“Few and Far” photo taken by Bill Dickinson

Title: Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists

Author(s): Susan Jahoda, Blair Murphy, Vicky Virgin, Caroline Woolard

Publisher: BFAMFAPhD

Year: 2014

URL: http://bfamfaphd.com/

Topics: arts degrees, debt from arts degrees, the lives of working artists

Methods: Summary statistics from data from US Census’ 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) Public Use Micro Sample (PUMS).

What it says: Only 16% of working artists in the United States have arts-related bachelor’s degrees. Forty percent of working artists over the age of 25 do not have bachelor’s degrees in any field, and the remaining 44 percent have bachelor’s degrees in other fields. Of the two million annual arts graduates, two hundred thousand make their primary living as an artist. The median income of working artists is $30,621, but those with bachelor’s degrees have median earnings that are higher at $36,105. Arts grads’ debt loads tend to be higher than non-arts grads, and some of the best arts schools in the country have shockingly high student loan default rates. Those pursuing arts bachelor’s degrees are largely white and female, and the majority (54 percent) of working artists are male. The report makes three recommendations for the art schools and the field:

  • While the majority of working artists do not have arts degrees, formal arts education is still a valuable way of building critical thinking, skill building, and other competencies that would be difficult to gain outside of formal school. The authors encourage those seeking arts degrees to seek low-cost or free options instead of expensive schools.
  • Philanthropic and cultural institutions should look beyond higher education for emerging talent.
  • Encourage groups of working artists without degrees and those with arts degrees to share and learn from one another.

What I think about it: These statistics do not include those with Master’s degrees or higher in the arts because of the way the Census collects data about educational attainment, and the methodology on earnings does not include those who make their livings as designers or architects. I wonder how many of those who do not have bachelor’s degrees in arts-related subjects went on to get MFAs. The choice to exclude architects and designers also seems like it would exclude some high earners in fields that typically require or heavily favor those with formal arts education.

Additionally, I wonder about how the statistics on the probability of artists attaining degrees compares to the rest of the labor market. In the United States, just about a third of people over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree, and in the labor market, a proportion of 60% of people with a bachelor’s degree puts it on the higher end of educational attainment in terms of professions. Further, I wonder how often people in other professions tend to stay in the same field as their college major, which would contextualize the other figures they cite in the report about the educational background of artists. I recognize that this is meant to be a critique of the conventional wisdom of a particular group of people about pursuing arts in higher education, but without some context about earnings and degrees in the United States, I think the findings and the interpretation can be distorted.

What it all means: The findings on the relatively high debt load for arts graduates combined with the seemingly low probability that those graduates will go on to become working artists presents troubling evidence for those considering higher education in the arts. Further, that seven of the ten most expensive colleges in the country after financial aid are art schools is evidence that arts students are over paying for their degrees. However, without additional context to compare these findings to the rest of the labor market, it’s hard to really understand whether we should think the proportions of holding an arts job or an arts degree in the arts profession are high or low.