rate is much, much too low. There are so many out there where it’s $15 an hour, especially in collection work. And at that point you’re not paying a living wage to a contractor. And I think it’s just a case of museums not understanding what the fair rate of pay is for a contractor. And we’ll go into detail about that later on and how [inaudible 00:15:18] you can determine that fair rate and give some guidelines.
Julie Govert: So it seems like disclosing the budget is a really important step in a way to promote transparency in this hiring process. What are some other ways that transparency can increase equity?
Ernesto Mendoza: Well, I could answer that. Oftentimes there’s a points system. It’s a common thing that a lot of museums put out there. And it’s sometimes a requirement to determine the best candidate. So what’s the advantage? This allows the bidder to strategically plan where they will be deficient. So essentially, where do I feel like I am weak at? But there’s another requirement that I may feel strongly about, or I have great strength in. So I would bump that up and feel like I’m covered for the other one, if I do lose points. It’s just a really good way to recoup points. And it’s easier and more efficient for the bidder to respond, if a museum is as clear as possible to what they’re looking for. And it also makes decision making as unbiased as can be. And it also achieves consistent responses from all candidates. So really, I guess that’s the goal for the museum, is to really just even the playing field for everyone, so that everyone is equal, on equal footing, for sure.
Anne Young: Those are all really great points, Ernesto. And this is something that we are actively working towards at Newfields. And one of the ways that we’re doing this is by developing template RFPs that we can use in a variety of different situations, depending on what we are actually looking for, and really working within those RFP templates to delineate a place to outline for budget and really encouraging our staff as they’re developing these, to outline hourly rates when they’re considering work with any IMPs. And I think it’s always important to consistently be going back and reviewing and reconsidering those IMP rates and what they might be specific to a particular project in the work that you’re seeking. And ultimately for us, communication is the key to ensuring transparency and equitable rates.
MJ Hagan: And talking about communication, in that bidding process, you can also disclose… It’s helpful to understand what you can disclose and not disclose, so we’re encouraging you to disclose the budget, but it’s also helpful to know that you can disclose how many bidders are invited to bid. So if you are inviting five people to bid, you can let the candidates know that, “We’re inviting five,” or, “We’re inviting three.” That’s really helpful for me, as an IMP, because like Ernesto said, it’s a huge amount of unpaid time that we put into proposals. And if I know seven people are bidding on this huge proposal, I might think, “Well, I’m not sure that’s worth my time.” But if I see a lower number of bidders that I’m invited to compete against, that might be worth a bigger investment of my time. So disclosing how many people are bidding is really helpful.
Ben Garcia: Oops. Yeah. And I think in this conversation, I really appreciate it because I do think there’s a way that when you’re working as a museum professional, you don’t think about vendors necessarily automatically sort of as part of your charge, in terms of standards for equity. I think more and more we’re understanding… I was on another panel the other day where someone said, “Who you’re hiring for contractors, who you’re hiring as IMPS, that is a statement of your values as well.” And it’s really important your contracts are moral documents in the same way that the budget is, right? To quote Melanie Adams. If you’re doing an RFP and you’re asking for all of this work, I’m just thinking about out how museums can maybe even resource the search portion of this so that IMPs who are putting a lot of work into a proposal, could get compensated even just for that work. So have you all had experience and is it at all standard practice for a short list of potential IMPs to be compensated for the RFP process?
MJ Hagan: I think that is a really interesting point and something that I hadn’t come across as an independent before we brought that up, Ben, and I’ve been doing some more of thinking about that. Especially if we’re comparing sort of the hiring practice of contractors to the hiring practice of staff. There was a really interesting post this just this week on the Nonprofit AF blog, where he suggested that we should consider as a field, offering stipends to job candidates as compensation for their participation in the interview process, because it’s lengthy, and sometimes it requires them to come up with ideas or do a presentation. I think in the same way that we’re rethinking that process, we could apply that to independents, that we could provide a stipend for them to put together a proposal, especially if we’re putting together original ideas.
Julie Govert: Yeah. I definitely think that, especially when you’re asking for concepts and ideas, that it definitely makes sense. Before we move on, I just want to ask about just the DEAI practices that you have in your own institutions and how you also kind of apply those to contractors.
