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Passion vs. Paycheck: The art of going broke

Student artists often must decide between pursuing their passion or choosing a career with a more stable income

broke artist.jpg

"Choosing to be an art major can be a difficult decision." Illustration published on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

For Isak Johnson, majoring in fashion was a dream come true. But over time, he was forced to realize that the major was not going to provide for him in the ways he hoped. So he ditched the fashion world to pursue a more stable career: computer science. 

Johnson, a junior, is not alone: Typically, arts majors are forced to choose between their dreams and a more stable living situation.

In 2017, the unemployment rate for fine arts graduates was 4%, commercial art and graphic design was 4.3% and liberal arts and humanities was 5.8%. The average of the median starting salary for all three was $41,167. 

In Arizona, the current cost of living is $34,521, and at ASU 5,365 students are part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Determining a major can be difficult. Interests, prior skills and future profit are all factors; however, many in the art world have to choose between passion or paychecks.

Choosing stability

“Fashion was just something that really interested me, so I thought, ‘I'll go and do something that really interests me,’ and ‘I don't really care what the money is, it’s something I just want to do,'” Johnson said.

As pressure from family to pursue a more "serious" career increased, along with worries about student debt and the overall cost of living, Johnson listened to his parents and changed his major. But he still questions his decision.

“(Computer science is) not something I would want to do for the rest of my life," he said. "I just know it would be profitable and something I thought I could wrap my head around. If I were to get my degree in computer science, I probably would only do that for a few years and then try to switch to something more creative in the future.”

Johnson has recently discovered an interest in cosmetology school, leaving him to choose between finishing out a degree in a stable field he has little interest in or ditching it to pursue a dream.

He is not alone. Peers at ASU and college students around the globe face the same struggle every day, and schools around the country have noticed a decline in the enrollment of liberal arts students. 

According to The Atlantic, administrators at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point responded to the decline by cutting staple arts majors like French, German, 2D and 3D art and history. 

And UW-Stevens Point isn't alone — many colleges are currently faced with how to handle this trend in enrollment.

As a whole, student enrollment in liberal arts and humanities looks drastically different now than it did 10 years ago. As of January 2019, enrollment in English declined by 22%, or 12,301 graduates, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Other majors that experienced a decline in enrollment include philosophy and religious studies by 15%, foreign language by 5%, liberal arts by 3% and social science and history by 0.2%. 

In addition to the lack of profit in these industries, students may be wary of studying liberal arts subjects due to the broad applications of what they learn — in other words, there is no clear, definite career path associated with majors like English and art compared to majors like computer science.

The payoffs of passion

“If you do this kind of thing (majoring in art), you have to be so passionate that it's the only thing that brings you joy. So for me, nothing else was going to make me happy,” said Caroline Estelle, an ASU graduate student pursuing an MFA in art.

Estelle grew up around the arts. Throughout middle and high school, she signed up for as many art classes as she could. 

Encouragement from teachers and peers to further her craft was all around her. However, when it came time for college, her parents objected to her plans to major in art.

Estelle tried to please her parents and get a degree in business. When that track left her glassy-eyed and groggy, she tried out digital art and design to combine her love of art with a more lucrative element.  

But she wasn’t happy with that, either.

“I tried to be practical, but I realized I hated sitting in front of a computer screen. So I took a drawing class, and I was like, ‘Nope, this is it,’” Estelle said. “I have to make stuff with my hands. I don't really have any other explanation, it's just what I love to do.” 

Siding with passion is not an easy decision. On average, humanities majors earn less than science, engineering or business majors, but they are often more content with their financial situation than the alternative.

Even when an artist does choose to further their degree as an art major, the business side of the creative world can be tricky to navigate. And apart from artists' senior exhibition course, students at ASU aren't taught much about marketing themselves. 

Pursuing a career in art or other similar creative fields forces many to consider taking on a second job. With the little money her craft brings in, Estelle teaches to pay the bills.

“Most really established artists at top galleries and in museums still work a day job too,” Estelle said. 

While reluctant toward her position at first, Estelle has warmed up to it. Teaching long-forgotten basics to beginners helps her fine-tune her own craft.

Graduate student Chloe Torri has a similar perspective. When she first discovered her artistic ability as a child, she knew she wanted to teach the creative process to others. 

