Careers in Art: Degree Requirements, Statistics, Careers and Costs

Careers in Art: Degree Requirements, Statistics, Careers and Costs
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

For people with abundant creativity and talent, an art degree can be a crucial stepping stone to promising careers in art and design. These careers can be lucrative as well, with research from compensation software PayScale saying that in 2019, professionals with art majors can earn as much as $96,300 annually (Highest Paying Jobs for Art Majors, 2019). To help students interested in pursuing an art degree, this article presents an overview of art degrees as well as the different types of these degrees. This article also discusses relevant statistics and costs associated with pursuing an art degree, along with the best universities for art education.

Careers in Art Table of Contents

  1. What is an art degree?
  2. Types of Art Degrees
  3. Key Art Degree Statistics
  4. What are the requirements to study for an art degree?
  5. How much does it cost to study for an art degree?
  6. The Best Universities to Study for an Art Degree
  7. Possible Careers for Art Degree Majors
  8. How much does an art degree earn?
  9. Famous People Who Studied Art Degree

Humanities degrees, such as those in art, philosophy, and history, can prove to be a valuable investment today (Ruggeri, 2019). According to executives from Microsoft, critical, philosophical, and ethics-based skills developed in liberal arts courses will be instrumental in an age where computers increasingly behave like humans.

More specifically, according to Murray State University, an art degree prepares students for professional life in the 21st century (The Value of an Art Degree, n.d.). A degree in art integrates proficiencies such as flexibility, adaptability, and creativity, which are essential skills not only for achieving art careers but also in succeeding as a member of the 21st-century workforce.

Given the value of an art degree, however, data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the number of degrees in visual and performing arts has been declining since 2014.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

To acquaint students with the ins and outs of pursuing an art degree, this article discusses what an art degree is as well as the different types of art degrees available to them. The following sections also explore the requirements and costs of pursuing such degrees at postsecondary institutions to help students better prepare for pursuing degrees in art. Finally, this article will answer the age-old question, “What can you do with an art degree?”

What is an art degree?

Art degrees educate students in a wide variety of artistic disciplines and fields such as theater, painting, music, interior design, and graphic design. These courses often provide students with the tools and environment necessary for developing and refining the skills essential to a career as a professional artist (What Can You Do With an Art Degree, 2019). In most cases, art courses will also require the study of art history, color theory, basic design principles, and artistic styles and techniques.

Throughout the course of pursuing an art degree, students get opportunities to critique and assess the work of their peers to further develop their understanding of different subject matters. Many art students also get the chance to interact with professional artists, who can provide guidance on potential career paths.

Art degree specializations

The structure of an art degree typically varies, depending on the specialization a student pursues. Higher education analytics provider QS separates art degrees into four categories:

History of Art degrees

Students pursuing these degrees explore art from a wide variety of cultures and historical periods. Students are trained to recognize and analyze artifacts and artwork and associate these with artistic movements, historical importance, and social context (Art Degrees, 2019). History of Art students can also opt to focus on certain historical periods or regions.

Fine Arts degrees

Fine Arts degrees put more focus on the creation of art rather than the analysis of the subject. These programs typically combine theoretical and practical course elements so students can be more effective at developing their artistic works. Fine Arts students can specialize in the medium of their choice, such as sculpture, painting, photography, illustration, or ceramics.

Digital Arts degrees

The emergence of newer types of media has also resulted in art degrees that focus on the creation of art using technology. Students can now take up digital arts courses that focus on animation, computer arts, illustration, and photography. These newer degrees are an ideal choice for students who are interested in pursuing a career in website design or computer game animation.

Design degrees

Design degrees are closely related to degrees in fine arts. Design degrees include courses for graphic design, fashion, interior design, and textile design, among others. Students can choose to pursue an art degree focused on one area of design or go for a more general design course and choose a specialization later.

Types of Art Degrees

Students interested in art degrees have the option to pursue these degrees at various levels of education, from certificate programs to doctoral degrees. The following are common types of art degrees in colleges and universities today.