Anne Young: I can touch on that a little bit, and just briefly. And that is something for us at Newfields. We are very actively working to increase our DEIA work. And for us, this is looking to our inclusivity value for the institution and establishing procurement practices and policies around that, that encourages the utilization of locally owned firms and independent contractors, as well as looking to XPE participation, and really encouraging any IMPs that we work with, to also utilize XPEs for any subcontractors that they might utilize as well.
Ernesto Mendoza: Yeah. And I’ll second that. If you qualify, certainly get certified. I am. Add your certification to every bid. Getting certified also puts you in a pool of state or federal organizations that are seeking XPEs. So definitely do it.
Julie Govert: Awesome. Okay. Let’s move on. I just want to encourage people, if you have questions throughout, we’re going to have a Q and A time at the end, and we’re also going to be in that IMP discussion group at 11:30 to 12. But if you do have questions, please put them in the Q and A portion. It’s next to the chat. And we’ll get to those towards the end.
So we’ve talked about kind of this bidding process. Now a museum has picked their person, and we now actually have to get a contract. So what can museums and IMPs do to promote ethics and transparency in the contracting process? Because it’s stressful, but we want to be as transparent as possible. So what can we do?
Anne Young: Those are some excellent questions, Julie. And this is an area that I’m very committed to and doing a lot of work with myself. And for museums, it really does start with your contract document itself, and stepping back and rethinking your processes and procedures. Most of us probably have contract templates that were vetted by legal counsel, however many years ago, given that rubber stamp of approval, “Yes, this is good. It has the clauses we need,” and it’s just continued to be used. And so I think it’s really important that museums go back to their templates and look at your contracts and revise them. And where can you make these more readable and understandable to non lawyers? Which most of the IMPs that you are going to be working with, probably are not lawyers, and may or may not actually be sending contracts out to legal counsel to review on their behalf.
So you can have all of the protections you need in a contract and have removed a lot of that legalese. A lot of the “heretofores and now thereafters” that everyone starts kind of glossing over and not understanding. Removing a lot of that extra legalese can make those clauses easier to understand for non lawyers. Another thing that I find that is in the lower hanging fruit of things to do on your contracts to make them more equitable is to remove gendered pronouns. I would bet dollars to donuts that most of us probably still have “he, she,” and it is a really simple thing to instead refer every time to “contractor,” or “guest registrar,” or “guest curator,” or whatever that contracted position might be. Or to just simply say, “they, them, their,” rather than using “he and she.” A small but simple thing that can probably easily be done and likely doesn’t require any outside legal review to make a change like that either.
Another thing that I find hugely helpful with contract templates is to actually make a variety of different types of templates that are catered to different types of work. So whether it’s an instructor or a performer or a guest curator or construction work, that having these all different templates already created makes the review process that much faster. It makes the process of drafting contracts that much simpler. And just streamlines the entire process of contracting. And finally, it’s a small thing, but outline everything in the actual contract document itself. So deliverables, reviews, approval processes. That way, if you’ve thought about it and considered it upfront during contracting, when you get three, six, 12 months down the road in the middle of this project and you run into something and you go, “Oh, do they need to review this?” Or, “What’s the next step in this?” You can look back to that contract and you go, “Oh, cool. We already considered this and thought about this and our past selves are actually now helping us, how many months down in the middle of this, into a project.”
MJ Hagan: And as an IMP, looking at your contracts was a revelation for me. Just seeing how simple they are and clear. And we see a lot of versions of contracts, and we often have to create our own. And yours are so equitable. They’re wonderful. So I really encourage you all to download them and take them back to your institution.
One thing that really stood out for me in your contracts was your statement on ownership of work and confidentiality. As a registrar, I’m often restricted in what I can share about my work, for example, in an online portfolio or on social media, because I’m working with collections and restricted materials. That makes it really hard for me to demonstrate my experience to new clients. I’m doing cool things, but I can’t show you or tell you about it. So I love that in your contracts, especially the one for registrars, you are really generous in allowing the contractor to retain ownership of their work, rather than requiring it always to be work for hire. And I think that’s one point where a lot of people might not have considered that as an option, and I was wondering if you could tell us more about thinking about that as a tool for improving equity?
