The fine arts are doing fine

Douglas Dempster

Samian Quazi, in his Nov. 16 column in The Daily Texan, is poorly informed about the arts in the U.S. economy and about professional prospects for fine arts graduates. But we can thank Quazi for exposing some canards about the arts and for reminding us that these alarming views are held by some with real power.

Are art schools oversupplying the market with aspiring artists without hope of pertinent jobs? In this miserable job market, there are few fields for which that isn’t true. Should the University not prepare students for any field with a labor surplus, such as law or business?

The fact is the arts are doing far better than might be expected. A recent national survey of graduates of arts schools revealed that far from being largely starving bohemians, they are unemployed at about the same rate as all graduates with similar levels of education. Sixty-five percent of UT College of Fine Arts bachelor’s-degree holders work as professional artists or teachers in the arts. Over a 15-year period, 94 percent of the college’s graduates looking for work, in or out of the arts, have found it within a year of graduating.

It’s true that graduates of arts schools earn below the average for professionals with comparable educations. They are also disproportionately multiple job holders, entrepreneurs and founders of nonprofit organizations. But they report high levels of job satisfaction, often higher than better-paid occupations.

It’s simply false that the arts “don’t meaningfully contribute to the economy” whether one takes a narrow definition of the arts (the nonprofit, high-brow arts) or a broad definition (film, music, gaming, design, etc.). Creative industries contribute $30 billion per year in international exports. Nonprofit arts organizations alone generate $166 billion in direct spending annually, supporting 5.7 million jobs. Two million Americans report their primary occupation as in the arts, more than the number of Americans with occupations in the legal professions or as medical doctors or agricultural workers.

It’s alarming when Quazi argues that “the arts have traditionally been the patronage of the wealthy” and should be left to the wealthy rather than taught in a public university. Set aside the implication that a public university shouldn’t teach any subject patronized by the wealthy. (What subjects would be left to teach?) It’s true enough that opera and ballet have long depended on the patronage of the wealthy, largely for a wealthy audience. But that clearly assumes far too narrow a definition of “the arts.”

The arts at UT embrace everything from classical Roman art to contemporary dance to gaming. Audience participation studies have shown for years that educational attainment, rather than wealth, is the best predictor of arts engagement. No doubt, universities play a large role and bear a large responsibility, not only for employing, but also for “cultivating” future graduates.

“The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”

Dempster is the dean of the College of Fine Arts.