ECPN Blog: Retrospective of the Great Recession Survey Report

  

Emerging Conservation Professionals Network
Retrospective of the Great Recession Survey Report

Report by Keara Teeter and Annabelle Camp — 2019-2021 ECPN Professional Education and Training Officers
Edited by Caitlin Richeson, Jessica Betz Abel, and Michaela Paulson — 2020-2022 ECPN Chairs and Vice Chairs


I. INTRODUCTION

I.I. Overview

Emerging Conservation Professionals (ECPs) of all levels are facing unexpected challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the situation continues to change, the ECPN Professional Education and Training (PET) Officers have worked to compile a three-part series focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim is to provide resources that may help answer some questions currently being raised by ECPs. Part I focused on the Association for North American Graduate Programs in the Conservation of Cultural Property (ANAGPIC) COVID-19 Response.

For Part II, PET created a survey to capture written histories from mid-career conservators and allied professionals who were ECPs during the American Great Recession. The Great Recession included two years of initial economic decline (2007-2009) and was followed by a prolonged period of economic recovery (2010-2014). This survey was intended to reach conservators who earned their Master’s degrees between 2007-2014, with particular emphasis on the ECPs who graduated at the peak of the recession. Their responses are intended to provide current ECPs with a better understanding of how economic circumstances from over a decade ago have continued to affect the conservation community.

The terms “emerging” or “early-career” are used throughout this report, but it is important to note these terms are subjective. AIC typically refers to pre-program students/interns, graduate students, or post-graduates who have been out of school for less than five years as “emerging conservation professionals” (ECPs). The term “mid-career” is also frequently used and can be loosely applied to conservators with around 10-25 years of experience.

Survey questions were gathered anonymously from current ECPs through the ECPN Liaison program. PET Officers reviewed the submissions and compiled them into a 32-question survey titled ECPN Retrospective of the Great Recession; the questions are listed in VII. APPENDIX. Mid-career conservators and allied professionals were invited to participate in the survey anonymously from October 1-31, 2020. A total of 66 people contributed, with 91% identifying as mid-career conservators, 85.7% identifying as female, and 85.7% identifying as White/Caucasian. The latter two self-identifiers correlate with the demographics of AIC membership, which in a 2007 AIC Strategic Planning Survey were 75.8% and 95.4% respectively.

Mid-career conservators who participated in the survey attended various graduate programs around the time of the Great Recession. The largest representation of survey participants were alumni of the Garman Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State (20.3%), The Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University (17.0%), or the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (18.6%).

Great Recession, Question #5

Figure 1. Question #5 was multiple-choice and answered by 59 of 66 survey participants. They responded as alumni of eight North American conservation programs. Each university is indicated on the graph by its nickname/acronym; full-length names for these institutions are available in VII. APPENDIX. Respondents who selected “Other” are graduates of the Complutense University of Madrid, Courtauld Institute of Art, Northumbria University, North Bennet Street School, University College London, and West Dean College.




As ECPs between 2008-2014, the majority of survey participants spent at least some time living in the Mid-Atlantic Region. This location data is unsurprising, considering that 69.5% of survey participants attended one of the five conservation programs based in New York or Delaware. The breakdown of other regions where people lived, attended school, and worked is listed in Figure 2.


Great Recession, Question #7

Figure 2. Question #7 was a multiple-choice response that was answered by all 66 survey participants. For more information about which U.S. states were included in each of the geographic regions, please reference VII. APPENDIX. The region “Northeast: Mid-Atlantic” was selected by 40 people, representing 60.6% of all survey participants. The next two most frequently selected responses were “West: Pacific Region” (25.8%) and “I lived/worked outside of the United States” (21.2%).



I.II. Pre-Program and Graduate Student Experiences

An individual’s career stage significantly impacted how they were affected by the reduction of job opportunities during the Great Recession. Pre-program individuals have always struggled to balance unpaid internships with paid secondary jobs. This is a problem that persists today, as reported in ECPN’s 2018 Compensation Survey, which recorded 40% of pre-program respondents were not considered full-time conservation employees.

During the Great Recession’s initial economic decline, the already limited number of pre-program conservation internships and entry-level museum positions in allied fields became significantly reduced. This made it more difficult for ECPs to find paid or unpaid opportunities within the field. Those who were unable to secure conservation internships, or found their internships cancelled, chose to pursue professional development activities (such as touring local conservation studios/labs or attending workshops), focus on graduate school prerequisites, or obtain experience in a related field (including galleries, archives, collections care, or interior design). Several ECPs also commented that this period contributed to a more competitive applicant pool for graduate school.

Those currently enrolled in graduate programs at the onset of the recession were able to retain access to internships, which were often unpaid. The graduate programs were also seen as invaluable for cultivating students’ professional networks, hand skills, and public speaking skills.


Great Recession, Question #2


Figure 3. Question #2 was answered by 58 of 66 survey participants. 26 people (39%) earned their conservation degree at the peak of the recession between 2007-2009, and 40 people (60%) earned their degree between 2007-2012.