Anne Young: Well, thank you, MJ. That’s very nice to hear about our templates and the work that we’ve been striving to do. And that was actually something that was very personally important to me. As some of you probably know, my background is in [inaudible 00:28:07] reproductions and intellectual property and looking at licensing needs. And really, this is something that, it’s very important to ensure all parties, to a contract, have rights to use and reuse the materials that are produced throughout that contract period. That ownership of work, any confidentiality clauses of who can share stuff or not during the period of the contract, can we put stuff on social media and talk about the cool things that we’re getting to do? Oftentimes are, the default is, the contractor gets nothing and they’re left hanging out to dry. I look at this very similar to how we’ve looked at our intellectual property policies, just internally for our staff and for the institution, and realizing that we have a lot of people on staff with designers and photographers that they want to be able to show and that’s part of their work portfolio.
And the same thing is true working with IMPs. Now, obviously, there’s going to be time where, as the institution, we will need ownership over the intellectual property in whatever is being produced and worked on for us as the institution. But in most cases, we actually don’t necessarily need to own the intellectual property behind the work that we are contracting. We need a license, and we likely need that license to be completely non exclusive, to grant us all potential uses, and have it be in perpetuity, but there’s no reason to conversely restrict the IMP on that.
So I’ve been really pushing that more of our contracts, that that default is that whoever we are contracting retains their intellectual property rights, as much as we possibly can. And then grants back to Newfields, a irrevocable, non exclusive, in perpetuity license to do all the things, forever and ever. Having that and empowering IMPs to be able to use these materials in their personal portfolios, on their websites, to be able to share and talk about that work, is such a huge part of having something be more equitable, and really is a small thing to change from how we think about the IP in our contracts.
Ernesto Mendoza: Yeah. And one quick note is, it’s not just promoting us. It also promotes you guys, once we put it out there. There’s often times where we do use it as marketing material. Our marketing material may very well be yours. So it’s a win-win situation for me.
Julie Govert: So what about insurance? We had a question or a comment in the chat, but it’s something that I think we’ve talked about is, insurance requirements on contracts. And that is sometimes a problem for IMPs.
Ernesto Mendoza: Sure. This one is a tricky one for me. There’s a fine line. So really, errors and emissions insurance, or also known as professional liability insurance, is instantly a red flag for me. I understand the desire for museums to require this, but sometimes they’re just not needed. Museums also need to take into account the impact it has on an independent contractor. And in some cases, it exists mainly because it’s a template contract. And that’s why Anne, I’m glad that you mentioned, look at your contracts. Because sometimes that’s a residual from something that’s been passed on from one project to the other and has never been changed in the years. And so either that, or it’s a state contract.
So the implications of this, really for the independent, is the cost of it. It costs an arm and leg to really do. And for most independents like content, researchers, writers, and graphic designers, having this type of insurance makes no sense. Not only does it cost an arm and a leg, but there is, sometimes, that it is required. And I, personally, sometimes bow out of the running, depending on the size and the budget of project. Now it’s a whole different ballgame when you are, say, looking for an exhibit designer. There’s much more at stake when you’re dealing with bodily harm, or let’s say, structural liability. If a chair isn’t stable or something as simple as rounding off a corner of a table for an interactive, the implications are far greater than, let’s say, misspelling a word. Right? Then this insurance, it’s literally worth paying an arm in the leg for. With this said, fabricators, at times, will carry… Or, most of the time, will carry some sort of liability insurance to cover something like this, and that agreement can be reached between all parties.
Julie Govert: So Ben and Anne, from the museum perspective, how do you look at insurance when you’re dealing with contractors?
Ben Garcia: I mean, I feel like Anne has some really great responses based on how much further along I think they are at Newfields than we are, around really revisiting our contracts, using these lenses. Off hand, again, I think that I just am here to sort of be the, “Oh, I never thought of that perspective,” on the panel, because that idea of just continuing templates that have been in place for ages, not taking the time to really think about how the template fits the particular situation. One thing that I notice in large organizations, it’s very hard for sort of smaller, independent folks. I think there’s a sense in a lot of finance departments that every vendor is a large vendor that can comfortably address the costs of doing business, whether that’s not being paid for 30 days or 60 days, or whether that’s insurance costs or the like. And so I’m in such admiration of Newfields’ work and your work, Anne, in terms of really considering the humanity of the IMP and the real impact on people’s lives, that sort of an unthinking clause in a contract will do.
