Quick Study: September 21, 2023

Jo Reed: Welcome to Quick Study, the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is where we'll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life. Sunil Iyengar is the pilot of Quick Study. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo. How are you?

Jo Reed: How was your summer?

Sunil Iyengar: It was good. Did some traveling, hung out at home too. So good mix, healthy mix.

Jo Reed: I like that healthy mix. So what are we going to talk about today?

Sunil Iyengar: So I know the new school year is not so new anymore, but I thought we could talk about some recent research on the arts in higher education. Specifically, two different sets of statistics that tell us something about arts degree holders and a third report on arts graduates during COVID.

Jo Reed: Okay, I'm ready.

Sunil Iyengar: All right. So first, the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, which runs something called the Humanities Indicators Project, has updated its stats for bachelors and advanced degree holders in a variety of fields, including the arts and humanities. The analysis lets us understand the demographic characteristics of people who earn such degrees and also to track overall employment rates for these different groups of degree holders.

Jo Reed: Okay. New numbers. That's your sweet spot.

Sunil Iyengar: I guess so. So let me just say, first off, it's not great news. In 2021, the most recent year for which the data are available, people who held undergraduate degrees in the arts had an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. Not only was this substantially higher than the unemployment rate for all undergraduate fields in general, that's 4.3 percent, it's more than twice the unemployment rate for arts degree holders four years earlier, when it was 3.6 percent. In 2021, 4.5 percent of arts degree holders who had advanced degrees in any subject were unemployed versus 2.7 percent of non-arts degree holders with advanced degrees. By contrast, in 2018, only 2.7 percent arts degree holders with advanced degrees were unemployed.

Jo Reed: But that is 2021.

Sunil Iyengar: It's 2021.

Jo Reed: And that's important.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, because before we go rushing to the conclusion that arts degrees are inherently of little value for employment purposes, I want to definitely point out that those are from 2021. That comes from the second full year of COVID in the U.S. and we already know from other data that arts industries and arts employment was disproportionately hit by the pandemic. We've talked about that here and this seems to have been true for arts majors as well, once they were out in the workforce. But the second thing is the observation now borne by data is, I want to make the observation that arts are in some respects like any other field these days, and that specialization seems to carry real benefits.

Jo Reed: Okay, say more about that.

Sunil Iyengar: So according to an article in American Behavioral Scientist magazine, researcher Joanna Woronkowicz of Indiana University shows more positive job outcomes associated with artists who majored in the arts versus artists who majored in other fields. So let me step back a bit to describe the study. The paper uses the same data set as do those unemployment figures I referenced from the American Community Survey, though the article covers a different time period. Just before the pandemic. The researchers set out to learn whether arts degrees specifically benefited artists. In her paper, Woronkowicz applies a statistical technique called propensity score matching to understand the causal link between college degrees awarded and the employment outcomes of those degree holders.

Jo Reed: What did she find out?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, it's not surprising that she would find that artists who lack a college degree are more likely to be unemployed than those who do not. Also, artists without college degrees have lower average incomes than non-degree holders. Again, not surprising. We know that education is highly correlated with income for most types of worker. But then Woronkowicz finds that artists who have arts degrees have higher incomes on average than those with a non-arts bachelor's degree. She also finds that artists with arts degrees are more likely than non-arts degree holders to work in an arts industry. This tells us perhaps that when it comes to occupations and industries, the arts are very similar to other fields of specialized knowledge in at least this respect. The pursuit of a degree in an arts field improves on average the career prospects of those who want to take a job in an arts industry and stick with it. For the purpose of the study, arts industries included motion picture, video industries, sound recording, architecture, design services, performing arts and related industries, museums, art galleries, historical sites and similar institutions.

Jo Reed: So you said these findings come from data before the pandemic.

Sunil Iyengar: That's right. From 2015 through 2019.

Jo Reed: If we're thinking about artists in particular, what do we know more these days about how their careers fared during the pandemic?

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, we have a lot more data now, but rather than dwell on income and employment rates, I think it's important to consider also the day-to-day practices of artists, practices that help to further their careers and how those practices may have gone or been compromised by the pandemic. The NEA funded a research grant to Ohio State University where the investigator Rachel Skaggs looked into this question. For a recently published paper, she interviewed several dozen artists who graduated from arts schools or arts programs and tried to learn how in early, middle and late stage careers, their access to social capital had been affected by the pandemic, and Jo, by social capital, we mean the networks of relationships that so often provide opportunity for advancement.

Jo Reed: Okay, you mentioned early, middle and late careers. Does this make a difference in how artists fared during the pandemic?

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, that's just it. For all or most of the artists interviewed, just as with all other kinds of workers, the first year of the pandemic forced the nature of social interactions with colleagues, making everyone go digital, as we all know. But across career stages, very few workers, according to Skaggs, built ties to others in their field. They mainly focused instead on maintaining professional ties with co-workers, clients or collaborators. But as Skaggs observes, there were different implications of these findings across different career stages. She describes early career artists, those in their 20s, as being socially adrift during year one of the pandemic. They were finding a hard time building new connections with others in their field and even struggling to maintain their current professional relationships. They also tended to gravitate to social media and online communities to access resources that could solve real world problems like financial difficulties. But those connections didn't seem to help necessarily in advancing their artistic careers as a whole. More established artists, meanwhile, in their 30s through 50s, were generally better connected than were early career artists, and often use these long-standing ties to, quote, gather in person or discuss art, network and socialize. Not only were these artists better able to draw upon their networks for support and for progress in their careers, they also reciprocated the support by sharing resources within their own social and professional networks. But in general, they focused on maintaining their networks, not building new ones, and then late career artists, here defined as in their 60s or 70s, felt largely isolated in their work and personal lives, even though they seemed adept at using social media during the pandemic, according to Skaggs. They expressed concern about losing touch with their professional ties during the pandemic, yet they persisted in their careers and interestingly, Jo, this is the only age group the researchers found where the artists said they were, in her words, losing touch with existing professional connections that they had before the pandemic.

Jo Reed: I know this is a time where we all felt so isolated and cut off from community, but why would older artists, do you think, feel this more particularly?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, I think there's still some question marks around that. Indeed, one of the takeaways from the article is that we need to know a lot more about the careers of older arts workers and Skaggs says, of aging self-employed artists in particular, given the evolving gig economy out there and also the adversities these workers have endured without the safety net of pensions or retirement plans, and also having weathered two economic recessions in the last decade and a half. But in general, writing about artists at all stages in their careers, Skaggs says there was a, quote, perceived loss of community and collegiality that came with a, quote, perceived loss of professional opportunity and collective artistic creativity in a digital professional landscape. She emphasizes the importance of serendipity and regular encounters with others as critical to artistic career development and she ends up by saying that, quote, the eventized nature of professional social interactions, I like that term eventized, in an online environment, served to limit the scope, time and formality of interactions between artists and others in their professional communities. So let's just hope we see an improvement on those fronts in the coming months and years ahead.

Jo Reed: Amen to that and I know you'll be keeping your eye on it.

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, for sure. Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was Sunil Iyengar. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts. You've been listening to Quick Study. The music is “We Are One” from Scott Holmes Music. It's licensed through Creative Commons. Until next month, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In this episode of Quick Study, we consider the job outcomes and experiences of arts graduates during and before the pandemic.