When a student expresses a passion for the arts, adults often become anxious about their future. What if the student decides to pursue a major in the arts? If they do, will they end up on an unstable career path that will lead inevitably to underemployment, disappointment, and struggle? These are concerns I commonly hear.
I am an artist and educator who has gained some insight from my own experiences and has observed how fellow artists have managed their art careers. I also advise students who are interested in the arts at the high school where I teach.
Career paths in the arts can be daunting for both students and their parents to contemplate, but according to research by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), employment and job satisfaction for art major alumni are on par with those of other college graduates. The research indicates that art majors are well equipped for our current dynamic job market, in which job and career hopping have become the norm. In truth, I believe that the ability to be creative in designing a career is one of the major benefits of majoring in the arts.
Listening to and reflecting with students as they decide whether to go to a school dedicated to the arts or to a liberal arts college is a good first step in supporting these students. In these conversations, you can also propose community colleges, technical schools, and science and engineering schools that have solid art programs. Depending upon a student’s specific range of interests, some schools might be more suitable than others. Students who have a wide range of interests or who are undecided about art might be better off at schools that have more options than the arts.
The Liberal Arts College Route: There are students looking to go into a career in the arts who will find a liberal arts college environment beneficial. Studying other disciplines might help them gain a more secure income by giving them non-art-related skills in areas such as business or engineering. I’ve seen this in fellow artists and former students: Artists are often inspired by fields outside of the arts, and exposure to those other fields of study serves to deepen their artistic practice.
The Full Immersion Art School Experience: There are students who will really thrive in a full immersion experience. Quite often, artistic students feel marginalized in high school. There is also a perception in many education communities that art is somehow less challenging or serious than other disciplines. This perception can make artistic students feel as if they have to prove themselves in other fields or get used to being taken less seriously academically.
However, full immersion art school flips that script. It allows students to dive deeper into their artistic discipline of choice and puts them in the center of the action, so to speak. In my observations, this elevates their confidence tremendously. A full immersion art school provides a community of advisors, collaborators, and future colleagues that serves as a solid support while at school and beyond graduation.
An art school’s professional network is often better equipped than other types of schools to help students find careers after graduation. Their resources of alumni and professional arts organizations are usually broader and savvier about the professional art world. Also, art schools often have partnerships with arts-oriented businesses such as advertising firms or film studios that support the school and students through internships, fundraising, and job recruitment.
Advising and Encouraging
It’s worth being realistic about the career paths of most art majors after graduating. Making it as a professional in the performing and visual arts is tough in terms of job opportunities. Much of the professional work is on contract, meaning that those who are willing to do the legwork of getting business and handling their own finances are more likely to succeed. Teaching and tutoring play a big part in many artistic career paths. Teaching allows professional artists to stay close to their disciplines and have a more flexible schedule to pursue their own practice.
The growth of the internet has made it easier to promote one’s artistic talents and build a network. Many artists who were once part of professional agencies and galleries can now promote and sell their talents independently online. The savvy student will begin utilizing their online social networks not just as entertainment but also as a means to share what they love and do artistically. Advising students to seek out professional social networks in their field is a smart move.
While a student may be nervous about pursing the arts in college, we can arm them with information so that they can make the best decision. Encourage and assist with internet searches for schools that specialize in the the specific field the student is interested in (for example, animation, cinematography, drawing, or fashion).
I’d love to hear from those of you who majored in the arts. How has your career taken shape since graduation, and how has it served you in your career? If you’re an educator, how do you encourage and support the young artists you teach?