So I know that in the past that when I’ve encountered this, we have adjusted the fee to account for the cost of getting insurance for the IMP, if it’s something that’s truly important to the institution. But I love this idea that you should only use it when it’s absolutely necessary and really be thoughtful about all the times when it’s not necessary to have insurance coverage, because of the low level of risk. But I defer to Anne for more specifics on how to implement that.
Anne Young: Yeah, definitely. And thank you, Ben. I think those are all excellent points. And it is one of these that the default is always, “Well, there’s the insurance clause and the contracted party needs to carry a general liability, naming the institution with a million dollars, and as an additional insured,” and all the things. And for many independent contractors, that just isn’t something that they necessarily already have, or able to get, or can afford, depending on what the project is. So I think it’s important to look at the contract, look at the project, and cater that insurance clause to the individual project. So are they fabricating materials? Is it a food or beverage vendor coming on site? Are they serving alcohol? Or are they being contracted and all of their work is going to be done completely offsite, and they’re just providing intellectual labor and deliverables? And so changing the insurance based on those services.
So it might be general liability. It might be errors and omissions. It might be a liquor liability. And depending on what services are being provided, you may need to consider that the other side of this with insurance is also, be willing, as the museum, to look at those services and go, “Yeah, we’re okay actually cutting that insurance clause out completely. That based on what the services are and what is the work is being done by the IMP, that it’s really not necessary. And that we can remove that, and we are comfortable with that as an institution.” I had a great example, actually, just this last week, preparing for a program on site and bringing different birders on camp best that would be doing these live demonstrations.
And the default was the insurance clause was in there. And we’re looking at it. And we’re like, “What kind of birds are they bringing? Because this really kind of makes a difference.” So one of the independent birders was bringing hummingbirds. I doubt that we have a lot of liability around them bringing hummingbirds. And we removed the clause from that one. But the birder that was bringing hawks, we went, “Yeah, we might actually still want to keep insurance in, if you’re bringing hawks, though.” So really getting that granular in our review and going, “Okay, so what are they actually doing and what are they talking about and what are they bringing and how are we potentially interacting and what do we need to have there?”
Ernesto Mendoza: It sounds like a Geico commercial. [crosstalk 00:38:31].
Julie Govert: Well, I’m really encouraged that you guys are looking at these and thinking about these and looking on a case by case basis on what might be needed or not needed, and being willing to be adaptable in those circumstances. I do want to spend some time talking about an issue that came up before, which is budget. And this is a really important topic, so I want to make sure that we have time to discuss it. So we talked about the importance of disclosing your budget during that RFP process, or whatever bidding process. So what does appropriate compensation for an IMP look like? How are IMP rates calculated and why might they even vary from person to person?
MJ Hagan: I’ll take this one and explain it generally from an IMPs perspective. So it’s such an important topic because I find it’s often an area of misunderstanding between museums and IMPs. Especially if you haven’t worked with one before, you might look at our rates and compare them to the rates of your employees that do similar work and think, “Wow, that’s a lot more than we’re paying our employees to do this work.” But that’s a really unfair comparison for a lot of reasons. And it would be really beneficial to take a moment to explain how IMPs calculate their rates and what they should be in comparison to employees. So I often see it recommended on listservs that if you don’t know what to pay a contractor, then you find out the hourly rate of your employee and you could pay them something similar. But that is incredibly inappropriate.
So if you’re doing that, stop doing that. And we’ll explain what you should be doing. So an IMP’s rate should be a minimum of two to three times the rate of a full time employee. So if you take anything back with you from this panel, evaluate the rates that you’re paying, make sure you’re paying at least two to three times. So why is that? Why is it so high? It comes down to all the expenses that IMPs incur that employees don’t. And I think if you haven’t been an independent business owner before, you really have no idea what these expenses are, and you may think that $75 hour we’re charging you, we’re taking all of that home. But we are not taking anywhere near that amount home. So we really are small business owners and we have considerable overhead every year.
