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A Positive Outlook for Arts Graduates

In October 2014, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), based in the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, released a major report on career prospects and experiences for graduates in the arts. Called Making It Work: The Education and Employment of Recent Arts Graduates, the report analyzes data from a recent survey of 88,000 individuals—17,000 being recent graduates, defined as those who finished a bachelor’s degree within the last five years—from nearly 300 institutions of higher education.

For Making It Work, SNAAP defined “artist” broadly and inclusively, covering fine and studio art, design, illustration, architecture, film, photography, performance, choreography and dance, creative writing, and music composition and performance. The report is surprisingly upbeat. For example, the first job of 80 percent of recent graduates (and 82 percent of older graduates) are “closely related” or “somewhat related” to their education, and 75 percent of recent and 82 percent of nonrecent graduates are satisfied with the job in which they spend the majority of their time. Graduates also found work in arts-related fields: 65 percent of recent alumni and 68 percent of distant alumni.

Nevertheless, the SNAAP report casts a few shadows across the arts. Most notably, rising student debt for recent graduates has greatly influenced their career decisions, and alumni have expressed a need for better training in teaching, entrepreneurship, and finance. In addition, 56 percent of recent graduates left the arts altogether because they couldn’t find work as an artist (compared to 36 percent of older graduates), and 49 percent of them took a higher-paying job or found steadier income in another field (59 percent of older graduates reported this).

For the Q&A below, CAA’s Christopher Howard corresponded with Steven J. Tepper, SNAAP research director and dean of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and Sally Gaskill, SNAAP director, via email. Here’s what they had to say.

Are there schools doing an excellent job helping students prepare for a career in the arts? If so, which ones? Why do you think they are succeeding?

We provide examples of best practices—schools that are using their SNAAP data to make changes—on our website. Here are some examples.

The University of Utah, which participated in SNAAP in 2010 and 2013, noted that arts students had lower satisfaction with career advising and leadership opportunities. School officials then developed and funded an Emerging Leaders Program, which includes both a paid internship program and an Emerging Leaders Council.

When Virginia Commonwealth University found discrepancies in business skills used versus skills learned and, in 2013, the school responded by introducing a new minor in creative entrepreneurship. The program’s mission is “designed to prepare undergraduate majors in the creative disciplines to lead their careers and lives as entrepreneurs in the highly connected and complex commercial environment of creative activities.”

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst created a new curriculum in business and arts entrepreneurship for their arts students, who worked collaboratively with the Arts Extension Service on their campus to develop and teach courses that lead to an arts management certificate.

Ultimately, schools need to help students expand their occupational imagination. Most students have a very limited sense of what type of job they might pursue post graduation. The reality, based on SNAAP data, is that hundreds of career paths exist for every degree. Schools must help students see this field of possibilities.

Finally, the schools that are succeeding in preparing their graduates for the twenty-first-century world of work are those that expose their graduates to a broad range of tools and experiences, rather than only to disciplinary knowledge and expertise. The BA in the arts at Arizona State University is an example of a school providing students with more options to study across artistic disciplines and to supplement their core studio and performance classes.

How should schools respond to a potential disconnection between field of study and postgraduate employment in that field? How have they responded?

First, arts schools should realize that their graduates are just as likely to work in a field related to their degree as most every other graduate—whether accounting, biology, or political science. About 50 percent of all graduates end up working in jobs unrelated to their field of study. We are facing an economy in which people expect to change jobs every three years. One economic forecast suggests that close to half of current jobs will no longer exist twenty years from now. Schools should focus on the core creative and critical competencies that their students are learning through their arts and design training. And, importantly, schools should help students see these competencies as flexible and portable across jobs, sectors, and fields.

Does the SNAAP survey track geographic migration? That is to say, can you tell where arts graduates stayed after completing their degree and where others have moved?

We know the location of the institution where they received their degree, and we know where they are now. We also ask this question: “Within the first five years after leaving this institution, did you take up residency in the town/city where your institution is located to pursue your career?” Responses to this question, according to the 2011–13 dataset, are as follows:

Yes – 22 percent of arts high school graduates
Yes – 33 percent from the undergraduate level
Yes – 37 percent from the graduate level

A University of Chicago study using SNAAP data produced a report on arts graduates of Chicago institutions and compared their “retention” rates to other metro areas. This DataBrief links to the report.

Another good resource to understand where artists live and where they move is Ann Markusen’s study “Artists Work Everywhere” in the special issue of Work and Occupations from 2013, edited by Steven Tepper and Elizabeth Lingo. Markusen is an economist and SNAAP board member.