“I grew up learning that creativity and art can manifest in so many different ways,” she said. “Teaching others how to understand their passions, how to self-reflect and to pay attention to what draws them in through researching art and artists, will cultivate creativity within them.” 

Balancing practicality with inspiration

Instructing isn’t the end-all-be-all for artists, though. After getting an undergraduate degree in art, master's degrees are desirable when entering the field of teaching.   

For many, this ultimately means more debt and more work. 

Currently on this track, Estelle instructs, creates lesson plans and grades her student's work in addition to her workload as a student. She is also required to build a personal portfolio as part of a thesis project to graduate.

“To me, some days getting into the studio is the biggest struggle because I get home from teaching and I'm exhausted, I'm hungry and I just want to work on my computer, but I have to go and physically do something because painting is a physical activity,” Estelle said. 

Estelle's preferred medium is gouache, a type of opaque watercolor. A single layer of gouache takes a day or more to dry. Because of this — and the fact that her paintings measure up to six feet tall — she dedicates all free time to her art.

While she sometimes still finds herself struggling to balance it all, her students help inspire her.

“Something that I found really interesting is that my students that are not art majors work the hardest,” Estelle said. “I have some engineering students and some math majors, and they're so passionate. Probably because they don't get any other creative outlet and this is something they love, but they're probably making the more practical decision. But you can tell that this is what they want to do.”

The business side

"Something I wish I had in my education is some sort of professional development course, where they teach you how to professionally photograph your work, how to make a really beautiful website, what information to put on a business card," Estelle said. 

Without proper photos, an artist's application is discarded altogether, she said.

Otherwise left in the hands of Google, arts students must actively seek help from mentors to learn how to sell their work.

“Selling your personal artwork is an interesting thing,” Torri said. 

Torri plays with a variety of mediums; clay hearts, hand-drawn zines and emoji pillows, and she is still surprised by what winds up being sold through her sales on Instagram.

“I often find that someone who feels connected to an oil painting on canvas and (feels) inclined to purchase it might not be drawn to a risqué ceramic candy heart," Torri said. "Or maybe the person that is eager to buy a bunch of ‘DTF’ candy hearts is not at all who I would’ve expected.” 

Getting to a point where an artist is able to sell their work is difficult too. 

Figuring out one’s distinct style as an artist and creating enough pieces to accrue a portfolio takes a while on its own. Then comes the process of applying to galleries, museums and everything in between. 

Estelle said ASU didn’t teach her how to go about this process, and she wishes she had learned how to operate her art business more effectively.

Although she has been producing art since middle school, she is still considered an “emerging artist,” or in other words: a beginner. 

This label determines what applications she can submit and the price point she can set her paintings at.

“The whole art world is really weird and has unspoken rules,"  Estelle said. "As an emerging artist, your prices aren't going to be the same as an established artist. But, when I make a 6-foot by 6-foot oil painting that took an entire year, I'm not selling that for hundreds. If that has to sit with me for years before I can sell it for what I think it's worth, that's fine, because I'm not just giving that away.”

Ingrid Wells had her fair share of struggles figuring out how to sell her work, too. Although the artist is now based in San Francisco, she got her start majoring in art at ASU. 

“After graduate school, I lived off of selling my work for a year or two,” Wells said in an email. “Living solely off of your work, while it may seem dreamy, can also be a significant burden to address when you’re fresh out of school.” 

Wells considers herself an “artist entrepreneur,” and said many artists nowadays must take on both roles. For her, odd jobs and an administrative position at California College of the Arts achieve some financial stability while she continues to sell her artwork online.

“My financial picture is stable and comfortable," Wells said. "As an artist, you need a large amount of ambition and drive in order to provide for yourself. The path to financial stability is winding, multi-faceted and terribly more interesting as compared to other careers."

While pursuing a career in the world of art can seem intimidating or a waste of time and money, Wells disagrees completely.

“Absolutely, studying art in college was worth my investment. I enjoyed every minute that I had the chance to study art and treasure how I spent my time while pursuing my education,” Wells said. “My experience at ASU as an artist was beyond expectation, five stars all around.”

Wells said the key to success when majoring in an artistic field is to find how it works for you. 

“As a student, and particularly an art student, I believe you need to take initiative with shaping the educational experience you are seeking,” Wells said.

Reach the reporter at and follow @SaraWindom on Twitter. 

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