So that includes our business expenses like insurance, which we talked about. We have to be licensed in every state where we work. We have self-employment taxes, which are taxes on top of income tax. Then we have to pay for all our own professional services, like an accountant. All our own computers and software and office space. And we need a website. So those are huge expenses that we incur every year. And then the big one is providing our own benefits. So if you think about what an employer covers for an employee, the average expense that an employer pays is about an extra 30% of that employee salary and benefits, including retirement contributions, health insurance, which is a huge one for us as IMPs, transit benefits, training and professional development. Going to conferences like this, that comes out of our own pocket. And then most importantly, we have no paid annual leave or sick leave.
So if we get sick or we decide to take a vacation, we’re just choosing not to be paid during that time. As an independent, it can make it really hard to take a vacation. So all of those things have to be factored into our price. And then on top of that, we can’t spend every day working on billable hours. So there’s a lot of un-billable work we do, like responding to RFPs and networking. If we come to your site to do an estimate, and that takes half a day, I’m not being compensated for that time. So I have to build that into my hourly rate. So on an average, IMPs spend about 25 to 35% of their time on non-billable work. So I think just understanding what the expenses are that go into the rate, will really help you as a museum, understand why it is what it is.
So you mentioned, though, Julie, some other factors, like there’ll be different rates between different IMPs, and your rate can vary depending on the project. You might have called up an IMP and asked them what their hourly rate is, and they would say, “Well, it depends. Tell me about your project.” And that’s because our rate really depends often on what the length of your project is, the scope of work, the complexity. How much of a risk are we taking on in doing this project? And then we also have to take in account for us, as IMPs, our level of experience. So if you’re hiring someone with more experience, they’re going to cost more than someone with less experience. And then where we live, our locality. I live in DC, which is an expensive place to live.
And then we’re also comparing what the going rate is in our region. What is the going rate for a registrar? So I’m taking that into account when I determine my rates. I might do all this calculus and be like, “Wow, to cover my expenses and make the salary I want to make, I need to be charging $150. But the rate in my region is only 75. So in order to compete, I can only charge 75.” But I’m doing all of that calculus. When you ask me what my hourly rate is, all of that is going through my head. It’s such a simple question, but it’s a hard question to answer.
So I’ll also say, though, to not be afraid to have frank conversations with us about compensation. We’re used to that. It’s part of our daily work to talk about our fees. And we are not offended if you get a proposal for us and you want to work with us, but you’re like, “Well, that’s just more than I can accommodate.” We can often work with you. We can look at your scope of work and be like, “Well, maybe here’s an alternative way we could accomplish your project goals at a price that you could afford.” So I’d rather, as an IMP, I’d much rather have the opportunity to explain my rate and negotiate than to be ruled out because I’m too expensive. So reach out and talk to us.
Ernesto Mendoza: Sure. And I second that, MJ, is really, having these frank conversations isn’t uncomfortable to us. I mean, I think in the beginning, when you’re first starting off, it may feel that way. But I think we hold the value. I think that’s the key here. And that we’re confident in what we do, and there’s a charge for it. So I encourage museums to think about the value and not just the price. So what you think may be a bargain to the museum, may actually cost you monetarily, or even emotionally. I like to think that we don’t make the widgets and the factory line. There is creativity and personality involved, which differ from one designer to the other. You may be paying someone, let’s say, $35 an hour to come up with a mediocre design that’s gone through, let’s say, several rounds of revisions, versus someone that is being paid $75 an hour. And that person may get it right the first time with little resistance along the way. So I think that’s something that really, for me, is my shtick when I explain some of these rates to potential clients.
Julie Govert: Definitely. I think some of the things that MJ and Ernesto brought up are really critical for museums to understand. And I want to give Ben and Anne an opportunity if you have any thoughts about when you’re talking with contractors about pay. Another thing I want to just quickly mention is looking at your pay schedules and how and when you’re paying your contractor. If we do a month of work and then we have to wait 30 days for you to pay us, that’s two months we’re not getting paid. So I think one of the things I would encourage is setting up a pay schedule, whether it’s a percentage base of so much upfront and so much at each deliverable or percentage completed, or if it’s on a monthly basis, just because we have to manage our own cash flow. So that’s something I just want to mention. But Anne and Ben, if you have any thoughts related to pay and how you pay contractors, I’d be interested in hearing that.
