Prospective visual art students who dream of becoming rich and famous should understand that it is difficult to achieve that goal as either an artist or designer, since many people working in the art and design fields earn modest salaries.
Compensation statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, show that many U.S. art professionals earn less than $60,000 per year. As of May 2019, the median annual salary was $48,760 for craft and fine artists; $56,040 for interior designers; and $52,110 for graphic designers.
Although an art or design job doesn’t typically make a person wealthy, pursuing an art or design degree also does not doom someone to a life of poverty, art school alumni and faculty say. There are many ways to commercialize artistic talent, from designing products that consumers want to purchase to creating advertisements for corporations.
BLS statistics reveal that the median annual salary among art directors — the visual artists who create images in publications, product packages, movies and TV shows such as brand logos — was $94,220 as of 2019, nearly $55,000 higher than the median salary within all occupations.
Here are some professions where art degree recipients can earn salaries that are well above that of the average job, according to the BLS:
— Art directors: median earnings are more than $90,000 per year.
— Multimedia artists and animators: median earnings are more than $75,000 per year
— Producers and directors: median earnings are just under $75,000
— Fashion designers: median earnings are slightly below $74,000
Some jobs combine artistry with engineering, such as architecture, a career that requires a specialized degree and licensure and where the median annual pay exceeds $80,000. Industrial design jobs — which focus on developing ideas for manufactured products — require a combination of creativity and tech savvy, and the median salary among these workers is just under $69,000.
There are also curatorial positions for individuals who dream of working at art galleries and museums. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors 2019 Salary Survey, compensation for curatorial roles in North America varies widely depending on hierarchy. The median salary for a curatorial assistant is about $42,000. There are many rungs on the curatorial career ladder, and each step up typically results in a pay increase. The median salary for a chief curator or director of curatorial affairs is $128,365.
Although some visual art and design occupations are lucrative, potential visual art students who are primarily interested in money should think twice about pursuing an art degree, experts say.
“If you want a lucrative career, don’t become an artist,” Matt Drissell, an associate professor of art at Dordt University in Iowa and chair of the unversity’s department of art and design, wrote in an email. “The newsworthy million dollar auctions are not the norm. If you want the challenge and joy of being a self-motivated, curious, and creative person, embrace the artistic career.”
Drissell, who earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in painting at the New York Academy of Art, says the rewards of artistic work are not primarily financial. “As many have learned during Covid, being able to personally process life through the visual arts can be healing and affirming. And being able to broadly share that creativity can build community, be it in times of unrest and grief or in inspiration and joy. That might not be the lucrative path but it can be rich in significance and meaning.”
That said, art school alumni who created their own companies say that artists with an entrepreneurial spirit who are business savvy can sometimes earn a lot of money.
Adam “Ace” Moyer — founder and CEO of Knockaround, a California-based sunglasses company — says his life story illustrates the potential to translate an art education into a successful business.
“I have two art degrees, 7 years of studying art in college, and I’ve never taken a business class in my life,” Moyer wrote in an email. “And I make a lot of money. And I own a house, a bunch of cool cars, and I take fun vacations with my family. I have friends with business degrees asking me for business advice. Sure, there’s some luck involved — but, if I can do it, you can, too.”
Mercedes Austin — founder and CEO of the tile company Mercury Mosaics — says she has never encountered a successful person who is motivated exclusively by money. “I found career opportunities that aligned with my gut,” Austin, who attended a fine arts program but left before receiving a degree, explained in an email. “I never used overthinking and logic. If I could land on things that felt right, I knew I could build the logistics around that through research, hard work and persistence.”
A business mindset can allow artists to see opportunities to make money that might not strike them otherwise, Annika Connor, a professional painter and alumna of the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says. Connor creates gallery paintings and sells everyday items such as pillowcases and tote bags that feature images from her paintings via her company, Annika’s Art Shop.
Colors on such merchandise are chosen to align with those in her original paintings, but the designs are often abstract versions of the original images. By decorating more affordable items with her artwork, Connor reaches a broader, more economically diverse audience than she might otherwise, giving her more sales opportunities, she says.
Connor suggests that aspiring artists think about whether they are sufficiently self-motivated to hustle to the degree necessary to work independently in the art industry.
“It is hard to work for yourself in any industry that you choose, and you have to be ambitious and you have to be hardworking, and you have to be innovative, and you have to be organized,” she says.
Connor notes that professional artists sometimes romanticize their profession so much that they forget about the need to earn a living. She recommends that artists keep in mind that their work has both creative and business elements.
“There are principles of business that need to be followed in order for you to find revenue and revenue growth,” she says. “You can’t just magically expect that things will happen just because you want them to.”
Connor warns against a misguided “belief that you don’t have to learn anything about business just because you’re an artist,” and she suggests looking for an arts program that includes courses about how to “survive” in the art sector.
Artists need to know how to promote themselves, since no company or individual will care as much about their long-term success as they do themselves, Connor adds. “We’re living in a time where you can’t expect to just meet some gallerist who is going to take care of everything for you. That’s not reality anymore, if it even ever was.”
Connor notes that exceptionally successful artists can become exceedingly wealthy.
“People always talk about the starving artist. They never talk about the fact that in the art world, we are one of the few industries where there is absolutely no income cap on our ability to earn,” she says. “When we reach a level of success, the astronomical returns (are) unparalleled.”
Jim Spruell, president and co-founderof Zuza Films in Georgia, says his artistic training has led to many career opportunities. “I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The University of Georgia and, thankfully, I’ve had a job since the day I graduated,” he wrote in an email. “In fact, I had a job waiting for me before I even got my degree.”
Spruell, who has extensive experience in the advertising industry, suggests several employers for art degree recipients to consider. “Ad agencies are great places to look if you have an art degree,” he says. “Design firms are also always looking for talented people with an art degree. Even in-house marketing departments for big brands.”
Caitlin Vitalo, a sculptor and glass artist who is also education coordinator at the Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey, acknowledges that earning a low salary is a distinct possibility for art degree recipients.
“Jobs are sometimes hard to find, they don’t always pay what you’d like every time, and it might take a significant amount of time before you see financial success,” Vitalo wrote in an email. “However, working in the arts is not impossible and if it is something you are passionate about then it is worth pursuing. When I struggled to find financial success with my art degree I often reminded myself how miserable I would be doing anything else.”
Vitalo, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University, notes that art school grads can pursue more careers than they might initially think.
“I didn’t realize window displays were a job you could pursue as an artist when I was first starting out and now I wish I had,” she says. “Every scene in a movie or television show is meticulously designed and created by an artist. Billboards are created by artists. Public bike stands where you lock your bike are created by artists. Almost everything we do includes something visual – and an artist is often a contributor.”
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