By VICTORIA FINNEGAN

It was late May in Baltimore. The spring was beginning to feel like summer and the cherry blossoms had shed their flowers. At the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), classes and critiques were over. The campus in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood was almost empty. Seniors in gowns and berets were preparing to leave.

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iStock photo © Natalia_Kalyatina

Now fall is becoming winter. Michelle Hahn, 22, and with a B.F.A. in Illustration from MICA, is on her way to work.   It’s just about 11p.m. as Hahn walks into the Westfield-Montgomery Mall. It’s Thanksgiving night, or for Michelle, Black Thursday. She makes her way through the fluorescently lit hallways, the bright floors sparking in the light. She walks into Urban Outfitters; she clocks in and goes behind the register. She won’t leave until after the sun has risen.

Elizabeth Lilly, 23, and Emily Cucalon, 22, are no longer surrounded by the white walls of the spacious and sunlit studios of MICA.   Elizabeth, with a degree in General Fine Arts, and Emily, with a degree in Painting, found themselves in the tiny studio spaces of converted buildings. Elizabeth and Emily exchanged their comfortable lives as students for “one flimsy piece of paper in a green folder that proclaimed us Fine Artists.” There are no large windows and no structurally stable walls. There are no people.

 

A degree in fine arts has never been a ticket to a six-figure salary. Part of its lure is its uncertainty. This uncertainty is on the faces of graduates. As they enter a tense, post-recession labor market, art school graduates are told that they face a perilous future. They are told that their training has left them without many, or any, marketable skills. The value of an art degree is in debate. Seven out of ten of the most expensive colleges in the country are art schools. A Wall Street Journal analysis of Department of Education data shows that the debt loads at art schools have a median average of $21,576. So, there is a question of whether an art degree leads to a fulfilling creative career or a string of part-time jobs, whether it is a waste of money or a smart investment.

However, there are dueling reports about life after art school. A collective of arts alumni, BFAMFAPHD (standing for three possible art degrees: Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Fine Arts, Doctorate of Philosophy), found that only ten percent of arts graduates are working as artists. On the other hand, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) reports that of the recent grads who have found employment, 80 percent say their first job was “closely” or “somewhat closely” related to their field of training. Even among those working in jobs not directly related to their degree, arts alumni report that their training was still relevant, having taught them skills and ways of creative thinking that were applicable.

Making it Work

After graduation, in closet-sized studios, Elizabeth and Emily kept working. As Emily searched for jobs and applied for shows and Elizabeth pursued a children’s book deal, the two meet weekly, maintaining their sanity while drinking coffee. Then, they went to Philadelphia. They met local printmakers and learned about secret local art spaces and the many collaborative printmaking studios in the city. Back in Baltimore, the two dreamed of duplicating the art community they saw.

A study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that artists are more than three times more likely than other workers to be self-employed. More than one in three artists are self-employed, compared with less than ten percent of the overall labor force. Larry Witham, author of Art Schooled: A Year Among Prodigies, Rebels, and Visionaries at a World-Class Art College, says, “Students at art school get that liberal arts background, so they have the potential to be problem solvers, to find creative solutions, they can have good conversations, which has to do with succeeding in life…they can stand up and speak publicly and explain themselves.” He also says of art students, “[They] have a broad mind and can work with all kinds of people.” Art students have the tools to overcome the grim trends in employment, and even to go into business for themselves.

With their dream in mind, Elizabeth and Emily created Piccolo Studio, a creative community for paper-based artists. Out of a shared 600-square-foot studio, the two have begun establishing the Piccolo community. Elizabeth says, “We plan to have events to bring together the disparate pockets of paper-based artists that exist around the city, giving people a chance to talk to each other and share resources and support so that staying in Baltimore after school is a desirable plan.”

In Transition

Michelle Hahn doesn’t mind working as a sales associate Urban Outfitters. She likes her co-workers and managers. She likes helping customers. But she is doing all this for a reason. She has a plan and possibilities. She decided to work at Urban Outfitters because she could see herself make designs for their aesthetics and wants to work her way up in the company. She’s working on her art, working on her portfolio, and plans on applying for a stylist internship at Urban Outfitters. She says, “I’m doing all of this in pursuit of what I want, I know there are sacrifices I’ll have to make and that I’m going to have to wait and work to find my dream job.”

Michelle isn’t that different from other new graduates, both past and present. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that although underemployment among recent grads has been on the rise since the 2001 recession, it is not all that uncommon. The study compared the experience of new graduates today to that of new graduates in earlier periods. The study shows that moderately high unemployment and underemployment are not uncommon for young people after receiving their degrees.

In the 2009-2011 period of graduates, the study stated that underemployment rates for twenty-two-year-olds was about 56 percent. This rate dropped to 40 percent by age twenty-seven and reaches the historical level of about 33 percent by the time people reach their thirties. This pattern arises because graduates usually require some time to transition into the work force.

Michelle is driven. She knew coming out of MICA there was a chance she wouldn’t immediately find the perfect job. She says, “It’s a hard thing to deal with, and there’s a disappointment that comes with it, it’s unspoken, but I think a lot of people fall into that hole.” Although she wishes that she didn’t live at home and didn’t work in retail, Michelle realizes, “when I get to that point, to the perfect job, the struggle will make it that much sweeter.”

The Value of an Arts Degree

In a world of $120,000 art degrees, it sometimes seems difficult to see the value of an arts degree. But for Michelle, Elizabeth, and Emily it’s easy to see its importance. Larry Witham says, “Art school is not so much about art, it’s more about education… A lot of teachers say, we don’t really do art here at MICA, we’re educating: we’re educating them, and they’re learning how to educate themselves, and then when they leave here, then they have a choice to do art as a life career.”

Emily recognizes that one the most valuable gains from an arts degree is the connections she made. She says, “It was an entrance to a larger community of artists and creators that I am part of now, and without attending MICA I think it would have been much harder to find that secret door to the world of creators.”

For Elizabeth, MICA helped to shape the way she thinks. She learned how to do something and do it well, but also, use what she learned in the process to solve problems. She says, “I think that we are…master problem-solvers and challenge-embracers.” In Piccolo studio, Elizabeth and Emily create their own problems and come up with their own solutions. Piccolo itself is a solution to the isolated and unproductive condition of post-art school. Emily says, “[Piccolo is] not unlike projects we did in our studios at MICA, where we didn’t have time to sit around and waver, we just jumped in and solved the problem.”

Before art school, Michelle didn’t know what she wanted. Now she does. And for her, that is all the value her degree needs. If she had to do it all over, you would still find her at MICA, on a day in late May, dressed in a gown and beret.