Anne Young: Yeah, just real quickly. I mean, if you’re at all in a position to review contracts, you may be part of the drafting process as well, but if you’re reviewing them, to not necessarily just assume that whatever department is putting these together and contracting someone has a sense of equitable rates. So don’t be afraid to ask the questions and raise the point and be like, “Hey, I saw you’re bringing in an instructor for this, but somebody else in this other department brought in an instructor for a similar type thing, and they paid them twice as much.”
And so getting things to be equitable and pushing back and making sure that people are being paid, not only for active time, perhaps teaching a summer camp, but also the time… That they’re getting an equitable rate for their time put in to develop the curriculum, to go with that. A resource that I would really recommend people look at is the Wage Fee Calculator. And there’s a link to that in the handouts as well. And Julie, like you said, the fee schedule is so important. So outlining up front, if there’s a portion due upon signing of a contract so that the IMP has some money in hand as they begin the work, and then setting up deliverables along the way or whatever remainder is due after completion of services.
Ernesto Mendoza: Sure. Do you have anything, Ben? I have to agree. I mean, 100%, Anne. A pay schedule is really important for an IMP perspective. We have to manage our cashflow in order for us to pay our bills, pretty much, and feed our family. I know it sounds dramatic, but that’s the reality of things that us independents contend with. Unless you’re working on a very large project where you get paid by the hour and billing on a month to month basis, a pay schedule is the most predictable way to manage cashflow.
Ben Garcia: Yeah. I think that definitely tracks in terms of the way I’ve come to work with IMPs. I think, expecting to pay a third, at least a third upfront, really, I think makes a lot of sense. And again, depending on sort of how large your organization is and what your finance procedures are, I work in a large multi-site, quasi-state organization. And so our accounting procedures are more complicated than maybe a more nimble organization. And so I just know that the independent professionals that we contact will not see compensation before 30 days after their invoice. And we have to work real hard to get it to that 30. So just making sure that you’re understanding your organization’s procedures. And so in an organization like mine, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for it to be a 50% upfront kind of situation because I’m taking into consideration just sort of how cumbersome or just sort of how much time it takes, and not because anyone’s being slow about it, for an independent professional be paid.
The other thing I think about is, I guess that I worry about, that I think about, is sort of the ways in which IMPs end up being asked to, unthinkingly, sometimes, being asked to do work for free. And so really thinking about sort of, you’ve established your payment schedule and you’ve established the goal, but what would you all say about… I mean, I feel like there needs to be always some… In almost every situation I’ve been in, we have added to scope. And so sometimes that’s a formal process. But there’s a lot of ways in which these are small additions. So having some flexibility there where you keep in mind maybe an extra 10% of the project cost for in sort of inevitable additions so that IMPs don’t end up working for free, seems really important to me.
Ernesto Mendoza: Yeah. I mean, definitely don’t work for free, you independents. It’s not worth it. [crosstalk 00:51:35]-
Julie Govert: I want to keep us moving because we’re running out of time. Thanks, everybody, for your perspectives on pay. Independents, don’t work for free. Museums, don’t ask independents to work for free. And then also, just make sure that in your contract everything’s outlined. So what happens if a project is canceled? If it is, make sure your museums are paying for any work done to that point. And look at your resolutions as part of the contract.
We’ve got limited time, so I just want to kind of quickly hit. Okay, all of this is before the project. We haven’t even started the project, but I think really looking at all of these pieces, the bidding process and the selection process and in the contracting process, actually helps you, in the long run, in working together. So it’s kind of like, “Okay, now what? Now we have to work on this project together.” It might be a one day thing. It might be a multi-year thing. But I think it’s our goal that if you’ve done some of these things earlier in the process, that it makes working together more easier. So what are some challenges that can arise during the project, and how can we find some solutions to promote fair and ethical treatment on both sides?
Ben Garcia: I think it really starts with just having that trust relationship and that respect and that collegiality between the two. Understanding that, yes, we have a contract to protect both parties, but this is an ongoing conversation. Hopefully, we’ll find ways to work together… This will work really well and we’ll find ways to work together in the future. So that open communication, that idea of the empathetic museum that’s in our field and the Empathetic Museum Project, this is part of it. I think it’s new for our field to be thinking about contractors, vendors, IMPs, as audiences and stakeholders, as has come up in this conversation. But ultimately, we generate public value. We are not generating profit as nonprofits. We generate public value. And so being able to treat vendors and IMPs ethically and openly is an advantage, and in line with our values as a field.
