Research News

College boosts arts careers in surprising and important ways: report

What you do in college has a surprising impact on your ability to sustain a career in the arts long-term, according to a new report co-authored by Alexandre Frenette, assistant professor of sociology and associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy.

Curb Center Associate Director Alexandre Frenette
Curb Center Associate Director Alexandre Frenette

“There’s been a fair amount of scholarship on whether what you study in college helps you break into the arts,” said Frenette. “But very little work has been done on what helps you stay in the arts.” His study, coauthored with Timothy Dowd of Emory University, is the first to examine that question explicitly.

People who pursue artistic work—which encompasses a wide variety of professions in the visual arts, performing arts, literature, architecture, design and arts education—tend to be more satisfied with their careers than people in other professional fields. However, the industry is notoriously difficult to break into, offers little job security and, for most, does not pay all that well. For that reason, a great deal of scrutiny has been paid to the value of arts education.

For the report, which was compiled for the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) at the Indiana University, Frenette and Dowd analyzed a SNAAP survey of more than 52,000 arts graduates in the United States aged 30 to 65 to learn how many of them went on to work in the arts after college, and how many were still working in the arts today. Of those surveyed, approximately a third had subsequently left the arts; about 38,000 remained.

The most interesting finding, Frenette said, was how important college was to sustaining an arts career—in surprising ways. “What you do in school can continue to make an impact years and even decades later,” said Frenette. “While many arts majors said they wished they’d gotten more training in business and entrepreneurship in school, those with a second major outside the arts were much less likely to remain in an arts career later on overall. On the other hand, participating in arts-related clubs, paid internships and other related co-curricular activities makes you much more likely to stay in the arts, thanks to the networks they help you develop when you’re just starting out.”

“What you do in school can continue to make an impact years and even decades later.”

The report noted that choice of field also mattered: Architecture and design students were most likely to have durable careers in the arts, while theater, dance and arts management majors had the lowest odds.

There is also no escaping the social inequality that pervades the broader economy, either, Frenette said. “The odds of women staying in the arts after starting a career in a creative field were about 15 percent lower than they are for men. The odds of a person of color staying in the arts after starting such a career is 24 percent lower than they are for whites,” he said. “And while parents’ level of education didn’t predict whether someone was more likely to leave an arts career, having more than $50,000 in school-related debt certainly did.”

Many artists have “day” jobs as well. Frenette and Dowd found that having a second job outside the arts reduces an artist’s odds of remaining in the arts in the long run. “It may be that the promise of a steady paycheck or insurance becomes too good to pass up,” Frenette said. “But we find those with second jobs teaching the arts or working for an arts organization, for example, are much more likely to stay.”

Overall, Frenette said, the report’s findings highlight the importance of cultivating artistic networks while still in school and reinforcing artistic goals with complementary artistic work.