Certificate and Diploma Programs in Art

Many colleges and universities offer certificate programs in art and art-related fields, such as art history, studio art, and graphic design. These certificates indicate that a student has obtained specialized knowledge in a specific field of art. These certificate programs may include courses such as Fundamentals of Drawing, Introduction to Computer Graphics, and Concepts in Visual Arts (Johnson, 2016).

Associate Degrees in Art

Many community colleges and vocational schools offer these 60-credit programs in art and design (What Can You Do With an Art & Design Degree, 2019). Earning an associate’s degree in art typically requires two years of full-time study. In some cases, these degrees will provide students with the opportunity for advanced study in a more specific field of art, such as fine arts and graphic design.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Art

A bachelor’s degree in art is a great first step for budding artists and students interested in a professional career in art and art-related fields. Through these programs, students can build a broad base of knowledge in art (Johnson, 2016). These programs also require students to complete general education requirements and are necessary for students interested in pursuing graduate-level education in art.

Master’s Degrees in Art

In most cases, master’s degree programs in art culminate in a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. Students pursuing an MFA degree specialize in one field of art, such as painting, sculpture, or photography. An MFA degree also helps practicing artists who want to advance their careers or pursue a position of authority, such as director or specialist positions. These degrees are also likely to be required for people interested in becoming art teachers or instructors.

Doctoral programs in art

Once students have earned an MFA degree, they have the option to further their education through Ph.D. programs in art. These advanced programs are ideal for students who seek to gain advanced positions in higher education or artistic organizations (Johnson, 2016). Students pursuing doctoral programs are typically required to complete and defend a dissertation before graduating. In some cases, an on-campus residency is also required.

Source: Data USA

Key Art Degree Statistics

Arts majors and art-related degrees are a popular choice among college students today. Below are some useful statistics on art degrees and careers in art.

  • According to the latest data from the NCES, 88,582 bachelor’s degrees in visual and performing arts were conferred by postsecondary institutions in the U.S. This makes visual and performing arts the eighth most popular field of study in 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019a)
  • In 2018, postsecondary institutions in the U.S. conferred 19,153 associate’s degrees in visual and performing arts. These degrees included programs for fine arts, studio arts, music and dance, design and applied arts, drama, and theater arts, and film and photographic arts, among others (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019b).
  • In 2018, 17,686 master’s degrees in visual and performing arts were awarded to graduates by postsecondary institutions in the U.S. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019c).
  • In the same year, 1,759 doctor’s degrees in visual and performing arts were conferred by postsecondary institutions in the U.S. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019d).
  • From 2017 to 2018, there was a 1.8% decrease in the number of visual and performing arts degrees granted by American postsecondary institutions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019e).
  • According to 2015 data from the American Academy of Arts, fields of art with the largest growth in degrees awarded from 2005 to 2015 were dance (38%) and the film and photographic arts (29%) (Townsend, 2017).
  • Meanwhile, the number of bachelor’s degrees in the fine and studio arts granted between 2005 and 2015 dropped by 7% (Townsend, 2017).
  • In the U.S., locations with the highest concentrations of recipients of degrees in visual and performing arts in 2017 included New York, NY, Los Angeles, CA, and Boston, MA (Visual and Performing Arts, n.d.).
  • In 2017, 60.1% of students in visual and performing arts degrees in the U.S. were female (Data USA, n.d.).
  • At 55.7%, the majority of recipients of visual and performing arts degrees in the U.S. in 2017 were white (Data USA, n.d.).

Statistics on Arts Students after Graduation

  • According to 2014 data, 10% of arts graduates worked as artists (BFAMFAPhD, 2014).
  • In 2014, 40% of working artists did not have bachelor’s degrees in any field, while 16% of working artists had arts-related bachelor degrees (BFAMFAPhD, 2014).
  • Seven of the 10 most expensive higher education institutions in the U.S. in 2014 were art schools (BFAMFAPhD, 2014).
  • In 2018, the most common occupations for Visual and Performing Arts majors in the U.S. were elementary and middle school teachers (115,863), graphic designers (105,231), and postsecondary teachers (81,982) (Visual and Performing Arts, n.d.).

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

What are the requirements to study for an art degree?

High school students who want to pursue art in college will do well to establish a portfolio of work, if applicable. A portfolio signifies a student’s interest and technical skills in the field of art (What Can You Do With an Art Degree, 2019).