Ernesto Mendoza: Yeah. I mean, I’m so glad that you mentioned this. Open communication is key. I think that we are here for you guys and we want to establish a relationship. So really, the one thing that is always tricky is this valuing the independents time. And this idea of open communication is important. But there also needs to be an understanding between the museum and the contractor. Sometimes what have happens is that lines are blurred between our lives and work. They kind of blend together at times. And I think that it’s important for me to kind of convey to the museums that there is a set time that we should communicate with each other. Of course, there should be open communication. Email me, sometimes even text me, whenever you have a question about something.
But what I like to really do is really come up with a more set ways of creating communication. When I take on a new client, I like to establish a weekly or a biweekly check-in meetings, to make sure that any questions or requests are done in a more regulated fashion. Of course, you’ll get emails or phone calls ever so often. But at least all urgent inquiries can be resolved during, let’s say, an agreed time. These scheduled meetings also force us to document any major decisions with meeting notes. So, I mean, there’s a personal side and a business side. And like I said, they tend to blend. But also, again, don’t take this personally if I, as a contractor, kind of regimen this a little bit.
Julie Govert: So we’re running out of time and I just want to hit a couple of things, and one is scope creep. It happens. Anne, can you talk a little bit just quickly about how to deal with that?
Anne Young: Absolutely. Yes. And scope creep is so real. It will happen. Just, it’s a given. So be prepared for it. Again, templates are your friend. So having things like an addendum template or a change order template that you can look to. That way, you’re not having to completely go back and redo an entire contract. You’re just outlining expanded scope of work, new fees, a schedule delay, whatever that might be, quickly with a document like that. There is a sample of an addendum template in the handouts. And sometimes, that said, as much as I love those, do think about if a project has completely done a 90 degree turn and it now is something completely different to think about actually doing a formal termination of an initial contract and drafting a new one to begin with. If enough has changed that you’re like, “Wow, this project doesn’t even look like the same thing that it started out as,” to just start over with your contracts.
Julie Govert: I want to take a couple of questions. We just have a few minutes. So Julia has asked about recommendations for finding contracting opportunities and how you suggest combating institutions’ tendencies to circulate contracting jobs internally, rather than advertising more broadly. How do you guys [inaudible 00:58:11] museums circulate your opportunities?
MJ Hagan: I would say as an independent, it really is word of mouth, mostly. There are some job [inaudible 00:58:22] where contracts are listed, especially if you’re registrar on the registrar’s listserv. And some regional museum organizations will list RFPs. But a lot of them tend to be word of mouth. Which isn’t necessarily fair or equitable or transparent.
Ben Garcia: Yeah. It’s a really great point. I wish we had time to get into it. Maybe in the post conversation, because that is an essential point where inequity can creep in, because it is about relationships, mostly. I know in my experience, it’s largely that.
Ernesto Mendoza: Right. And there are listservs for all RFPs out there. There are services for it. So in some ways, museums should really think about putting it in there if you really want to be equitable and broadcast it.
Julie Govert: Yeah. I would suggest you’d be as broad as possible in how you advertise it, in multiple channels, so that you can get a wider and maybe more qualified responses. Claudia asked if we could share best practices or tips on how an IMP should engage with your organization to build a new networking relationship. That’s, I guess, to the museums.
Ernesto Mendoza: So is the question about building the relationship?
Julie Govert: So how should an IMP engage a museum about a new relationship?
Ernesto Mendoza: Hmm.
Julie Govert: And if you want to think about that for a couple of minutes, we can pick up in the chat. It’s the IMP discussion group. You don’t have to be an IMP member. You can find it in the network lounge. We’re going to be there for the next half hour answering questions. I think we’re out of time. So I just want to thank all of our panelists today for joining us, and all of you here for listening. Hopefully, we’ve demonstrated some simple but important changes that can be implemented to just build a better process, a more transparent and equitable process, between museums and independents. And let’s not forget about contractors when we’re thinking about equity and inclusion. And I want to thank you very much, and I think that is all for us. And we’ll see you in the IMP discussion group. Thanks.
Ernesto Mendoza: See you in a bit. Thank you.
Ben Garcia: Thanks, everyone.
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