Future-proofing at worst, applied creativity at best

By: Peter Craine

Chances are that everyone who attends college has probably heard some variation of this conversation with our parents: “You really should major in something you can make a career out of.” For some parents, this conversation can come partly from a place of selfishness, an opportunity to correct their own mistakes in life by living vicariously through their children, pushing them to have the careers that they wish they had. For others, it’s simply because they want their children to be happy, and financial stability is commonly seen as key to achieving happiness. But, there is one common element in almost all of these conversations: the arts. For clarity, the term “arts” is used in this article to refer to studies regarding typically non-vocational subjects, like painting, photography, theater etc., and not necessarily the ‘liberal arts’, which can be interpreted as covering academic subjects such as the sciences and mathematics.
When we’re young and we show interest in the arts, our parents will typically support us because we’re showing an interest in something and we’re becoming part of a social group. But when they support us, it’s usually with the expectation that the arts stay more of a hobby and less of an actual life plan. So it can sometimes come as a worry to them when their kid decides to major in the arts, and like it or not, those parents are right to worry. Not because they don’t believe that their children are happy, but because of the simple fact that dedicating oneself to the arts is not a financially viable option for most people.
To be clear, this article is not for the purpose of bashing the liberal arts. Research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) shows that 80 percent of employers would prefer to hire college graduates with broad knowledge in the liberal arts in addition to vocational skills. In addition, it is typically considered a positive for all students to at least experience subjects in the arts, even if they don’t necessarily transfer to employment, as they can provide some outlook on society and the world besides the simple need for a paycheck. So there is a place for the arts in society and they can very much help with turning an individual into a better-rounded human being. But, this doesn’t mean that the arts should necessarily become the sole career of every person who pursues it.
Art is different from other professions in society, namely in that employment is often dependent on the tastes of your audience. A computer programmer, for example, is almost always in high demand because that particular skill set, regardless of the other abilities of the individual, can be put to work in countless sectors of the economy, whether that be in business, or science, or mathematics. The demand for art is very dependent on the tastes of the audience it means to appeal to, sometime regardless of the actual quality of the work.
Let’s use television as an example, as the acting, writing, production and filming fall under the category of art: The Big Bang Theory is immensely popular in the United States, still ongoing and currently in its 10th season. It aired its latest season finale with an averaged 19.96 million viewers, each season after the first season has received an episode order of 23 episodes, and the show sits at an 8.4 reviewer rating on IMDb, a review aggregator for film and television. Even if you aren’t a fan of the show you won’t live a month without hearing someone in your social circle making mention of it. And financially speaking, the show has been very profitable for its network.
And then there are shows such as Arrested Development or Community, sitting at 8.5 and 9.0 respectively on IMDb, easily of the same or higher quality as The Big Bang Theory in terms of writing, acting, and production value. Some of you may not have heard about these shows yet, as both shows had consistently performed poorly in viewership over their lifespans, with Arrested Development averaging between 6.2 million (for the pilot episode) and 3.43 million (for the series finale), and Community averaging 5.0 million (first season) to 3.0 million (fifth season). Arrested Development was cancelled in 2006 after its third season, with each next season receiving a lower episode count than the last, and Community was constantly on the brink of being cancelled every year, with the last three seasons having a reduced episode count of 13, until it was officially cancelled in its fifth season, then revived on Yahoo Screen for one last season in 2015. Both shows became financially unviable for their networks, despite the critical acclaim and overall quality.
Ultimately what separates the success of The Big Bang Theory from the financial stress of Arrested Development and Community is the market penetration of the former and the lack of for the latter. It’s not guaranteed that your piece of art is going to find resonance with the audience, even if it is genuinely good. And given that employment in the arts is also greatly dependent on the overall state of the economy, economic downturn can hit artists particularly hard as their work is largely considered a luxury. A Georgetown University study found that the unemployment rates for art majors is 11.1 percent for recent college graduates and 7.1 percent for experienced college graduates, higher than the rates for most other employments. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that most artists are self-employed, commonly holding additional jobs, and projected job growth for artists is two percent from 2014 to 2024, which is slower than average projected job growth for all other occupations. Given these numbers, it would be understandable why apparent would be concerned about their child’s future.
However, that doesn’t mean that the arts can’t be useful skills in a professional setting. Combining skills in arts other vocational skills can translate very well into many different sectors of the economy. Website design, for instance, incorporates graphic design and coding; architecture incorporates modeling and engineering; and many teaching jobs utilize art to communicate with students. And as stated above, employers prefer to hire college graduates who are better rounded in academics and have additional skills outside of their major.
So, to all the incoming Millersville freshmen this semester, if you have this conversation with your parents about your future as an artist, take this as advice. Diversify your talents and apply your artistic skills to other fields besides just art itself. You may find that you’ll enjoy yourself and your time, and you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice your creative gene in order to have a marketable skill. Consider it future-proofing at worst and applied creativity at best.