When today’s mid-career professionals reflected on their internship years (both as pre-program interns and graduate students), most Great Recession survey respondents reported they were either uninsured, obtained student coverage through their university, or were covered under their parents’ health plan. In addition, some graduate students lost access to their university’s healthcare plan when they were forced to relocate for their final-year internship. One person in this situation stated: “there was no medical provider who would take my insurance. So I relied on the accessibility and sliding scale fee model of Planned Parenthood and a community health clinic to get medical care.”

I.III. Post-Graduate Job Market    

“When viewed solely through a short-term financial lens, conservation is expensive and does not generate revenue (though of course the preservation of collections is essential to any institution over the long-term). Thus, cuts to conservation budgets became a way to balance books in the immediate aftermath of the recession, and eventually became normalized over time.”

Great Recession, Figure 4
Figure 4. “COVID-19 Temporary Closure Sign” image courtesy of Keara Teeter
After graduation, ECPs typically began working in entry-level positions as a post-graduate fellow, project conservator based at an institution, or early-career professional in private practice. Finding a fellowship, contract, or permanent job became exceedingly difficult during the recession. ECPs commented that postings they saw were usually for low-paid technician positions or senior positions that required more experience. As a result, many of the graduates during this time lowered their expectations. Rather than expecting full-time jobs with benefits after graduating, they turned to the other available options: internships, technician positions, fellowships, limited-term contracts, or joined/started a private practice.

 

Respondents reported that the economic effects of the recession resulted in widespread institutional budget reductions and job loss. These effects created a job market that was increasingly competitive as the applicant pool of unemployed conservators grew. Increased competition for limited positions took a mental toll on conservators, since they had to dedicate significant time and expense to search and apply for jobs, and in some cases, travel to in-person interviews. Respondents reported that, as the job prospects shrunk, the need for a professional network grew. In addition to the time required to prepare and submit job applications (for which many applicants received no response or official rejections letters), ECPs had to spend a significant amount of time personally reaching out to institutions and professionals for guidance and employment suggestions. One survey respondent stated: “I began approaching institutions myself to see if they were interested in applying for a Kress Fellowship along with me. It was easier to talk an institution into offering a fellowship if I was willing to do parts of the application for them.”

ECPs who intended to continue working in the public sector generally attempted to extend their current positions or obtain new employment at another cultural heritage organization. They benefited from supervisors who:

  • Provided cover letter and CV critiques, mock interviews, and salary negotiation advice
  • Submitted grant applications on their behalf. Fellowship and contract funding sources that were mentioned by respondents include the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and Save America’s Treasures (SAT). Most of these grants were issued to cultural institutions, and those recipients used the funding to support paid opportunities for ECPs. For more information about 2021 funding resources, please visit https://www.culturalheritage.org/resources/funding.
  • Lobbied the upper-level administration to: increase the ECP’s weekly hours, extend their contract, or hire them into a permanent position

The increased importance of personal networking within the United States created a job market that disproportionately challenged US graduates of international programs. During this time, American students living and studying abroad reported increased issues with their visas, or other recession-driven economic problems, which resulted in a prematurely forced return to the United States. American graduates from international programs who  had planned their re-entry into the domestic job market prior to their graduation date reported that they still spent months job hunting. Most respondents found it too difficult to remain employed abroad or gain new employment outside the US,[1] citing the following: problems with establishing residency (citizenship, visas, green cards, etc.), language barriers, substantial economic burdens due to double taxation by the US and the country in which they currently resided, and international anti-LGBT laws. ECPs who were most likely to obtain international employment were already in another country on a student visa, had dual citizenship, or had established permanent residency outside the US.

Some ECPs, from both ANAGPIC and international programs, were able to maintain continuous employment until the economy started to recover. In certain cases, this resulted from good relationships and good fortune. In other cases, people choose to stay in undesirable positions because they felt there were no better alternatives. Those working at cultural heritage institutions observed tighter annual budgets which caused cuts to employee benefits, salary freezes/reductions, and staffing decreases (layoffs, furloughs, early retirement, etc.). Cost-saving measures, particularly staffing decreases, led to a loss of institutional knowledge and overextension of the remaining staff. Department funding was also affected through the delay or cancellation of equipment purchases, postponement of renovation plans, reduction in support for professional development opportunities, and restrictions on employee travel. Some institutions also began decreasing their in-house exhibitions and lending schedules. Meanwhile, other institutions ramped-up their demand for exhibitions as a means to generate revenue. This increase in demand generated “reliance on grant funded projects and short-term contract work.” Limited-term fellowships or contracts also “fill[ed] gaps in departments” caused by the staff decreases.

 

II. FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS

II.I. Compensation, Economic Instability, and Debt

“Whether you go into conservation or any other field, it’s your own responsibility to truly understand that life is unpredictable and prepare yourself mentally and physically (which includes a financial plan).”

