Still, even with such limitations, the results are startling. Out of the 2 million art graduates in the nation, only 200,000, or 10 percent, earn their living primarily as artists. The vast majority who get arts degrees, then, are like me. They may work in an arts-related profession (as, for example, as art or music teachers), but they aren't working artists.
Even more strikingly, people without arts degrees are becoming working artists. Only 15.8 percent of working artists have a B.A. or B.F.A. The rest have a range of college credentials—in communications (9.3 percent), social sciences (9.3 percent), or the liberal arts (7.9 percent), to name the three largest groups.
Arthur Chu's undergrad degree was in history, but he might be considered a working artist now, depending on your definition. Best known for a successful run on the game show Jeopardy, Chu now does voiceover work, generally for corporate and explainer videos, though he's also done radio commercials and voicing for the Web Series Erfworld. "I've got a big passion for acting. Improv comedy, community theater and the like are a huge part of my life," he told me. "Voiceover work was something I was attracted to as something that I could do from home, that could be narrowly focused toward trying to do performance for money, which is very hard to come by in the stage-acting world."
According to Chu, his lack of training in the arts has been a disadvantage in some ways. "I only ever seriously started considering performing as even a hobby, much less a part-time career, when I hit college," he said, "by then I was up against people who'd been in the scene since they were teenagers and children, who had a tremendous background in reading plays, doing theater exercises, hanging out with theater people, etc." On the other hand, though, he said, "I've had directors say they love working with people who got into acting in later life because they have more real-life experience to draw from, as opposed to having everything filtered through the specific lens of the theater. I mean, I think the dues I put in doing low-wage labor help keep me grounded and keep me from being full of myself whatever kind of project I'm working on at the moment." His experience on Jeopardy has also helped him get work.
So there are many folks with arts degrees, like me, who are not working artists, and many people like Chu, who graduated with non-arts degrees yet did become working artists. However, the single largest group of working artists comprises people who don't have an undergraduate degree at all. Working artists are more likely to have a B.A. than American adults as a whole, 69 percent of whom don't have a four-year degree. But still, 39.9 percent of working artists didn't graduate from college.
One of those who went directly into an arts career without getting a degree is actor, screenwriter, and director Nikole Beckwith. Beckwith attended a Sudbury School in Massachusetts, where there is no set curriculum and students organize and pursue their own education. The emphasis on self-motivation and seeking out learning helped her enormously in her career, she told me. It also helped that she had been pursuing theater since she was 9. After high school, she just kept acting and doing theater work and teaching theater and improv; she was co-director of a small theater company by the time she was 25.