In a number of countries and regions, higher education institutions have an art foundation qualification for students who want to begin an undergraduate degree in art. In the United Kingdom, for instance, an art and design foundation diploma serves as a one-year bridging course from secondary education to specialized art and design education (Rasheed, 2020).

The art foundation diploma can also help students build a portfolio and make a decision on specialized fields of art they might want to study in college. In many cases, art foundation qualifications serve as entry routes to full undergraduate art courses.

How much does it cost to study for an art degree?

An art degree can cost a pretty penny, especially for students who want to go to a school that exclusively focuses on the arts. In the U.S., for instance, many art schools rank as the most expensive colleges in the country (Henshaw, n.d.).

According to Data USA, in 2017, the median tuition costs for an art degree from an in-state public institution were $7,034. Meanwhile, the median tuition costs for an art degree climbed to $34,134 at out-of-state private institutions. Based on data from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, U.S.A., tuition costs for art degrees remain high in 2020.

The following chart compares annual tuition costs for a full-time academic year in various art and design schools in the U.S.

Source: Academy of Art University

The Best Universities to Study for an Art Degree

In May 2020, the 2020 QS World University Rankings by Subject report was released. This report features the top 200 schools for art and design across the world and is one of the rankings where there is no Yale vs Harvard debate. The rankings for art and design are based on academic reputation and employer reputation.

The following are the top five schools featured on the list:

Royal College of Art (United Kingdom)

Based in London and established in 1837, the Royal College of Art is the world’s oldest art and design university still in operation. This public research university offers only postgraduate programs in four departments—Schools of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, Communication, and Design.

University of the Arts London (United Kingdom)

The University of the Arts London is the largest specialist art and design university in Europe, with a student body of over 19,000. The university offers pre-degree, undergraduate, postgraduate, and short courses in 19 subjects, including ceramic design, product and industrial design, and fashion marketing.

Parsons School of Design at The New School (U.S.A., France)

With campuses in New York City and Paris, The Parsons School of Design offers 33 interdisciplinary programs in fields of study such as art and design, fashion, urban design, fine arts, and management. The school’s practice-based programs are available at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the school offers associate’s degrees as well.

Rhode Island School of Design (U.S.A.)

One of the oldest colleges of arts and design in the U.S., the Rhode Island School of Design offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in 19 majors. These majors include fine arts, art education, architecture, and design. The school also has a Continuing Education program that features online courses and programs for learners aged six and older.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S.A.)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is mostly known for its STEM programs, but this institution also offers several majors, minors, concentrations, master’s degrees, and PhD degrees in art subjects. These fields of study include architecture, theater arts, and degrees in music. The institute’s students can also participate in cross-registration programs and take visual arts classes at Harvard, Wellesley College, and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Source: QS

Possible Careers for Art Degree Majors

In many cases, art graduates are required to develop and hone their entrepreneurial skills to more efficiently operate as self-employed artists (Swedberg, 2006). According to Chang and Wyszomirski (2015), art entrepreneurs engage in entrepreneurial activities to promote their creativity and autonomy. Empirical research suggests that these entrepreneurs have non-economic creative motivations in pursuing their work (Comunian, 2009).

Unfortunately, Thom (2015) suggests that the entrepreneurial skills required to be a successful, self-employed artist are taught only to a very small extent, if at all. The good news is that there are a number of career options for art graduates who do not want to go the self-employed route.

Many employment opportunities in the visual arts require a solid background in art education, along with a portfolio and on-the-job training. For advanced research or teaching positions in higher education, applicants must have master’s or graduate-level degrees as well.

Possible job opportunities for art majors include:

Craft and fine artists

Craft artists make handmade functional goods such as glassware and pottery. Meanwhile, fine artists include painters and sculptors who create art for its aesthetic value. Both types of artists can earn money by displaying and selling their creations in stores or at galleries and museums. Many professional artists typically pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree and have a diverse portfolio. Relevant work experience such as work as a studio assistant can also help art majors establish themselves as artists.