Survey participants reported that financial instability during the Great Recession resulted from a combination of increased competition for positions, abundance of lower-paying positions, and general economic decline. Even though most respondents did not take out additional loans during these years (6.6% accrued student loans, 6.6% accrued personal loans, and 3.3% accrued business loans), those who had pre-existing loan debt found it difficult to contribute sufficient monthly payments. Multiple people “lived on” or “maxed out” their credit cards during this period.[2] They recalled that, as ECPs looking ahead to retirement, they were either unable or only minimally able to invest in savings plans.

Many respondents also mentioned the general lack of salary transparency for advertised positions, and they encouraged current ECPs to negotiate for salary and benefits before taking a position. For example, one person expressed regret at not realizing that other benefits, such as vacation time, could be negotiated for, even if a higher salary was not an option at the time.

It is important to note that this survey neglected to include questions about unemployment benefits or financial dependents. If those questions had been included, more data could have been obtained about: (1) unemployment eligibility restrictions, and (2) the ways ECPs were supporting themselves as well as their partners, spouses, and/or children.

II.II. Health Insurance Coverage

While some Great Recession survey respondents reported that they were offered health insurance as conservation fellows based at organizations/institutions, this was not true for all fellowship positions held between 2008-2014. This lack of employee benefits meant that, after graduating and losing their student coverage, a number of ECPs became uninsured. Even when respondents were covered by their employer, the positions were often of limited-term. Discontinuous employment, compounded with continuously relocating for limited-term positions, was not only a financial burden but also created health care insecurity, as one respondent stated:

“I made sure that I would end my position in the early part of a month, and start the next in the later part of the same month to ensure that my health coverage would overlap.”

Unemployment also restricted access to good quality health insurance. ECPs described finding affordable health insurance to be an immense hardship, both before and after the establishment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. Prior to the ACA, some ECPs obtained coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), while others did not qualify or could not afford COBRA’s monthly premiums. There was one exception noted by multiple respondents: ECPs living in Massachusetts could obtain affordable coverage through MassHealth.

Great Recession, Figure 5
Figure 5. “Health Insurance” image courtesy of 401(K) 2013. CC BY-SA 2.0
To view a copy of this license, please visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Some ECPs were uninsured, while others had only minimal insurance, such as catastrophic coverage, which has comparatively low monthly premiums but very high deductibles and only covers medical emergencies. The instability surrounding their healthcare coverage created elevated levels of stress and anxiety, which one respondent characterized as a “sleep-losing panic.” Without reliable healthcare coverage, respondents reported that non-emergency appointments, like preventive care and dental, were either delayed or foregone entirely. Healthcare insecurity also affected major life decisions for respondents, with some reporting they chose to postpone pregnancy due to lack of consistent coverage.

While some uninsured or underinsured ECPs reported that they remained healthy during this time, others had unexpected medical bills which caused them to experience financial insecurity and accrue debt. Unsurprisingly, these survey responses indicate that financial instability is inversely proportional to quality healthcare access. Lack of access can detrimentally affect a person’s physical health as well as their mental well-being.



III. CONSERVATORS IN PRIVATE PRACTICE

III.I. Entering Private Practice

Although private practice can be more profitable than working for an institution, very few ECPs reported that they had originally intended to pursue that route immediately after graduation. One respondent noted: “I never wanted to go into private practice, but when no other positions [we]re available, that was my only option.” 

This sentiment was echoed by many other survey participants. After the recession subsided, some respondents recalled new permanent positions being awarded to younger conservators with less experience “whom [the institutions] could pay less.” Looking back on this period, most mid-career professionals stated that they felt their graduate program had not prepared them for the job market, especially when entering the realm of private practice.[3] Their training lacked exposure to basic business principles, such as writing contracts/grants, requests for quotes (RFQs), invoices, and accounting.

ECPs who did not consider joining or starting a private practice during the Great Recession cited the following reasons:

  • Overall lack of feeling prepared to enter this work
  • Physical location and square-footage limitations due to a transient lifestyle
  • High start-up costs associated with acquiring the studio space, equipment, insurance (such as health, property, and fine arts insurance), and stock of conservation materials
  • Difficulty establishing a client base and/or lack of enjoyment working with private clients
  • Difficulty facing stigmas perpetuated by peers working at institutions

ECPs who did choose to enter private practice either began their own business or became sub-contractors for limited-term projects. People who obtained their own contracts were often supported by professional referrals, which included both “significant projects as well as ‘bread and butter’ work.” People who were able to sub-contract with an established private practice claimed that they found this arrangement provided them with valuable conservation experience. Others found sub-contracting difficult to break into because, due to the economic instability of the recession, some employers were reluctant to hire new conservators. ECPs who worked in the private sector benefited from supervisors (former and current) who:

  • Referred clients (Note for 2021 ECPs: contact your professional network as well as local institutions to notify people that you are looking for bids and private contracts)
  • Provided access to the use of certain equipment or materials
  • Covered travel and lodging costs associated with large projects
  • Sublet part of their private studio space

 

IV. NON-CONSERVATION EMPLOYMENT

IV.I. Alternate Employment

ECPs who were unable to obtain conservation jobs were forced to work outside the conservation field. For the survey participants, this gap in conservation employment generally lasted between 4 months to 2 years.[4] Respondents differed in how they chose to represent this  period of non-conservation employment in their CVs. While some respondents chose not to include those jobs, others wanted to include them “to discuss how it filled gaps in [their] skill sets . . . like managing budgets, communication, creating workflows, etc.

