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.

Yours Isn’t The Only Camera Recording Your Selfie

Perhaps it is just the availability of social media feeds and news aggregators to bring information to my attention, but it seems that art projects have been effective in bringing about social change. Certainly that the work is often magnifying an large shift in sentiment can certainly be a contributing factor.

For example, in my city an art project around a Confederate statue has resulted in it being moved. But just a year before the same group of county commissioners unanimously voted to reject a proposal to move it. A couple months ago, I wrote about a project by a Pittsburgh area artist which has lead to an investigation of discrimination in housing appraisals.

Now I have read an article about an artist’s projects about the prevalence of surveillance. While the work hasn’t resulted in any policy changes yet, the disquieting nature of this or similar work may lead to action in the near future.

As covered by Bloomberg, Belgian artist Dries Depoorter used publicly accessible livestream footage of cities around the world to place Instagram selfies into context. He used facial recognition software to find when the photos were being taken during the footage he recorded and then placed the image in a split screen with video of the people employing all sorts of techniques and artifice to get their shot.

For many viewers, the video — which comes from just 10 days of footage — says something more about the decay of online privacy than it does about social media superficiality.

“​​If this person can do this as an art piece, imagine what someone being paid by a big company can do with the same data, at scale, for purposes of making money, that won’t make a public tweet about it,” wrote software developer Juan Alvarado on Twitter.

Depoorter has done similar projects before, tapping into red light cameras to show people jaywalking. In another he grabbed and displayed the publicly available Facebook photos of everyone visiting museum exhibitions.

“I show the dangers of technology with my work,” he said over WhatsApp.

The artist declined to elaborate on those dangers, however, saying his main goal is to create art that speaks clearly for itself.

The Medium As Important As The Message When Asking For Help

Dan Pink shared a link to a study that was conducted on perceptions of the most effective way to ask others for help comparing face-to-face, audio/phone, video (ie Zoom), and text (SMS, Email).

Previous studies had found that in-person requests were much more effective than requests delivered through other media, (thirty-four times more effective than email in one study), but there had been few studies that included people’s perceptions of how much more effective in-person might be to mediated requests.

The authors conducted two studies. In the first, they had people make requests for help in-person, through audio channels, and video channels. Those asking for a favor made predictions about their ability to get a positive response.  In the second study, in-person was removed and email was added to audio and video channels as an option. (Interestingly, text messaging wasn’t included in the study.)

In both cases, study participants greatly underestimated what the difference the different media would be. They intuited that face-to-face (FtF) would be more successful than a video or audio request, but the margin was much greater than they predicted. Likewise, they intuited a request made over voice or video would be more effective than email, but again the degree was much greater than predicted.

Given the large differences we observed in the effectiveness of FtF compared to mediated requests, and rich media compared to email requests in our behavioral studies, these findings suggest that people fail to fully appreciate the value of asking for help in-person, or in lieu of this possibility, through the richest possible communication medium.

Something to think about as we approach the end of the year donation solicitation season. How we make our appeals may matter more than we think.

Now interestingly, Pink had preceded his tweet about the best way to ask people for a favor with a tweet on a study about the best way to thank people:

In that case, the medium doesn’t matter as much. Though the article he linked to talked about some unexpected nuances about how people engage in the process of expressing appreciation.

“…while people generally expect an in-person thank-you to be most impactful, what happened in reality was quite different: Sending a thank-you over text was almost as impactful as delivering the message in person. Additionally, texting may be especially well-suited for situations where we feel awkward or embarrassed about expressing our appreciation.”


Overall, video calls were just as beneficial as meeting in person. Texting was slightly less effective than video calling—it didn’t make people feel more connected and happy, while video calling did. However, participants who sent their thanks over text still experienced benefits: Texting boosted their well-being and reduced their loneliness compared to the people who wrote about celebrities.


The researchers found that how people expressed gratitude didn’t impact how happy they felt, or how meaningful the experience was to them—nor did it impact how happy they thought the recipient felt. However, people reported that thanking someone in person (as opposed to via text) was slightly more embarrassing.

But Why Do People Want More Diverse, Locally Focused Stories Told?

Last year (December 31, so technically) I had a post on Arts Hacker taking a look at the work LaPlaca Cohen and Slover Linett Audience Research had done interpreting the Covid edition of the CultureTrack survey through the lens of race and ethnicity.

My post focused on the findings which indicated an interest in having arts organizations offer more inclusive and community focused programming that reflect the stories and faces of everyone. There were some interesting findings about how some communities saw arts and cultural organizations as a trusted source of information whereas it was barely on the radar of other communities. Most everyone saw value beyond just fun and entertainment, though those characteristics are highly valued.

This greater emphasis placed by some BIPOC Americans on the social, civic, emotional, therapeutic, and creative-expression roles of cultural participation may help practitioners and funders think more broadly about service and relevance to communities of color during difficult times.

One thing I didn’t address in that post that stood out was a question the researchers raised about why people want a greater diversity of local stories told.

It reminded me that a lot of assumptions are made about the “why,” but no one has really sought out the answers in a deliberative way. The overall conclusion of the report was that the data raised a multitude of questions in need of study. (i.e. surprising Native American affinity for photography and strong digital consumption of classical music by Black/African-Americans.)

It’s worth reflecting on how a desire to celebrate one’s cultural heritage is connected to other desires; people who are interested in celebrating their cultural heritage are also more likely to want arts and culture organizations to feature “more diverse voices and faces,” focus more on local artists and the local community, and offer stories that reflect one’s life — all of which Americans of color are more likely to express than White Americans…Perhaps White Americans don’t think of arts and culture activities or sites as places to do that kind of celebrating — or perhaps they don’t recognize the extent to which some of those activities and sites do, in fact, celebrate and exemplify European cultural heritage. Might Multiracial Americans feel that their backgrounds and identities are too complex or nuanced to be celebrated in the arts? All of this begs for further research into why many people want more diversity, localness, and stories that reflect their experiences and whether they see those things as tied to their — or their community’s — cultural heritage


Plan For An Inclusive Post-Covid Cultural Experience