A Guide to Practical Art Degrees

Combining the Artist’s Life with a Viable Career
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Many people envision an art graduate as the struggling painter or frustrated sculptor who is living on noodles and crackers. This vision of the “starving artist” is far from the reality of those who choose practical art degrees. Those who want to be able to find a good job and make a living upon graduation can choose degrees that allow their artistic side to shine while giving them a good paycheck and job security. This guide focuses on those degrees that offer aspiring artists the best of all creative worlds.

What Makes an Art-Related Degree “Practical?”

There was a time when earning an art degree was seen as an expensive way to get to the unemployment line. Today, art degrees allow students to enter all sorts of exciting fields and use their creative skills to find fulfilling, enjoyable careers. Much of this is thanks to the merging of art and commerce – for instance, artists are in demand in fields like advertising, marketing and sales. The booming growth of technology has also offered a boost for those who create art that translates well in the online world. But how can you tell if an art degree is truly practical?

The degree leads to practical skills

Creating art is always more than putting pen to paper or sculpting something beautiful on the wheel. Courses go well beyond talent and teach students management and business skills that hold them in good stead when it comes to finding a job. Students also become proficient in communication, research, various types of media and much more.

The job placement rate is high

Forget the days of selling canvases on the sidewalk. Today’s practical degrees can lead to students weighing offers from competing employers hoping to build an excellent team of designers, illustrators, animators, and other creative minds. The combination of those talents and practical skills mean that graduates are in demand in a wide variety of fields.

The salary is more than a pittance

The old saying about starving artists actually does hold a kernel of truth. Artists are often seen as those who make a living from one painting or sculpture to another, often working on a shoestring budget and struggling to get from one month to the next. Today’s practical art degrees offer artists a chance to shine in all their creative glory while making a very good living – and in some cases, seeing a rather impressive rate of pay.

There are numerous career options

Today’s artists do much more than paint, sculpt, draw or photograph. They transform those talents and skills into more practical work, such as graphic design, illustration, in-depth research, teaching, commercial photography, animation, and even marketing or sales. When someone chooses a degree in any of the fine arts, it pays to have a broad view of the world beyond the easel.

Networking opportunities abound

Much of the art world is about who you know, and those connections can lead to exciting job prospects. An art education can open the doors to networking opportunities at museums, art galleries, exhibitions, publishing houses, and much more. Building up this network of professionals can be an enormous help when it’s time to put that degree to good use.

Interview with an Art Historian and Curator

Kelsey Brow talks about her education, background and career as an assistant curator at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what your day-to-day work is like

I work at a house museum in Manhattan, where my title is Assistant Curator, but I’m the only curatorial staff, so I guess I assist myself! My work is different everyday because things are always coming up. One day I might be rehousing an eighteenth-century coat and doing some research on draperies for the reinterpretation of a room, and the next day I might be helping film location scouts, talking with artists, doing graphic design for a fundraiser, or supervising the movement of furniture. One morning I found myself giving a tour in French! There’s a lot to do and new things that come up all the time, so I have to be really flexible and prioritize well.

What made you decide to pursue an art degree?

My mother likes to say that my father put a crayon in my hand at age two and I’ve been involved with the arts ever since. My father and I watched a lot of Antiques Roadshow together and went around looking for collectibles at estate sales. When I was 8 I bought a “Made in Occupied Japan” plate for a quarter and sold it for $8 on eBay, because I remembered them always talking about occupied Japan on the show. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so I developed an interest in culture and arm-chair travel through this appreciation of objects and by reading. I also wanted to be a painter, but after having a show in high school I realized I was more inspired by the past. I combined these interests into an art history degree as an undergraduate because I think my real skills are abstract and critical thinking.

What was the most valuable thing you learned from your college classes? 