ECPs who worked non-conservation jobs, such as retail or customer service positions, had to make an effort to remain connected to the field. Respondents reported a variety of ways they maintained a connection and continued networking during this time:

  • Attended or volunteered for regional/national conservation groups
  • Enrolled in professional development workshops
  • Toured local conservation studios/labs
  • Attended gallery openings
  • Read conservation literature
  • Updated their portfolios

They also participated in remote networking activities, such as keeping in touch with their colleagues and mentors to stay updated on ECPN opportunities. During this period, some dedicated time to pursue and develop conservation presentations or publications, which they felt helped to establish their identity within the field or advertise their private practice. Others  were unable or refused to pursue presentations/publications because that work offered no financial compensation[5] and was difficult to accomplish “without the guidance of more experienced conservators around you, or with[out] a lab at your disposal.

ECPs who thought about transitioning away from the conservation field permanently considered careers in both allied and unrelated fields. Although most survey respondents noted that the majority of their graduate classmates are still working in the field, many also stated that it was common for at least one previous classmate to leave the field entirely.[6] Respondents reported differing reasons for their classmates’ desertion but generally cited personal choice, lack of positions, or forced layoffs. These departures from the field were not specifically correlated to the effects of the Great Recession.

Liberal arts jobs that respondents considered as alternate career paths included: window dressing for retail operations, graphic arts, interior design, archives/libraries,[7] registration, collection management, museum education, or teaching. Science-based jobs they considered as alternate career paths included: conservation science or analytical chemistry.[8] Unrelated positions that were considered as alternate career paths included: accountants, lawyers, dental technicians, medical administrators, doctors, food scientists, realtors, dog groomers, horse trainers, or stay-at-home parents. It is important to note these liberal arts, science, and unrelated career suggestions were submitted in response to Survey Question #22, which focuses on permanent career changes. Thus, these responses do not encompass the temporary positions that were acquired during the Great Recession to supplement underpaid fellowships or bridge gaps between full-time conservation employment.

 

IV.II. Gaps in Employment

Sadly, this survey revealed that continuous employment was not common, as many people experienced gaps between positions. During gaps in employment, some ECPs moved in with relatives or couch surfed with friends. Approximately 60.7% of all survey participants received some amount of financial assistance from a parent, partner, or spouse during these years; at least 26.2% of them received monthly assistance.[9]

 

Great Recession, Question #27


Figure 6. Question #27 was a single-choice inquiry about financial assistance. It was answered by 58 people and skipped by 8 people (5 left it blank and 3 submitted “prefer not to answer”). Of the respondents who selected “Other”, 14 of 16 indicated that they received some form of financial assistance. They cited interest-free loans from family members, non-direct monetary assistance from living with a parent/spouse, or receiving payments as a beneficiary of a life insurance plan. One respondent who selected “Other” stated that they did not receive financial assistance: “no, and in fact my partner and I lived together on my salary of less than $30k because he also did not have a job.”


During gaps in employment, most people were forced to compromise their standards. It was during this period that ECPs pursued private work, technician positions (for which they were overqualified/underpaid), volunteer work within conservation, or non-conservation jobs. The concept of pursuing volunteer work was a highly contested topic. Some people claimed volunteering “deepened the sense that conservators are undervalued . . .” while others claimed it helped open doors to future opportunities.

 

V. LESSONS LEARNED

V.I. Comparing the Past and Present Recessions

            There are many parallels between the Great Recession (2007-2009) and the COVID-19 Recession (2020-present). Under I.III. Post-Graduate Job Market, this report  identified that during the Great Recession “cultural heritage institutions observed tighter annual budgets which caused cuts to employee benefits, salary freezes/reductions, and staffing decreases (layoffs, furloughs, early retirement, etc.).” Preliminary data obtained from the 2020 AIC Membership COVID-19 Impact Survey[10] showed that 10.4% of respondents were experiencing one of the following employment statuses:

  • Unknown - waiting for announcement
  • Furloughed
  • Partial/intermittent furlough
  • Temporary contract not renewed
  • Temporarily laid off
  • Terminated
  • Other

A percent of these respondents were likely professionals working in private conservation businesses. The AIC group Conservators in Private Practice (CIPP) released their own member survey in fall 2020 and it showed:

75% [of survey respondents] were not personally laid off or furloughed as a result of the pandemic. Those that answered “yes” generally experienced between a two- and five-month period of unemployment, with several still furloughed or currently unemployed [in November 2020]; close to 50% (approximately 60) of this question’s respondents indicated that they had applied for financial assistance as a result of the pandemic.

