Arts Grads Find Fulfilling Careers

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Young people considering a career in the arts can take some encouragement from a survey (PDF) that was released this week, showing that arts degrees can lead to satisfying careers. The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), which conducted the survey, is a research project of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, in collaboration with the Vanderbilt University Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy.

The researchers surveyed 13,581 alumni of 154 arts high schools, arts colleges and conservatories, and arts schools and departments within universities. The disciplines included all of the arts: fine arts, theater, dance, music, creative writing, media arts, film, design, and architecture.

The respondents felt good about their education, with 90% reporting that their overall experience at their institution was either good or excellent and 76% saying they would attend the same institution again.

Perhaps the single most heartening finding was that 92% of those who wish to work currently are employed, and most found employment soon after graduating. Two-thirds said their first job was a close match for the kind of work they wanted. And almost three-quarters (74%) of those who intended to work as a professional artist had done so at some point since graduating.

However, professional artists don’t work under the same arrangements as most accountants or insurance agents. More than six in ten of them were self-employed at some point, and more than half of those currently working as professional artists hold at least two jobs. (Contrary to the stereotype, only 3% of them are working in food service.)

Job security is a problem, with only one-third of the professional artists reporting satisfaction with that aspect of their work. On the other hand, many said they were very satisfied with the opportunities their job offered them to do work that reflected their personality, interests and values: 80% of fine artists, 71% of photographers, 68% of dancers or choreographers, 68% of actors, and 61% of musicians. By contrast, only one-third of art directors, graphic designers, and Web designers reported the same sense of satisfaction. Apparently working against deadlines for clients is not as fulfilling, although it can offer more employment opportunities.

Although many of the alumni are not working in the arts industry as such, 54% of these said their arts training is relevant to the job in which they spend the majority of their time. Their main reason for not working as artists was lack of employment. Another important factor was debt, including student loans. Of those who had worked as professional artists but later changed course, more than half said they did so because of higher pay or more job security outside the arts. It’s significant that 71% of those not currently working as professional artists nevertheless continue to make or publicly perform their art.

Arts alumni also transmit their skills and knowledge to others. Slightly more than half have taught in the arts at some time in their careers. Thirty-seven percent of them have volunteered at an arts organization, compared to 2% of the general population.

I admit a personal interest in this survey because my daughter is an art school graduate who decided to make her career in a completely different field, teaching English as a second language (ESL). It’s significant that in the classes she taught as a teaching assistant in her master’s program, she incorporated some of the concepts she learned in art school, showing her students examples of artistic rhetoric as well as verbal rhetoric. She has applied for a job teaching ESL at an art institute, and even if she doesn’t get that job (although it’s hard to think how anyone could be more qualified--okay, I’m not objective about this!), I’m sure her work and leisure activities will benefit from her skills and interest in art.

If you are the parent of a child who is planning to study the arts, I hope this survey reduces some of your parental anxieties. Your son or daughter is not necessarily fated to starve in a garret.


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