About three million college students will approach graduation day wondering what the future holds. As if news about the sputtering economy and uncertain job prospects were not depressing enough, many will also hear from well-meaning relatives, "What are you going to do with that degree?" Uncle Henry may give a free pass to the biology, economics, and chemistry majors, but not to those who pursued creative writing, visual arts, theater, design, dance or music.
Popular wisdom is that there is an oversupply of actors, songwriters, violin players, novelists, potters and poets. Competition is fierce, wages are depressed, and only a few become "stars." Many people assume the arts graduate is bitter and beaten down -- working in a coffee shop, waiting tables, or painting houses instead of painting their next great masterpiece.
It turns out we are victims of what psychologists call cognitive bolstering. We tend to note examples that confirm our preexisting ideas. The suffering artist "story" is so pervasive that we pay attention only to examples that confirm the myth. A new survey of more than 13,000 arts graduates tells a different story.
The data come from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), a research effort led by Indiana and Vanderbilt Universities, supported by the Surdna Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others. Respondents were at different stages of their careers. They came from more than 150 arts programs from a diverse set of institutions - from Barnard College to the University of Nebraska to San Francisco State - and answered such questions as: Are you glad you went to art school? What are you doing now? Did you learn anything that is relevant to your current job? Are you satisfied in your work? Are you still making and presenting art?
One of the most striking findings is that arts graduates have few regrets. Ninety percent say that their overall art school experience was good or excellent. Nearly three quarters would attend the same institution again. If an arts degree were a bill of goods - leading to dead-end careers and a life of struggle - certainly more alumni would second guess their decision to study the arts. This is not the case.
Part of their satisfaction likely comes from the fact that many graduates end up working in some capacity in their chosen profession. In fact, of those who intended to be artists, seventy-four percent do work as a professional artist at some point in their careers. These graduates are plucky and enterprising - leading the way in our new 21st century contingent economy by fashioning careers through self-employment, working in multiple jobs, starting their own businesses, and working across disciplines.
Arts graduates experience relatively low rates of unemployment --only six percent according to the survey. Only a handful become waiters (three percent work in food services). And the vast majority of graduates, about 73 percent, regardless of whether they work as artists or not, say they are satisfied with the opportunity to work in a job that reflects their interests and personality. In fact, if you really want to stick it to Uncle Henry, tell him that people who work in the arts report some of the highest levels of job satisfaction among all occupations. Clergy and firefighters are more satisfied than artists, but artists are more satisfied than lawyers, financial managers and high school teachers.
True, the median wages of artists lag behind what other professionals make, which is probably why few arts graduates are very satisfied with their income - only about 14 percent of actors, 12 percent of musicians, and eight percent of fine artists. But social science research shows conclusively that higher wages alone have a minimal impact on general happiness. Arts graduates might not be rich, on average, but the vast majority is gainfully employed, piece together satisfying careers, and would go to art school again if given the choice.
So, if you are one of the 120,000 plus arts graduates this year, look Uncle Henry squarely in the eye and tell him that you are off to join the ranks of the creative class. He'll have to follow your interesting and rewarding career on YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, because you may be too busy dancing, writing, performing, producing, designing, teaching or painting for a living to promptly return his call.
Steven J. Tepper is author of the forthcoming book, Not Here, Not Now, Not That!: Protest Over Art and Culture in America (University of Chicago Press 2011). An associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, he is the associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy and senior scholar for the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project ( www.snaap.indiana.edu ).