I did a MA in material culture and now I get to impress my friends with my knowledge of the design of cafe chairs and by dating buildings we see on walks. All kidding aside, I think learning how to study material culture has brought me a lot of personal satisfaction through understanding why things are the way they are. As cliché as that sounds, I think understanding history and culture is so important to having a sense of place and community, so I’m glad to have the opportunity to share this with others (and learn from them as well) through my curatorial work. If I had to point to one very tangible, specific thing of value I learned in class, it would be writing. You can be a brilliant art historian in your head, but unless you can communicate your thoughts and knowledge with others, it’s useless.

What advice would you give someone who wants to work in the art world? 

Things are getting a lot better from the “quaint” days when working in a museum is something that “wives of rich men” did to divert themselves and didn’t need to earn a living. We should get paid properly for the work we do, because it IS valuable. But at the same time, don’t expect to make it rich in this field. I’ve seen people get bitter and leave for tech and engineering jobs, which is very understandable because entry-level arts jobs are generally low paying. Sadly, you’ll probably have to be willing to sacrifice some things to work in the arts. That said, I have no plans to leave the field because I believe I’m good at what I do and would not discourage others from pursuing similarly rewarding paths. Just be sure it is truly what you want to do.

Practical Art Degree Map

Technology

The latest technology is attractive and appealing to a wide range of audiences. Those with a strong background in art are poised to step into the technological world and create apps, graphics, products, designs, and much more, and it all starts with that creative idea.

  • Web Designer

    This artistic expert is responsible for the way a website looks, including the graphics, colors, layout and design. Entry-level jobs require an associate’s degree in web design or a related field; courses in programming, graphic design, multi-media design and the like are required. The degree takes two years to complete. Those who want to enhance advancement opportunities can seek the four-year bachelor’s degree in web development or web design.

  • User/Product Design

    These designers create products based on what consumers want and need; their work can include numerous creative elements, and they might have a foundation in graphic design, animation design and similar artistic fields. The education level depends upon the employer; some prefer to see those with at least a bachelor’s degree, while others turn to applicants who have a master’s degree or many years of experience.

  • Game Designer

    Creating video games is a hot business, and that means that multimedia artists, software developers and computer programmers will be in demand. Game design relies on numerous individuals to bring a project to fruition; most of those have at least a bachelor’s degree, which is the typical entry-level job for most programming or software professions. However, an associate degree and a great deal of experience can also suffice. No matter the degree, courses in illustration, multimedia design, animation, modeling and even audio basics will be helpful.

Administration/ Education/ Business

The common misconception that artists and creative individuals don’t do well in the business world couldn’t be further from the truth. Practical art degrees prepare artistic individuals to handle a wide variety of positions in administration, business and education.

  • Curator/Registrar

    These individuals work in museums to ensure that history is kept preserved, and presented in exciting, educational ways for those who come to view the collections. Registrars, also known as museum technicians, typically need a bachelor’s degree in art history, archeology or the like. Courses that pertain to museum studies are quite helpful. For curators, most employers want to see a master’s degree that focuses on their area of interest, as well as courses in business administration and management. Those who complete the master’s degree might consider the doctoral degree for more targeted study and better job prospects.

  • Researcher/ Historian

    Art historians know a great deal about certain types of art, and are able to work closely with others in the art and history world to ensure that the best examples of that art are kept safe and secure for future generations. Historians and researchers typically need a master’s degree to enter the field, but many benefit from a doctoral degree or even post-doctorate study that enhances their knowledge. At higher degree levels students can target their chosen area with appropriate courses; for example, art historians might focus on 16th century sculpture or modernist painting.

  • Marketing/ Sales

    There was a time when marketers, advertisers and sales people were expected to have a degree in marketing, business and the like – but today, employers realize the value of those who have a strong foundation in the creative arts. After all, the best marketing and advertising is all about thinking outside the box. Those in marketing, advertising or sales typically earn a bachelor’s degree for entry-level work; courses in graphic design, multimedia arts and the like could translate well to these professions.