In addition to affecting established private practice and museum professionals, the pandemic also reduced the availability of internships, fellowships, limited-term contracts, and new hire positions.[11] Under IV.I. Alternate Employment, this report discussed how during the Great Recession “ECPs who were unable to obtain conservation jobs were forced to work outside the conservation field.” It is important to note that a decade has passed since that time and ECPN’s 2018 Compensation Survey, which was collected a couple years prior to the COVID-19 Recession, shows that 17.5% of post-graduate respondents still hold an additional job outside of conservation.

Great Recession, Figure 7
Figure 7. “Supplemental Income” section of the 2021 AIC Annual Meeting Poster Knowledge is Power: Preliminary Takeaways from the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network 2018 Compensation Survey.


Even in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, most ECPs who had limited-term positions (such as internships, fellowships, or contracts) experienced job insecurity. Data from ECPN’s 2018 Compensation Survey showed that 186 of 383 respondents (48.5%) held limited-term positions. Of these limited-term ECPs, 33 respondents (17.7%) were confident they could remain at their workplace, 62 respondents (33.3%) knew they were unable to extend, and 64 respondents (34.4%) were unsure whether they could extend their position. The issue of job security has been compounded for ECPs due to remote and/or virtual only restrictions imposed during the pandemic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate students were  required to pivot to distance-learning instruction, were no longer able to attend in-person conferences, and were subjected to alteration/cancellation of their on-site summer internships or post-graduate fellowships. Many internships and fellowships were converted to a virtual format, modified to a hybrid model, or cancelled altogether.

Under II.II. Health Insurance Coverage, this report discussed uninsured/underinsured post-graduate conservation positions during the Great Recession, such as fellowships and limited-term contracts. For recent post-graduates today, the loss of student health insurance remains a major concern. The ECPN Compensation Resource includes fellowship postings from 2015-2021, and these records show an ongoing lack of consistent health coverage for emerging professionals in the United States. Some fellowships have benefits such as health/life insurance, transit reimbursement, retirement investments, or paid vacation. Some fellowships are listed as ineligible for benefits. A number of other fellowship job postings completely omit sharing information about benefits. ECPN’s 2018 Compensation Survey found that only a little more than half of respondents (57.5% of pre-programmers, graduate students, and post-graduate conservators) were provided benefits by their employer. Of those who received benefits, 98.2% were provided health insurance.

 

Great Recession, Figure 8

Figure 8. “Benefits” section of the 2021 AIC Annual Meeting Poster Knowledge is Power: Preliminary Takeaways from the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network 2018 Compensation Survey.


Under II.I. Compensation, Economic Instability, and Debt, this report discussed the “the general lack of salary transparency for advertised positions.” This is an issue that remains ubiquitous within our field during the present day. According to the ECPN Compensation Resource, some graduate students still remain unpaid by their internship hosts. Although many of the internship postings saved in the spreadsheets do provide a stipend, some postings do not include any compensation information. It is also important to note that the Compensation Resource does not encompass all graduate internships, as a number of hosting sites are not advertised online (some training programs help match their students with prospective internship sites). Additionally, many ECPs pursuing graduate internships or post-graduate employment are required to relocate for those positions. ECPN’s 2018 Compensation Survey revealed that, even though 60.5% of post-graduates reported they were required to move for a position, only 19% of them received financial support for relocation. Emerging professionals are beginning to push back against unpaid/low-paid positions by contributing to compensation initiatives such as the Art + Museum Transparency End Unpaid Internships Spreadsheet. ECPs in the United States have also begun responding to non-transparent job ads on AIC’s Higher Logic platform by sharing the 2015 article When you don't disclose salary range on a job posting, a unicorn loses its wings. For further information about salary transparency, please see the 2019 blog Empowering Change Through Salary Advocacy and Negotiation and 2020 recorded workshop Making the Ask: Developing Negotiation Tactics in the Field of Conservation.

