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Art Major Overview

Whether through the stroke of a paint brush or the strum of a guitar, artists have the incredible power to inspire. As Robin Williams’ character declared in Dead Poets Society, “Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.” And if you ask us, the list of things that make life worth living isn’t complete without art. Becoming an artist takes talent, but it also requires education and training. If you have dreams of turning your artistic passions into a career, you should consider declaring an art major. 

Related: Top art scholarships

What is an art major?

If you’re pursuing an education within the wide world of art, there are several routes you can take. From painting and photography to graphic design and live performance, there’s many disciplines that fall under the general umbrella of art. Although there’s a multitude of specializations, degrees in this realm are usually categorized as either fine arts or media arts:

Fine arts

These are the artistic fields that usually come to mind when thinking about “traditional art”. Students majoring in fine arts typically study disciplines such as painting, drawing, sculpting, pottery, theatre, music, and dance. Some schools may take an interdisciplinary approach to the major, offering students the chance to dabble in various art forms throughout their studies. Other schools may offer specialized programs that allow students to hone a specific craft such as music, painting, or theatre. Fine arts programs may also incorporate art history courses into their curriculum. 

Media arts

This discipline lies at the crossroads of art, technology, and business. Media arts students take a more career-oriented approach to their education, studying practical fields such as graphic design, video production, interior design, photography, and animation. This discipline is ideal for students who have an artistic spirit and a business-oriented mindset. They study how design and color can be used to express ideas through a variety of formats. Like the fine arts, schools offer both general media arts programs and specialized majors that focus on specific concentrations. 

Also see: Top college majors for the future

Coursework to expect

Whatever discipline you choose as an art student, you can expect a healthy mix of hands-on learning and classroom study. For instance, film students learn how to use video, audio, and lighting equipment while also studying the history and theory of cinema. Similarly, painters study both the technical and theoretical aspects of their craft. Along with their art classes, students in this field are also required to complete general education courses. These may include English, humanities, math, and science classes. 

Here are some potential courses you may encounter as an art major:

  • Fundamentals of Design
  • Three-Dimensional Design
  • Art History
  • Ceramics 
  • Painting 
  • Photography
  • Film and Television Production 
  • Contemporary Issues in Art
  • Advanced Color and Space 
  • Professional Practices in Art 

Also see: How to pick a major

Opportunities after graduation 

There’s no denying that art isn’t the most career-oriented major. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to achieve a stable and rewarding career as an artist. If you’re having a tough time conceptualizing a career as a “professional artist”, remember that not all artistic jobs involve a brush and easel. As we’ve discussed, artists come in all forms and flavors. Some are film directors, others are musicians, but all have the ability to positively impact others through their work. In the next section, we’ll cover a few practical art-related professions that are entirely achievable through higher education. 

Jobs you can get with an art degree

Just because you major in art doesn’t mean you have to live out the starving artist stereotype. There’s several professions you can pursue with an art degree, and we’ve highlighted a few of them below. We’ve also included median annual salaries according to the 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

1. Graphic designer

Graphic designers communicate ideas and information by using a combination of text and images. They commonly design layouts for web pages, advertisements, brochures, and magazines. Their work is done through digital illustration and photo editing software. 

2020 Median Pay: $53,380 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 3% (Slower than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Also see: Top graphic design scholarships

2. Museum curator

Museum curators oversee collections of artwork and historical items. Job responsibilities include preserving and maintaining collections, setting up exhibits, and providing educational services to the public. They’re employed by museums, historical sites, government institutions, and colleges and universities. 

2020 Median Pay: $52,140 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 19% (Much faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

3. Art director

Art directors oversee the visual style of projects within various forms of media such as movies, TV shows, magazines, websites, and newspapers. They determine how concepts and themes should be represented visually, then communicate their vision to staff members who then bring it to life. They typically manage graphic designers, photographers, and set designers. 

2020 Median Pay: $97,270 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 11% (Faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Also see: Top 10 summer art programs for high school students

4. Photographer

Photographers specialize in composing images, which makes this profession a natural career choice for art majors. These professionals are experts in digital photography, lighting, and editing software. Many photographers are freelancers, while others are employed by news publications, sports teams, and colleges and universities. 

2020 Median Pay: $41,280 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 17% (Much faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

5. Interior designer

This line of work involves designing indoor spaces to make them both functional and aesthetically pleasing. They have a great eye for design and know how to make colors, lighting, and materials work in conjunction. Interior designers are commonly self-employed, but they may also work for design service companies, architectural firms, and furniture stores. 

2020 Median Pay: $57,060 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 0% (Little or no change)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

6. Craft and fine artists

These are the folks who fit squarely within the definition of “professional artist”. Craft artists create and sell original works of art such as pottery, glassware, paintings, textiles, sculptures, and more. This is one of the more difficult professions to break into, but certainly worthwhile if you can make it work. The majority of craft artists are self-employed. 

2020 Median Pay: $49,120 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 14% (Faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Related: Should I switch majors? How to decide

Advanced degrees you can pursue 

Many students use their bachelor’s degree in art as a stepping stone towards a master’s degree. A popular option is to continue down the artistic path and pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA). Students seeking an MFA typically specialize in a specific field such as photography, film production, graphic design, painting, music, or theatre. Graduate programs like this can help students refine their craft and realize their careers as artists. A master’s degree also opens up the door to teaching art at the college/university level. 

Another option is to pursue a graduate program that blends art and business. Below are a few master’s programs that can help take your career to the next level: 

  • Art Administration 
  • Art Therapy
  • Animation and Design 
  • Film Studies 

How do I know if this major is right for me? 

If you’re considering a major in art, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Is creating and designing an integral part of your life? 
  • Do you have an eye for colors, patterns, and design? 
  • Are you passionate about movies, music, animation, painting, or dance? 
  • Will a degree in art help you achieve your career goals? 

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then an art major could be right for you!

Also see: Top majors and careers for introverts