Taking Note: Among Artists, Multidisciplinary Practice May Be the Norm—Not the Exception

By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis
Graphs and coffee

The National Endowment for the Arts is on the verge of releasing an omnibus research report on artists and other cultural workers, based on statistics from various federal data sources.

Readers familiar with U.S. stats on artists will appreciate that, whether from choice or need, these workers are irrepressibly agile when it comes to curating their careers. High rates of artist self-employment and part-time employment, relative to other workers, support this view. So does the well-documented tendency of artists to “cross over” from one industry or sector to another.

To an extent, these characteristics have shaped popular narratives about entrepreneurship in the 21st century. (After all, why do they call it the “gig economy”?) But rarely do we as researchers consider the degree to which artists flit not just across sectors or employers but also across genres and disciplines.

Enter the team of Alexandre Frenette (Vanderbilt University) and Nathan Martin and Steven Tepper (both from Arizona State University). Relying on a sample population of nearly 21,000 postsecondary school alumni nationwide who completed an undergraduate degree in an arts-related field between 1976 and 2017, Frenette et al. find that 74 percent report having “crossed disciplines in their artistic practice.” The paper appears in the current issue of the journal Cultural Trends.

Why does this observation hold interest? Consider: in a September 2018 paper resulting from an Arts Endowment research grant, Frenette and Timothy Dowd (Emory University) used a different cut of the arts alumni data to identify skills and experiences that predisposed the alumni to “leave or stay” in an arts career. Frenette and Dowd learned that arts alumni who had “double majored,” with one of their concentrations not occurring in the arts, were less likely than single (arts-) majors to stay with the arts as a career in the long term. 

For undergraduates, this finding would suggest that a laser-beam focus on an artistic field is closely associated with future persistence in an arts career. Not necessarily—or not exclusively. Once these trainees join the labor market, the formula for sustaining an arts career starts to look different. Among the same cohort, Frenette et al. write, “compared to arts-based workers who are more prone to specialization, those [who] expand the number of occupations in which they have worked (‘generalists’) are much more likely to stay in the arts.” (Specifically, the odds of retaining an arts career grew by 140 points for each occupation assumed.)

At the same time, “arts graduates report being dissatisfied with their entrepreneurial, business, and financial training,” the authors state. “It does not seem to us that arts alumni are requesting a curriculum tightly adhering to career training. Instead, they are asking for a liberal arts type of curriculum that likewise incorporates the knowledge needed for those careers that many students will one day pursue.” In other words, it appears that arts trainees could do with more generalizable knowledge and skills to accompany their in-depth artistic practice.

Now return to that Cultural Trends article. The researchers’ questions about “the practice of multiple art forms” are another way of understanding the job trajectories of artists who might be considered generalists versus artists who pursue a more specialized (in this case, discipline-focused) career path. Frenette, Martin, and Tepper write that “being a multi-disciplinary artist is significantly associated with a range of entrepreneurial career activities, such as self-employment or freelancing, teaching in the arts, or managing an arts-related organization.” Compellingly, “we find that the generalist arts alumni are more likely to stay in the arts well after graduation and report higher levels of satisfaction with their education and career pathways.”

The downside is that compared with arts alumni who did not work in multiple art forms, “multi-disciplinary artists are significantly less satisfied with the levels of job security and income that their current work provides,” the authors stipulate. To them, this result suggests that the condition of multidisciplinary artistic practice may be one of necessity, and not always desired. “Based on our findings, we hypothesize that some groups (e.g., non-white arts alumni) practice multiple art forms as a reaction to scarcity whereas others (e.g., men) may do so as a response to a wealth of opportunities,” Frenette et al. conclude, adding that more research is needed.

The data source for these two papers, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) survey, was established in 2008 with co-funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and others. A previous research paper, authored by Steven Tepper, also resulted from a NEA research grant. It too used SNAAP data, as did a paper by Angie Miller, Indiana University, et al., for another NEA research grant project. Those papers, along with a more recent entry submitted by Gregory Wassall and Neil Alper (Northeastern University) and titled “The Importance of a College Major in the Arts to Artistic Success,” are posted on the agency’s website.