 

V.II. Feedback for ECPs in 2021

Mid-career conservators who participated in this retrospective survey were honest and generous with their advice. Numerous respondents describe their career as “unstable” or filled with “a LOT of rejection and heartache” and “a lot of sacrifices”, but at the same time, many  described how they enjoyed their conservation work. Here are excerpts from their general comments:

  • “I feel so bad for all the emerging conservators right now. This is an awful time to be starting out in the field. Whenever you can, join a union.”
  • “[B]e aware that working in conservation takes hustle and sacrifice, and if you’re not willing to accept that risk, then this is the wrong field for you.”
  • “You’re allowed to make decisions for what is best for YOU - shifting gears, prioritizing your partner’s job, refusing to move to a place you don’t want to go.”
  • “If you can, be as flexible as possible when looking for opportunities and be proactive in developing your skill set.”
  • “Pick a job that pays better?”
  • “The reality is that the salary disparities out there, especially in institutions, are enormous. It is also the reality that there is always going to be someone willing to take that job for less money. You have to sell yourself. You have to make them want you specifically and negotiate for your needs from that position. Don’t ignore a posting with low numbers or simply state a salary requirement and walk away if it’s not met. Approach it as a dialogue.”
  • “It helps to realize that rejection has more to do with chance/luck than with you and your abilities. And don’t lose hope. Sometimes it can take a lot longer to get a job or position than you think it should.”
  • “There are a lot of things we can’t control, but have courage and stay true to yourself.”
  • “It is going to be a struggle. It will take all of your energy to get into school, and then to get through school, and then to navigate post graduate life. But it will be worth it to have a job that you love.”

Additionally, there were many targeted responses for present-day ECPs who are considering private practice. These responses provided guidance on topics ranging from how to network and promote oneself (to institutions and the public) to how to approach the legal and financial aspects of a business. The following excerpts represent an overview of this feedback:

  • “Become an AIC PA [Professional Associate] as soon as possible so you can be listed in Find a Conservator.”
  • “Talk to your local museums and private galleries. Show them your portfolio or website and ask them to refer you.”
  • “Use social media as much as possible to self promote.”
  • “Network as much as possible. Cold call or email anyone who you are interested in working with, or who might be able to recommend you.”
  • “If you had a positive work experience at and a good relationship with a conservation lab/museum, let that staff know you are accepting private work.”
  • “Network and outreach! Some of my best private work wasn’t treatment (which can have high overhead costs) but consulting on disaster planning, preventive preservation, and move preparation. This is where those associated skills are vital.”
  • “Start small . . . Use the profits from your jobs to buy supplies and equipment as you need it.”
  • “I would advise looking into forming an LLC so that you can limit liability and protect your personal assets in the case of a lawsuit.”
  • “Spend the time and effort to get an excellent contract template to start off with a client.”

 

V.III. Conclusions

Reflecting back on the Great Recession, today’s mid-career cultural heritage professionals identified their biggest challenge to be financial insecurity, which was compounded by physical and mental/emotional stress. In response to this time of difficulty, respondents learned to adapt by becoming more comfortable with self-advocacy and practicing patience. They also cautioned that, in the face of increased instability and competition, they learned to: cope with rejection, develop both mental and physical stamina, and establish personal and professional limits to protect their mental health. Everyone experienced the effects of the Great Recession differently, and there was no general consensus on the recovery period for cultural heritage institutions.[12] Respondents explained that both luck and timing helped them progress onto the next phase of their professional careers. Although “luck and timing” are impossible for an ECP to control, respondents advised that, in some cases, the “good timing” they experienced was directly linked to support from their personal and professional networks.

Ongoing assistance and encouragement that ECPs received from their former and current mentors helped to alleviate some anxiety, but uncertainty and stress were never completely eliminated. Survey respondents commented that they appreciated when their mentors offered: practical advice (even if that advice differed between supervisors), email correspondence with forwarded job announcements, written letters of recommendation, or other types of professional referrals. This support helped ECPs network, gain skills through professional development opportunities, and in some cases, obtain employment. Unfortunately, it must be acknowledged that not everyone received this same support. In both public and private-sector positions, some respondents described apathetic supervisors or upper-level management who were unable to sympathize with the struggles of entering the field in an economic recession. One respondent described a supervisor who simply “didn’t understand (or couldn’t remember) the fear and anxiety that comes with an uncertain future.” This lack of support was detrimental to both ECPs’ productivity at work as well as their mental and emotional state at home.

ECPs who want to maintain or improve upon their professional networks in 2021 should keep communication lines open with past mentors and participate in conservation community events, such as those locally hosted by AIC Regional Groups or ECPN Regional Liaisons. For additional networking tips, please consult the ECPN Tips Sheets and ECPN Wiki.

Great Recession, Figure 9
Figure 9. Cover of AIC News, Nov. 2020, Vol. 45(6)

For more private practice business advice, you are welcome to watch the 2013 ECPN webinar Setting up a Private Practice – Q&A. To learn how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting American conservators, please see AIC’s webpage on the COVID-19 Pandemic, the recent AIC News article Impact of COVID-19 on Conservators in Private Practice, and be on the lookout for an upcoming final report on the AIC Membership COVID-19 Impact Survey.

ECPN would also like to highlight an ECP resource that is being prepared by the Institute of Conservation (Icon), an organization based in the United Kingdom. Later this year, Icon's Emerging Professional Network (EPN) aims to release results gathered from their survey: Impact of COVID-19 on Emerging Conservation Professionals.

