College Guide


June 20, 2012 10:00 AM Arts Problems

By Daniel Luzer

The arts graduates are fine, according to a survey released yesterday by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. According to the media release:

Findings from a national study released this week show that Americans with arts degrees are generally satisfied with their educational and career experiences. Only 4% of SNAAP respondents report being unemployed and looking for work - less than half the national rate of 8.9%. [Some] 84% of employed alumni agree that their current primary job reflects their personalities, interests and values, whether their work is in the arts or other fields. Only 3% of all currently-working arts graduates are “very dissatisfied” with their primary job.

This is interesting but a little flimsy, in part because it didn’t address somewhat crucial information about salaries and benefits. It indicated, for instance, that half of all Film/TV/Video artists surveyed earned more than $50,000 in 2010, but it neglected to indicate the average salary of all alumni surveyed or what percent of them had jobs with health care.

There also appears be something of a survey bias here. The study was an online form distributed to all alumni. While the study indicates a “the average institutional response rate was over 20 percent” the report also indicated that completion time for the survey was 20 to 30 minutes. It seems to me those most likely to actually return the survey are probably those artists employed in good jobs.

The woman with a degree in painting who works at Caribou Coffee and does some gallery work in her spare time; she’s probably not so interested in returning the survey. This is the one who lives in an apartment with her boyfriend that he sublets from the mother of a guy in his band, the sort of young arts graduate young people might actually know; she’s not too excited to spend 30 minutes filling out a questionnaire about her life satisfaction. She’s also probably going to be having a tough time paying her student loans.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Sally_Gaskill on June 29, 2012 2:29 PM:

    Luzer suggests the findings from SNAAP are flimsy. The survey is the largest alumni survey ever conducted in any field. More than 35,000 people responded in 2011. Moreover, in earlier pilots of the survey, we tested whether people who were most likely to respond were different from those who were less likely to respond to the survey. While Luzer suggests that responders are more likely to be artists working in good jobs, our research finds that this is not the case. We were able to double the response rate for a select number of schools (using various incentives and repeated attempts at contact) and found that the job profile of these respondents differed little from the respondents in the larger pool with the lower response rate.

    Luzer also criticizes the survey for not addressing average salaries or whether arts graduates have health insurance. He is right to point out that artists, in general, earn less than others with similar levels of education – the NEA reports, using Census data, that the median income for artists is approximately 13 percent less than other fulltime professionals. But the important point that SNAAP data reveals, and that Luzer and others who focus narrowly on economic outcomes ignore, is that income is not necessarily related to job satisfaction. In many national surveys (e.g. the General Social Survey), artists are among the most satisfied with their jobs. They gladly trade income (only 13 percent it turns out) for much greater rewards in terms of meaningful work that allows them to be creative and contribute to the world. Among arts graduates there is little correlation between income satisfaction and overall job satisfaction. Dancers earn the least but are the most satisfied with their work. And while many arts graduate wish they earned more money, the same is true of lawyers, doctors and salesman. In fact, a study by the American Bar Association found that among young lawyers only 30 percent felt their salaries were in line with what they hoped or expected.

    This is not to say that some artists struggle mightily to make ends meet and may share an apartment with a boyfriend who sublets from his mother. But, the truth is that all graduates face an uncertain future. And, importantly, unlike many other graduates, most arts graduates realize that no one will hand them a job on a silver platter. Instead, they have learned that to make things happen –art or otherwise – they have to be plucky -- work many angles, find resources, start enterprises, rely on friends for support. We could learn a lot from arts graduates – study something that you care about; pursue work that makes you happy; and be creative in putting together a meaningful career.