Media

The world of media is where artists can truly shine, putting their talents to work in a way that allows them to make a great living while working in professions that offer flexibility. From illustrators to photographers, these individuals can also make an impression on the world.

  • Multimedia Artists & Animators

    These professionals create visual effects and animation that might be used in television, video games, movies and much more. They often work with a team, and usually have a great deal of knowledge of computer systems that relate to animation, graphic design and the like. A bachelor’s degree in art, computer graphics or a related field is the most common entry into the profession; courses might include those in computer science and programming, as well as various art mediums.

  • Commercial Photography

    In addition to the talent for framing a shot and a good eye for what will move the viewer, photographers must have a great deal of technical expertise. Though a high school diploma or equivalent is typically the only educational requirement, photographers can benefit from courses in the technical aspects of photography, as well as business and management courses for those who want to make a living as a self-employed photographer.

  • Graphic Design/ Illustration

    Graphic designers put their artistic skills to work in creating everything from business cards and brochures to magazine ads and billboards. This very visible work starts with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design; courses in illustration, computer science, printing, website design and the like are helpful. Marketing and business courses are also a great way to enhance the artistic talent. Jobs for graphic designers are available in many industries, but especially in advertising and marketing.

Which Degree Should You Choose?

Do you have a strong desire to go your own way?

If you want to be your own boss and run your own art-business, look into courses and degrees that focus on business administration, marketing, accounting and finance, management and the like. These will form a firm foundation that will then allow you to focus on your artwork and build your business.

Do you want to have a predictable schedule?

Some prefer to create their own schedules and remain as flexible as possible, while others greatly prefer having a set routine each day. If you are the type of loves predictability, seek out a degree that puts you to work with the public. Museum workers, including curators and historians, can seek out a bachelor’s degree in art history and specialize further with a master’s degree.

How much education are you willing to pursue?

Some have the time, inclination and funds to pursue the highest degree, while others want to get their education finished and get into the field so they can perform hands-on work as soon as possible. If you are the latter, look to the associate degree in web design, computer science, art history, illustration and the like. If you are willing to go further with your education, the horizons are suddenly wide open.

Do you just love art, or are you focused on one particular type?

If you are enamored with art of all types, you might make an excellent graphic designer, multimedia artist or even product designer. If you are focused on one particular type of art, you can translate that into a great living. For instance, those who love sculpture might work for police departments, creating images of suspects; those who enjoy painting might work with children at every level of schooling to help them create their own artwork. Let your true love in the art world be your guide to the career you desire, and that will reveal the best degree level for you.

Are you a loner or do you love interacting with others?

You deserve a job that makes you happy. If you prefer to work alone, consider any of the computer-related arts that allow you to work from home with a remote team, or artwork that can be done in solitude, such as painting, drawing or sculpture. If you enjoy working with others, look into those that put you in an office or in the public eye, such as working in museums, becoming an animator, working with marketing teams and the like.

Are you simply bursting with creative ideas?

If your ideas are all over the place, ranging from a great new camera angle to innovative inventions, look for something that allows you to channel all that energy. Any type of design work: Graphic design, product design, and even fashion or floral design can be the key to what makes you happy. Some of these jobs are available with just a post-secondary certificate or associate, while others require much higher education and a wealth of experience.

Are you a highly organized person?

If you are an organizational guru, work in research might be your best bet. This requires a very articulate person who loves to go in-depth on a subject to understand each nuance. That makes an art history degree the perfect path; other paths might include a teaching degree, a PhD that focuses on research, or a bachelor’s or master’s in museum studies.

Do you relate well to people – do they trust you and turn to you for advice?

If you are the type of person who relates well to others and can get your point across clearly – all while remaining creative and encouraging others to do the same – you might find excellent work in some teaching capacity. Working as a professor, secondary teacher, museum lecturer, or art therapist can help you find the outlets you need while you help others.

How much does your bottom line matter?