Another recently released study, by BFAMFAPhD, is not as positive as the SNAAP report. That study laments the fact that most artists don’t earn their primary income from their artistic work, claiming that only 10 percent of arts graduates make a living in their chosen fields. How do you square such findings with those by SNAAP, which asserts that graduates are finding fulfilling employment in the arts?

There are some major differences in the two datasets and therefore in the conclusions. First, the BFAMFAPhD report has a more restrictive database of arts alumni than SNAAP. We include those with degrees in design, architecture, arts education, and arts administration. Second, SNAAP believes that the American Community Survey (used by the BFAMFAPhD study) undercounts professional artists, because it poses this question to determine employment: “LAST WEEK, did this person work for pay at a job (or business)?” We find this question problematic for many working artists, who may or may not have been paid “last week” for a commission, gallery sale, performance, etc.

The BFAMFAPHD report is important because it highlights that many working artists do not necessarily have a degree in the arts or a college degree at all; the report also points out the problems of rising debt levels. But, their report tells us very little about how arts graduates actually piece together work in the current economy. The report is not a good representation of the realities of working as an artist, which involve contract and contingent work, and where arts graduates are working multiple jobs, across sectors and fields, and putting together rich and diverse careers. These factors are not captured by the narrow employment questions asked in the American Community Survey.

Has SNAAP identified what was overlooked or omitted in the most recent survey?

We feel the survey is pretty comprehensive. We are, however, developing modules that can be added to the end of the regular core survey to allow schools to dive deeper into some topics. The current modules in production for the 2015 SNAAP survey include one on skills and career development,, especially focusing on entrepreneurial skills, and another on internships. We are also partnering with the National Survey of Student Engagement this spring to offer a module (see page 2) to graduating seniors from over one hundred institutions nationwide, asking questions about the transitions from school to work.

Is the issue of student debt limited to degrees in the arts?

Certainly not. Our data are reflective of a bigger problem throughout higher education. Arts graduates may perhaps be singled out more because the public perceives they will have little or no income as artists, and therefore the debt issue is much worse for them. Our data do not bear this out. However, we do find that debt is an important factor that limits graduates ability to work as professional artists and, importantly, the impact of debt is greater for graduates from underrepresented backgrounds (ethnic minorities and those from lower income households). See SNAAP’s 2013 annual report on inequalities.

Is there a need for educational programs that help students finance their education before going to school, and to secure funding during their education?

Most schools have support services to help students who are finding it difficult to pay tuition and related costs. But, many students are unaware of these services and unaware that their school can often find money to help bridge short-term gaps. Students need to ask for help at the beginning of their college careers—not when they begin to feel under water.

How has socially engaged art (also known as social practice) influenced community engagement by arts graduates?

SNAAP data do not shed any light on this question per se, but our data do show the high levels of community engagement by arts graduates of all ages. Studies show that Millennials have an increased desire to do work that is purpose driven and that makes a difference in their communities. Arts graduates are no different.

How necessary is it for visual artists to align with those in other creative fields, such as writing, performance, music, and theater, when advocating change, both within and outside academic institutions?

We have observed a growing trend that visual artists are interested in cross-disciplinary work. To be most effective in advocacy, numbers are important—so yes, it makes sense to align with the other creative fields. In fact, a relatively new organization, the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, was founded on the premise that cross-disciplinary research is critical and need support.

According to the BFAMFAPhD study, working artists are overwhelmingly male and white. How do your more positive diversity figures compare?

There is mounting evidence that a wide gap exists between the country’s demographics and the demographics of our artists and designers. Minorities are less likely to major in the arts in school, and the artistic workforce is less diverse than the workforce overall. SNAAP actually finds that nonwhite graduates, holding debt constant, are almost equally likely to become artists as white graduates. However, we find women continue to face barriers compared to men—with far fewer earning a majority of their income as professional artists and with their average wages far below men.

How might an organization like CAA help recent and nonrecent graduates? How can we empower students, recent grads, and older grads to better manage their finances? What else can we do to smash the myth of the starving artist?

CAA can highlight best practices at conference sessions for faculty members and administrators. Importantly, CAA can link to SNAAP findings and can help faculty better understand the realities that our graduates face as they enter the world of work. Every faculty member that engages with students studying in the arts should openly and honestly talk about the realities of working as an artist. The evidence from SNAAP is largely positive, and we know that graduates find meaningful work and are satisfied with their lives and choices. But we must help students expand their occupational imaginations and, importantly, expand our own definitions of what we consider to be success. The more narrow our definitions of artistic success, the harder it will be for our graduates to see the opportunities open to them.

1. Ann Markusen, “Artists Work Everywhere,” Work and Occupations 40, no. 4 (November 2013): 481–95.

Originally published on the CAA website on February 10, 2015.