 

VI. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors would like to thank everyone who contributed to this project. First, we want to recognize the 2020-21 ECPN Outreach Officers, Graduate Liaisons, and Regional Liaisons who helped solicit questions from current-day ECPs across the country. Those questions were reviewed and compiled into the ECPN Retrospective of the Great Recession survey, which was released in October 2020 on AIC’s Higher Logic platform. We are also extremely grateful to the mid-career professionals who submitted survey responses, including our 8 beta testers and 58 general participants. And finally, we want to thank 2020 UCLA/Getty Alumna Kasey Hamilton, AIC COVID-19 Impact Survey Organizer Sarah Reidell, AIC Board Liaison Molly Gleeson, AIC Staff Liaison Katelin Lee, and ECPN Education & Training Committee (ETC) Liaison Céline Wachsmuth, each of whom provided feedback for the preliminary survey questions and/or this final survey report.

 

VII. APPENDIX

VII.I. ECPN Retrospective of the Great Recession Survey Questions

  1. I work as a . . . (select one): ① Mid-Career Conservator; ② Mid-Career Allied Professional; ③ Other
  2. Conservators: which year did you earn your conservation degree (format: YYYY)?
  3. Allied professionals: which year did you earn your degree (format: YYYY)?
  4. Allied professionals: which institution did you attend and what degree did you earn?
  5. Conservators: which graduate program did you attend? (multiple choice): ① International Conservation Program (outside North America); ② Buffalo State College; ③ Columbia University; ④ Fashion Institute of Technology; ⑤ New York University; ⑥ Queen's University; ⑦ University of California, Los Angeles/Getty; ⑧ University of Pennsylvania; ⑨ University of Texas at Austin; ⑩ Winterthur/University of Delaware); ⑪ Other program
  6. What were your emerging professional career stages between 2008-2014? (multiple choice): ① Undergraduate student; ② Pre-program conservation volunteer (unpaid); ③ Pre-program conservation intern (paid); ④ Conservation technician (paid); ⑤ Graduate student (conservation program); ⑥ Graduate student (non-conservation discipline); ⑦ Graduate conservation intern (summers and/or final year of graduate program); ⑧ Graduate intern in allied field (unpaid); ⑨ Graduate intern in allied field (paid); ⑩ Post-graduate conservation volunteer (unpaid); ⑪ Post-graduate conservation fellow (paid); ⑫ Post-graduate fellow in allied field (unpaid); ⑬ Post-graduate fellow in allied field (paid); ⑭ Private practice conservator; ⑮ Institution Conservator (permanent); ⑯ Institution Conservator (contract); ⑰ Unemployed; ⑱ Other
  7. In which U.S. regions did you live, attend school, and work between 2008-2014? (multiple choice): ① West: Pacific Region (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA); ② West: Mountain Region (CO, ID, MT, NV, UT, WY); ③ Midwest: West of Mississippi River (IA, KS, MO, MN, ND, NE, SD); ④ Midwest: East of Mississippi River (IL, IN, MI, OH, WI); ⑤ Northeast: New England (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT); ⑥ Northeast: Mid-Atlantic Region (DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA, VA, WV); ⑦ South: West of Mississippi River (AZ, AR, LA, NM, OK, TX); ⑧ South: East of Mississippi River (AL, FL, MS, KY, GA, NC, SC, TN); ⑨ I lived/worked outside of the United States
  8. How did the Recession affect your immediate and/or long term goals? What were the biggest challenges you faced?
  9. How did you move past these challenges to recover? What were the most useful things (training, experience, daily mantra) that helped you through this time?
  10. How did you adapt to the reduction of available pre-program internships, graduate internships, and/or fellowships? If you had a gap between positions, did you add non-conservation work into your CV?
  11. What challenges did you encounter related to health insurance coverage, particularly as it relates to internships, short-term contracts, or other temporary placements across state lines?
  12. How did your graduate program prepare you for the job market during and post graduation? In your opinion, what should be added to the conservation training curriculum to prepare students for uncertain job markets?
  13. If you attended an international graduate program, what was that general experience like during that time, especially if you returned to work in the US?
  14. How long do you believe it took for cultural heritage institutions to recover from the economic loss caused by the Great Recession? (select one): ① 1-3 years; ② 4-6 years; ③ 7-9 years; ④ Cultural institutions did not recover before the 2020 economic crisis
  15. From your perspective, how did the recession affect conservation professionals working in cultural heritage institutions (museums, conservation centers, libraries, archaeological sites, etc.)?
  16. As a postgraduate conservator, how did you balance flexibility in the job market but not compromise your standards (such as accepting work that you were overqualified for including volunteering, technician jobs, or working for a low salary)?
  17. How can post-graduates navigate negotiations about salaries and contracts in 2020? It is well known that all institutions are struggling and some have had to cut entire conservation departments.
  18. If you considered going into private practice, how did the recession affect your goals? Was private practice harder to enter, or was it a better alternative to finding jobs at institutions?
  19. What advice do you have for recent graduates who are looking to take on more private work to supplement their income in 2020 (specifically advertising yourself and finding clients)?
  20. Did a more established professional do anything on your behalf while you were struggling to find work? If so, what was helpful?
  21. If you had to find temporary jobs outside of conservation to supplement your income, how did you stay connected to the field? How long did it take to find employment within the conservation field?
  22. Did you think about transitioning away from the conservation field permanently? If so, what career did you consider?
  23. Did you search for job opportunities outside the US? If so, how did you navigate that situation?
  24. If you couldn't find work in the conservation field, did you focus on presentations or publishing? Did this help you acquire a job later?
  25. Were you aware of grants or other external funding sources that persisted during the recession?
  26. Did you take out a loan to help cover expenses that accrued as a result of the recession? (multiple choice): Yes, business loan; Yes, personal loan; Yes, student loan; No; Prefer not to answer; Other
  27. Did you receive financial assistance from another source (partner/spouse, parent, etc.) to help cover expenses that accrued as a result of the recession? (select one): Yes, monthly; Yes, once or twice per year; Yes, less than once per year; ④  No; Prefer not to answer; Other
  28. How many people that you graduated with are still working in conservation? Was this a personal choice or a forced outcome?
  29. If you were to give one piece of advice to your previous self, or to an emerging conservation professional today, what would it be?
  30. I identify as (select one): Female; Male; Non-binary/Third Gender; ④  Prefer not to answer; Prefer to self-identify
  31. I identify as (multiple choice): American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian or Asian American; Black or African American; ④  Hispanic or Latinx; Middle Eastern; Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; White or Caucasian; Prefer not to answer; I identify as:
  32. Other comments?


