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What to Do with a Fine Arts Degree

Fine arts students draw upon everything from crude cave drawings to sophisticated web design when they're creating art. Art is always evolving. But is there a future for fine arts students in today's digital world?

Sandra Meigs is a visual arts professor. "In the field of visual art, there is no so-called classical art. Current art is current art. There are traditional methods in any of the given disciplines, but these have to be addressed within the contemporary field."

Visual artists create original paintings, drawings, sculptures, etchings, engravings and other artistic works. They generally fall into one of two categories -- graphic artists and designers or fine artists.

The distinction depends not so much on the medium that the artist uses, but on the artist's purpose in creating a work of art. Fine artists often create art to satisfy their own need for self-expression and usually display their work in galleries or museums.

Work is sometimes done on request from clients, but artists' skills are not generally at the service of commercial clients, as graphic artists' skills often are.

Fine artists may sell their works to stores, commercial art galleries, museums or directly to collectors. Only the most successful fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the sales of their works. Most have other jobs as well.

It can be a dilemma for fine artists to compromise their skills to do commercial work in order to pay the rent, but it is often a reality. The Princeton Review states that as a purely self-expressing career, 90 percent of artists make under $1,000 per year.

The financial rewards come to few, and generally later in an artist's life. It is the work itself and the supportive community that make this financially uncertain lifestyle worthwhile.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) says over half of visual artists were self-employed in 2006. That's about seven times the proportion in professional occupations.

Starting out and developing a reputation can be a hard road for aspiring artists. Many have to supplement their earnings with employment in other fields. Areas of employment may include working in arts administration departments in cities, states or federal arts programs.

Some may work as art critics, art consultants, directors or representatives in fine art galleries, or curators setting up art exhibits in museums. They may also give private art lessons.

The motion picture and television industries, wholesale and retail trade establishments, and public relations firms often hire artists. If all else fails, some artists may have to resort to finding work in an unrelated field in order to support their careers in fine arts.

Linda Andrews is a freelance fine artist and illustrator. "I am presently freelancing in the digital world using a Macintosh computer, and have not as yet pursued the fine arts as a full-time occupation," she says.

"I have been told that there is work out there for illustrating children's books, as well as editorial and educational venues. Magazines are always looking for new artists to illustrate stories."

Andrew's advice to new artists: "Develop your own unique style and go for it."

John Outterbridge is a world-renowned artist based in the U.S. "Visual artists can find work in advertising agencies, publishing companies and other businesses, but the competition is keen." Outterbridge believes commercial success in the visual arts is a matter of producing art that is both marketable and unique.

"The way most serious professional artists develop is by working as a teacher, either in an art college, university program, high school or elementary school," says Madeline Lennon. She is a visual arts professor.

Artists can also look for some support for their work in the form of fellowships, residencies and grants. In the U.S., there are several state-funded art agencies.

The art industry is very competitive and is constantly changing. Completion of an art program is one way to begin a career as an artist. There are one-year certificate programs that emphasize developing and refining a high-quality portfolio.

Two-year diploma programs encourage students to explore a broad range of concepts, materials, techniques and processes. These programs assist students to develop personal interests, directions and creative maturity, as well as to prepare portfolios.

Portfolios are necessary to gain acceptance to advanced art programs, as well as to demonstrate one's skills to prospective employers. The goal for an artist is to obtain commissions or contracts for their services. Evidence of appropriate talent and skill is an important factor.

Assembling a successful portfolio requires skills usually developed in a bachelor's degree program or other post-secondary training in art.

It is very difficult to become skilled enough to make a living in the fine arts field without formal training of some kind. Internships can also provide excellent opportunities for artists to develop and enhance their portfolios.

Four-year bachelor's programs, master's and doctoral degrees are offered in many universities throughout the U.S.

Artists who have studied their craft at university and have received graduate degrees in their respective disciplines have the best prospects of finding work as teachers of art. Those with teaching certification may teach art in elementary or secondary schools, while those with a master's or PhD degrees may teach in colleges or universities.

The OOH says employment of visual artists will grow faster than average through 2016. However, in order to obtain a steady source of income, workers in this group may have to overcome obstacles that are anything but average.

The glamorous and exciting image of the fine arts field attracts many talented people with a love for drawing and creative ability. The supply of aspiring artists will continue to exceed the number of job openings, resulting in keen competition for both salaried jobs and freelance work.

Talented artists who have developed a mastery of artistic techniques and skills, including computer skills, will have the best job prospects.

The Princeton Review states that in the future, the role that art plays will not change drastically. However, painting, photography, sketching, sculpting and many other traditional media will be joined by computer art, mixed-media art and other new forms that reflect the times.

Lennon says that it is important to realize that almost all artists are learning about digital imaging, even if they are primarily painters, sculptors or printmakers.

"Today, most contemporary artists work across many media, not primarily in one," says Lennon. "As a result, they are able to apply their skills in a number of careers like publishing, CD-ROM production or website development."

"A speaker from [a] digital design program...told fine arts faculty members a few years ago that traditional drawing skills, not computer expertise, would be the best foundation for entering their program," says Jim Tanner. He is a professor of fine arts.

"New modes of artistic expression only increase the options for artists, rather than replace traditional media."

Sally Randall of New York has been a working artist for the past 20 years. She believes the opportunities for artists within the Internet are endless. "New jobs are being invented all the time, and mostly for people who in the past found job seeking a difficult chore -- like artists, writers, historians and researchers."

Bottom line for artists today: "If you can't beat 'em -- join 'em." Use your skills and traditional training as a base and look for any opportunity to transfer those skills into the digital world of mixed media.

The graphic and technological capabilities of the Web have opened up a whole new world for artists, including hot new areas of employment opportunities.


Contemporary Artists' Services
A series of articles designed to teach artists the skills they need to manage their own careers

Online communications for the arts

National Endowment for the Arts
Federal arts resources and arts features

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.