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The Recession’s Surprise Survivor: The Arts

by The Atlantic

Artists and creative types will experience high growth through 2018, according to new report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

If you can’t imagine doing anything outside of the arts, you’re in luck. Designers, writers, painters, and other creatives have a surprisingly bright future, according to a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts

Jobs for artists are projected to grow by 11 percent this decade, a bit faster than the overall workforce. The BLS category “artist occupations” is a catch-all for actors, architects, dancers, designers, photographers, and other cultural workers like interpreters and archivists.

Some of these so-called “creatives” will enjoy explosive growth. The NEA predicts that museum technicians and conservators will grow the most (by 26 percent) between 2008 and 2018, followed by curators (23 percent), interior designers (19 percent), architects (16 percent), writers and authors (15 percent) and actors (13 percent). 

As austerity descends on the states, theater and art budgets are fighting to keep taxpayer support. So where is the growth coming from? It’s coming from the private sector, where decidedly un-artistic occupations like engineering, technology, and health care are siphoning artists from the freelance world. For example, the NEA suggests that the growing demand for new health care facilities an the hospitality industry will lead to increased demand for interior designers. Explosive growth in online advertising and interactive multimedia serves as a boon for artists and illustrators, while the growth of digital publishing provide new opportunities for fledgling writers and authors.

Will students who dreamed of successful freelance artist careers be prepared for these professional private sector jobs? There is a widespread sense that humanities students assume their sophomore-year papers on phenomenological existentialism, and senior theses on race in post-Renaissance British literature, will translate into dream jobs. But in a 2004 article in The Atlantic, Richard Freeland anticipated a “third way” nestled between a liberal arts education and professional tutelage:

Slowly but surely, higher education is evolving a new paradigm for undergraduate study that erodes the long-standing divide between liberal and professional education. Many liberal arts colleges now offer courses and majors in professional fields; professional disciplines, meanwhile, have become more serious about the arts and sciences. Moreover, universities are encouraging students to include both liberal arts and professional coursework in their programs of study, while internships and other kinds of off-campus experience have gained widespread acceptance in both liberal and professional disciplines. Gradually taking shape is a curricular “third way” that systematically integrates liberal education, professional education, and off-campus experience to produce college graduates who are both well educated and well prepared for the workplace.

If the NEA’s analysis is correct, the post-industrial economy may hasten the arrival of Freeland’s “third way” in institutions of higher education by plugging independent artists into professional roles. 

There is another, less positive reason why artistic jobs might grow faster than the general economy. They’re cheap. As my colleague Derek Thompson noted, graduates with arts and humanities degrees are among thelowest median earners by major group, just above social workers and educators. In the early years of the recovery, some of the fastest growing positions are what economists call “McJobs,” offering service work at long hours and barely livable wages.

Still, as 15 million unemployed Americans can attest, barely livable wages beat the alternative of having no job.The NEA’s analysis is good news for creatives in all sectors — and the parents that send them off to college praying they’ll land on somebody’s payroll.

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