Studies Indicate Arts Degrees May Be Worth It

Recently on the NEA Quick Study podcast Sunil Iyengar, Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts shared data that indicated getting an arts degree can be worth it for artists.   For the purpose of these studies, arts industries were defined as “motion picture, video industries, sound recording, architecture, design services, performing arts and related industries, museums, art galleries, historical sites and similar institutions.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the most recent employment data (from mid-Covid 2021) showed that people with undergraduate degrees in the arts had an unemployment rate of 7.5% vs the 4.3% rate for general undergraduate degree holders.

However, those who had arts degrees fared better than artists who didn’t have specialized arts degrees in both employment and earnings. (my emphasis)

“…artists who lack a college degree are more likely to be unemployed than those who do not. Also, artists without college degrees have lower average incomes than non-degree holders. Again, not surprising. We know that education is highly correlated with income for most types of worker. But then Woronkowicz finds that artists who have arts degrees have higher incomes on average than those with a non-arts bachelor’s degree. She also finds that artists with arts degrees are more likely than non-arts degree holders to work in an arts industry. This tells us perhaps that when it comes to occupations and industries, the arts are very similar to other fields of specialized knowledge in at least this respect. The pursuit of a degree in an arts field improves on average the career prospects of those who want to take a job in an arts industry and stick with it.

It should be noted that the data for these findings came from pre-Covid period of 2015-2019.

What I really found interesting were the results of interviews with early, mid, and late stage artists regarding how their network of relationships that helped advance their career opportunities fared during the pandemic. Most artists worked on maintaining existing relationships during the pandemic rather than working on developing new connections. What caught my eye was that early and late career artists indicated having problems maintaining or developing their connections.

My theory is that colleagues of those in the early stages hadn’t yet developed foundational relationships that were useful to themselves and others. Late career artists may have relationships with people who were retiring or leaving their positions resulting in a loss of a useful relationship for an artist.

Reading the following from the podcast transcript emphasized the importance of networking and resource sharing is to developing a career in the arts.

But as Skaggs observes, there were different implications of these findings across different career stages. She describes early career artists, those in their 20s, as being socially adrift during year one of the pandemic. They were finding a hard time building new connections with others in their field and even struggling to maintain their current professional relationships. They also tended to gravitate to social media and online communities to access resources that could solve real world problems like financial difficulties. But those connections didn’t seem to help necessarily in advancing their artistic careers as a whole.

More established artists, meanwhile, in their 30s through 50s, were generally better connected than were early career artists, and often use these long-standing ties to, quote, gather in person or discuss art, network and socialize. Not only were these artists better able to draw upon their networks for support and for progress in their careers, they also reciprocated the support by sharing resources within their own social and professional networks.

…and then late career artists, here defined as in their 60s or 70s, felt largely isolated in their work and personal lives, even though they seemed adept at using social media during the pandemic, according to Skaggs. They expressed concern about losing touch with their professional ties during the pandemic, yet they persisted in their careers and interestingly, Jo, this is the only age group the researchers found where the artists said they were, in her words, losing touch with existing professional connections that they had before the pandemic.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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