Matters of money are always at the forefront when it comes to choosing the best career. Are you looking to make a very good living and stay as comfortable as possible, or are you okay with rolling the dice a bit and letting your talents determine your income? Those who want to see a healthy bottom line can look to jobs that require more management experience, such as those of museum director or marketing executive; those who want to rely on their talents can turn to working as a commissioned painter, photographer or sculptor.

Are you a disciplined self-starter?

No matter the degree path you choose, how much self-discipline you display can help determine your best course of action. Those who are self-starters who prefer to work alone might find that online degrees in the practical arts are right for them; those who need the synergy of a group of talented people in the same place might want to choose a degree path that offers time in a classroom or studio with like-minded people.

Where Are the Practical Art Jobs?

Those with a talent for art can find a job in many places. Some are the usual suspects, but others might be quite surprising.

Museums
Design Firms
Architectural Firms
Art Galleries
Movie Studios

Making Fine Arts Marketable: 5 Things to Know

Whether you want to show your work at that famous gallery or simply find a great museum technician job and work your way up, becoming marketable is a skill that any fine artist needs to learn. These five tips can help you make the most of your talents and education.

  • Network like crazy

    The art world is all about who you know, and getting your foot in the door depends on it. From landing a great graphic design job to getting that coveted opening at the hottest gallery in town, networking can get you there. Fine artists must be willing to step out into the art world and meet as many people as possible, make connections, and then be willing to use those connections to find the best possible jobs.

  • Think like a marketer

    Marketers work hard to keep the name of their clients in the public eye, and to promote a positive connotation associated with that name. Think like a marketer by keeping your name in front of those who matter to your career path, give serious thought to each and every advertisement or promotion for your work, and don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. You worked hard to hone your talent, and you deserve to share it!

  • Find your own style

    The world of fine art has plenty of imitators; something original and unique is what really gets the art world abuzz. Find a style that is comfortable for you, then experiment by stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things that are related to that style. Eventually you will create something that no one else has or can, and that ‘eureka’ moment could be the dawning of a whole new career.

  • Utilize social media

    Becoming marketable today is almost impossible without a broad presence on social media. Employ the wonders of twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and much more to create a unique brand. The world of social media moves very fast, so don’t forget to update all of your accounts with pertinent and interesting information at least every few days.

  • Find the right degree

    Becoming more marketable to potential employers means earning the proper education. Choose the degree path that will get you to where you want to be, such as the bachelor’s degree for a graphic designer or a master’s degree for a museum curator, then push yourself further by gaining a wide breadth of experience.

Practical Art Careers

Looking for a job that can pay the bills while still making the best use of artistic talent? These jobs are great examples of how much someone can make while staying true to their desire to explore their creative side. Each job pays more than $50,000 per year – sometimes much more. All numbers are courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Multimedia Artists and Animators

Employment growth: 6%
Annual income: $69,410

These artistic gurus work closely with other creative professionals to create visual effects and animation for movies, television, video games and more. They typically choose a particular medium, such as video games, animated movies or special effects, and hone their skills over time. They might create their own unique work, or build on work created by a team effort.

Product Designers

Employment growth: 4%
Annual income: $67,030

Also known as commercial and industrial designers, these experts focus on creating products that we use every day, including children’s toys, vehicles, household appliances, and much more. They bring their artistic talents to bear on a project that also involves research, marketing, advertising, sales and the like. The end result is a product that will be tested by the public when it hits the market, and the ultimate success will come when sales are turning a profit.

Art Director

Employment growth: 3%
Annual income: $97,850

An art director might work in a variety of industries, overseeing the look of magazines, movies, television shows, advertisements, or even product packaging. They work with a wide variety of mediums, including photographs, illustrations, graphic designs and much more. The determine the style and tone of a project, oversee those who create various elements, work with editors to put it all together, and tweak the final product until it meets the vision of the director or their client.