Curators, archivists, and conservators

Art majors can find careers in art museums and galleries as archivists or curators. Archivists process and record artistic works and other important documents, while curators collect art for galleries and museums. Meanwhile, conservators repair and treat historical artwork and documents that have deteriorated.

A master’s degree in art history or similar fields of study are usually required for these positions. Aspiring archivists in the U.S. can also obtain certification through the Academy of Certified Archivists.

Graphic designers

Visual arts majors can also seek careers as graphic designers. Graphic designers create and develop concepts and designs for a wide variety of applications, including advertisements, magazines, corporate assets, and websites. Aspiring graphic designers are expected to have at least a bachelor’s degree, along with proficiency in using software relevant to the field.

Multimedia artists and animators

Degrees in visual arts can also lead to careers as multimedia artists and animators. These professionals commonly work in media such as film, television, and video games and frequently meet with clients. Compared to other professional artists, multimedia artists and animators tend to rely heavily on software and applications used to develop designs. A bachelor’s degree in graphic design or a related field of study is considered the minimum educational requirement for these professionals.

Teacher or lecturer

Education is also a common industry for art majors. A career as an art teacher can be rewarding for art majors who want to inspire and encourage budding artists. Aside from excellent communication and presentation skills, art majors need a teaching qualification or certification to teach at the primary or secondary levels in most countries. Art majors who want to teach at the university level typically need a postgraduate degree.

Source: Data USA

How much does an art degree earn?

Given the costs of pursuing a degree in the arts, it is understandable for art graduates to want to make the most of their degrees. Art graduates that achieve higher-level positions such as art directors and art agents stand to earn more compared to those in rank-and-file positions. According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, art directors in the U.S. had a mean annual wage of $92,780, while graphic designers earned a mean annual wage of $50,370.

The following chart illustrates the annual mean wage of common occupations for art majors.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Famous People Who Studied Art Degrees

Aside from well-known artists such as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock, many celebrities have achieved degrees in the arts and in related fields. The following are famous people who studied art and achieved art degrees.

Alan Rickman

Known to different generations as Severus Snape of Harry Potter and Hans Gruber of Die Hard, Alan Rickman attended Chelsea College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, earning bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees. After graduation, Rickman opened a graphic design studio before deciding to pursue a career in acting.

Jessica Chastain

Known for her performances in movies such as The Help and Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before getting into Juilliard School. Chastain graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 2003.

Freddie Mercury

Best known for his theatrics as the lead vocalist of the heavy rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury studied graphic design at the Ealing College of Art in London. Mercury designed Queen’s logo, called the “Queen crest,” in 1973 (Eames, 2018).

Cate Blanchett

Known for her numerous acting awards and nominations, Cate Blanchett earned her art degree from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia. Blanchett graduated in 1992 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

David Bowie

Another rock music icon, David Bowie studied at Bromley College of Art in London in the early 60s. Bowie specialized in layout and typesetting.

Preparing for Pursuing an Art Degree

Applying to art schools, colleges, and universities can be a daunting prospect for many students. The following are some tips and recommendations that can help aspiring art students prepare themselves for the application process.

Start building your portfolio early.

It can never be too early to start building an art portfolio. Aspiring art majors can start by creating original works in media of their interest. According to Rhode Island School of Design professor Clara Lieu, it also helps to seek a thorough portfolio critique from an art teacher or a professional artist. It is also helpful to get feedback from a variety of mentors. This ensures that you can build a portfolio that best represents your work.

Be ready to talk about your work.

Aspiring art students must also be ready to provide detailed descriptions and explanations of their work. According to Hilliard (2018), vivid descriptions can convey the student’s interest and commitment to the craft.

Do thorough research on art schools and programs.

Hilliard (2018) further explains that different art schools tend to have their own unique artistic environment, so it is important for aspiring art students to find the right environment for their needs. For instance, highly selective schools usually have a more competitive atmosphere that not all students will thrive in.



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  14. NCES (2019e). Table 325.95. Degrees in visual and performing arts conferred by postsecondary institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: 1970-71 through 2017-18. Digest of Education Statistics (2019 ed.). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
  15. PayScale Staff (2019). Highest paying jobs for art majors. PayScale.
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