This might post might feel a bit off-topic for The Pragmatic Historian, but I know several of my colleagues in the Minnesota history museum field are in my audience and I need to pass along some advice. (Appropriately enough, today is Labor Day and the topic relates to the day.)
The Legacy Amendment & Grants
Some background for those not in Minnesota: In 2008 voters passed the Legacy Amendment, which provides sales tax funding for various environmental, arts, history, and cultural activities. This has injected much-needed cash into these sectors.
Within the history field, we have to write competitive Legacy grants in order to access funding from Minnesota’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund (the official name for this segment of Legacy funding). Many of these grants are written in order to improve museum environments for the long-term preservation of our collections. For example, because temperature and humidity control are so important to preservation, museums can write grants to upgrade their heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Or, in order to maximize the use of existing space for collections, a museum might write a grant for high-density mobile shelving. (My museum is in the middle of a mobile shelving project funded by a Legacy grant as I write this.) Legacy grants can also be used to produce programs, exhibits, and publications, among other things.
When we write Legacy grants, we have to know what it’s going to cost to carry out a particular project. When it comes to an HVAC, mobile shelving, or other building-related project, we seek out contractors with the skills, services, and products we need and get estimates to put into our budgets. Because state tax money is going into these projects, we have to follow the state’s procurement rules, which means seeking formal bids from at least 3 qualified contractors.
I explain all this to show that we have a specific process we use for contractors that provide infrastructure-related services. This all seems to fall apart when museums seek other sorts of contractors, like writers, editors or artists.
Would You Tell Your Plumber How Much to Charge?
I recently ran across a posting for a contractor to do editing of an exhibit script. The museum seeking the editing contractor naturally wants a person who has experience. The posting makes clear that this is a contract and the contractor sets their own schedule, which is as it should be.
However, here is where the posting takes a left turn at Albuquerque. The posting mentions the number of pages to be edited (good info), along with the allotted hours the museum assumes the job will take and lists an hourly rate of about $15.
Let’s stop and unpack what’s problematic about this by asking a question:
Would you tell your plumber, electrician, HVAC specialist, carpenter, or auto mechanic how much to charge in terms of an hourly rate and how long it will take them to do the job?
Your answer to this better be “No,” and if it’s not “No,” there are a whole lot of plumbers, electricians, HVAC specialists, carpenters, and auto mechanics who will set you straight in a hurry.
Why aren’t you allowed to tell these sorts of professionals what they will charge?
Because they are in business for themselves and they have to set rates that will allow them to stay in business.
Having operated a furniture refinishing business with my husband, we had to be conscious of how much we needed in order to cover expenses versus looking at how much customers were willing to pay us. At a shop rate of $60 an hour, we weren’t actually earning enough for my husband to bring home a living wage (or any wage) and also cover business expenses, so we weren’t charging enough. This is why you can’t always find specialists to fix furniture. The actual costs are more than customers are willing to bear.
You also can’t tell contractors how long a job will take due to the IRS’s rules regarding the classification of workers. Because there are lots of organizations willing to skirt the law by mis-classifying employees as contractors so they don’t have to pay taxes or benefits for those employees, the IRS has become a stickler for helping define an employee versus a contractor. Contractors, as stand-alone businesses, set their own hours. So, if the editing job takes more or less time than the museum has allotted, that’s not up to the museum to decide. The contractor decides that, just as the contractor decides the rate of pay.
Contract Writers, Editors, and Artists Are Operating Businesses
The larger point is that contract editors, writers, and artists are IN BUSINESS FOR THEMSELVES, just like other service professionals. If we are going to use these sorts of contract services in the museum field, we need to treat these “artsy” contractors the same as we would those in the trades. They are every bit as skilled as tradespeople, even though they are working with different skill sets.
You might argue that writers, editors, and artists surely don’t have the same kinds of expenses as tradespeople, but that’s also not for you to decide. They have to pay all of their own taxes (including the half their employer would kick in if they were in a standard employment situation), health insurance, benefits, technology expenses, space rental, office supplies, travel, professional service fees (tax preparation for businesses is expensive), continuing education, and etc. Tradespeople set an hourly shop rate and add on the cost of parts and supplies. While most writers and editors will bundle supplies costs within their hourly or per-job rates, artists may have considerable supplies costs outside of their work rate.
My Advice to Museums Hiring Creative Contractors
My advice to museums hiring contract writers, editors, and artists, or writing grants to do so, is to think of these contractors the same way you would electricians, carpenters, & etc. Decide what job you need done, including specific outcomes, and ask for estimates in order to determine your budget for such contractors. When seeking formal bids for your writing, editing, or artistic project, put together a request for proposals that these professionals can respond to with written bids.
Do not make a guess on what you think this creative work is worth. Do some research. I can guarantee from the hourly rate listed for the editing contract mentioned above that most people will underestimate the cost of these services. For the substantive editing requested for this job, the range is between $40-$65 an hour, which is considerably higher than $15. And, if you are asking for a rush job or specific expertise, the rate will be even higher.
While it is useful to use hourly rates for budgeting purposes, many writers, editors, and artists will likely provide you with a total job rate, rather than breaking down their bid into hours. Make sure to be clear about your outcomes or deliverables for the project by using an Independent Contractor Agreement. Berkeley Law has a really good Sample Independent Contractor Agreement that is downloadable so you can edit it for your needs. You’ll have to search for it in a browser because I could find no direct link to the agreement.
Here’s hoping we in the museum field (and every other field, frankly) will come to treat their writing, editing, and artistic contractors like their HVAC and electrical contractors.