Fashion Designer

Employment growth: -3%
Annual income: $73,690

From the perfect pair of jeans to that gorgeous set of earrings, fashion designers create the things that adorn our bodies every day. They design the clothing or related items, sketch out their vision, seek out the proper fabrics, create their samples, and test them out on models. They then write out the exact instructions on making the product and assuming there is a demand for it, send it on to be created in larger quantities. Sometimes, quite popular designs can lead to a measure of fame for the designer.

Graphic Designer

Employment growth: 7%
Annual income: $50,670

These artistic experts create visual concepts intended to inform, inspire, or capture the attention of those who see the product. A very wide-ranging field, jobs in graphic design can be found in public relations, publishing, advertising, design firms and more. Their work winds up everywhere; graphic designers are responsible for creating some of the most iconic images in our modern society.

The Future of Art Paving the Way for Practical Careers

Art is ever-changing. It is influenced by personal talents, artistic beliefs, cultural changes, societal mores and so much more. It is also changed by technology, a force that is transforming art into something much more fluid and malleable. Here are some of the most exciting things coming for the art world, and how students can prepare themselves for the latest influx of change and inspiration.

3-D Printing

The world of sculpture has undergone an enormous change with the introduction of 3D printing, which allows artists to create objects on the screen and then watch them be molded out of their chosen medium in the 3D printer. The uses of 3D printing have already gone far beyond the world of sculpture or gallery art to find a place in medicine, sports, architecture, and much more. Since the technology is growing so rapidly and touching so many industries, any art student can benefit from courses in 3D printing, as well as becoming proficient with the software and printers.

Virtual Reality

With virtual reality, art can be experienced in ways that were once considered impossible. Virtual reality can put a person right in the center of a work of art, allowing them to tour it, use all of their senses to experience it, and even become a part of it. In some cases virtual reality itself is the art, a carefully designed set filled with characters that are literally so real it seems as though they can be touched. Many colleges and universities now offer courses that at least touch on virtual reality, as well as more advanced courses that allow students to design their own virtual reality programs.

Video Game Art

Today’s video games are becoming so realistic that they look more like movies, and the characters look like actors, not just pixels on a screen. In fact, video games are becoming so advanced that it takes someone with a great deal of training and an eye for true art to be able to keep up with the industry. Those who are interested in anything that has to do with characters and role-playing, such as those with an eye on the movie industry or even those going into graphic design, should consider taking courses in video game design to enhance their job prospects and their artistic efforts.

Resources

American Alliance of Museums

Students can find a wealth of information on museums across the nation, as well as who is hiring, where the upcoming events are, advocacy and resources, and much more.

The J. Paul Getty Museum

This world-renowned museum offers a wealth of educational information for college students, K-12 students, and adult learners. The museum also offers information online about its extensive collections, public programs and publications.

The Museum of Modern Art

This famous museum offers numerous exhibits, educational materials, research resources and more through the website. The museum itself is well-known for its educational programs and internships for aspiring curators, registrars and the like.

National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture

This organization has an active social media presence, networking opportunities, a job board, information on services, a list of resources and more.

National Art Education Association

Designed for those who teach art, this comprehensive resource offers information on job opportunities, grants and opportunities, current research, advocacy, the wider arts community and more.

National Arts Marketing Project

This project of the Americans for the Arts focuses on training, workshops, tools and resources for those who strive to prepare arts marketers to handle branding, smart technology, audience retention and other pertinent topics.

National Association of Women Artists

Women who have made a splash in the art world can join this association, which celebrates the contributions of women to the arts through the ages. Visitors will find information on exhibitions, awards and more.

National Gallery of Art

This museum based in Washington D.C. offers images of its extensive collections, available for viewing online. The museum also offers current, in-depth information on the pieces from historical researchers.

The Professional Association for Design

Open to anyone who works in the world of design, this site offers information on programs, a list of pertinent resources, events, and perks for members.

Web Gallery of art

This interesting website allows visitors to browse through fine arts of numerous historical periods, and contains more than 39,000 pieces to view. Other information, such as commentaries and virtual tours, are also included.