VII.II. Endnotes

[1]  Survey Question #23 was a paragraph-style inquiry about international employment. It was answered by 39 people and skipped by 27 people (20 left it blank and 7 submitted “N/A”). The yes/no responses about searching for job opportunities outside the US were evenly split (19 “Yes” and 20 “No”).

[2]  Survey Question #26 was a multiple-choice inquiry about loans. It was answered by 61 people (together they submitted 67 responses) and skipped by 5 people (all left it blank). During the Great Recession, 67% of respondents stated they did not accrue more student loans, personal loans, or business loans. The most frequent submission in the “Other” category was credit card debt; 9% of respondents went into credit card debt, which is a higher rate than any of the other three loan categories.

[3]  This lack of preparedness did not apply to most architectural conservators since private practice businesses are that specialty’s dominant pathway. It should also be noted that some mid-career professionals did not believe that the graduate programs should be tasked with preparing students for uncertain job markets.

[4]  Survey Question #21 was a paragraph-style inquiry about temporary employment. It was answered by 28 people and skipped by 38 people (23 left it blank and 15 submitted “N/A”).

[5]  Survey Question #24 was a paragraph-style inquiry about presentations/publishing. It was answered by 22 people and skipped by 44 people (22 left it blank and 22 submitted “N/A”). About half of the respondents (10 of 22) did not focus on presentations/publishing since that work would not contribute to monthly income.

[6]  Survey Question #28 was a paragraph-style inquiry about conservation graduates’ classmates who are still working in conservation. It was answered by 52 people and skipped by 14 people (23 left it blank and 15 submitted “N/A”).

[7]  University of Texas at Austin graduates who earned a Master of Science in Information Studies were qualified to work as reference librarians (the UT Austin library conservation program existed from 1992-2009). Graduates of other conservation programs may need more schooling in library science or a related field before transitioning into an archivist or librarian position.

[8]  Survey Question #22 was a paragraph-style inquiry directed towards conservators who considered leaving the field for another career. It was answered by 46 people and skipped by 20 people (19 left it blank and 1 submitted “N/A”). The yes/no responses about considering non-conservation careers were evenly split (26 “Yes” and 20 “No”).

[9]  Survey Question #27 was a single-choice inquiry about financial assistance. It was answered by 58 people and skipped by 8 people (5 left it blank and 3 submitted “prefer not to answer”). Although 16 of 66 survey participants (24%) selected “Yes, monthly”, the actual percent of ECPs who were receiving monthly assistance is likely higher than reported, as estimated from reviewing the “Other” category responses.

[10]  The AIC Impact Survey was subdivided into four parts. Part I gathered 908 responses from May 1-15, 2020 and was the preliminary data summarized during AIC’s premiere Virtual Conference Business Meeting.

[11]  From the preliminary AIC Impact Survey data, 21.56% of institution-employed respondents reported that their workplace had withdrawn internships or fellowships and 44.21% of institution-employed respondents reported that their workplace had initiated hiring freezes.

[12]  Survey Question #14 was a single-choice inquiry about cultural institutions’ recovery period. It was answered by 61 people and skipped by 5 people (all left it blank). Very few people believed that the recovery period was between 1-3 years (7%). Most people were split between 4-6 years (39%), 7-9 years (23%), or selecting that recovery did not occur before the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis (31%).


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