At a time when evidence on the social and emotional benefits of the arts is growing, I felt dismay when a UK Education Minister visiting a school stated that choosing arts-based subjects for your A Levels was a career-sinker - better go for maths and science to ensure a successful and lucrative future. So as a result, many (but not all!) budding artistic teenagers will do the sensible thing and give up on art, music, drama, dance, etc.
This is of course not a new phenomenon: when teaching on art therapy Introductory and Foundation courses, I have frequently met people who made this choice and spent much of their working lives in occupations many found unfulfilling. They all shared a deep regret in having given up on arts in their youth and showed remarkable courage by trying to steer themselves back to an art-based career.
I am well aware that choosing arts as a career is not necessarily an easy path and that many think this option is mostly for people with independent financial means who don't have to work for a living. This is certainly not so for many of my friends and my own experience could not be further from this: I come from an immigrant background where the fear of the 'Wolf at the door', financial and otherwise was always very real. There were no artworks at home and no visits to art galleries. My need for art-making was viewed with alarm, not because my parents were horrible but because they worried about my financial security. My decision to go to Art College was, in their eyes, incomprehensible.
Lean years did follow and yes, sometimes things were very tough. However, when questioned by my children (both musicians) what art had done for me, I found there was so much to include! Although the list below is a much shorter version than what I could include, I hope it will encourage and support anyone wishing to choose the arts as a career. I am here addressing visual art but much of this applies to all the arts.
- You will deal with failure, frequently, for instance when the image in your head bears no resemblance to the one you made and you will learn from it. Art is the opposite of instant gratification and teaches you the value of perseverance.
- As a result, you will learn to problem-solve in creative ways, an extremely useful life skill.
- The distance between your personal and professional self will be quite small. This means that you won't have to hang up your identity on the coat rack when you get into work.
- Some art-based jobs and careers involve working with people who use art as therapy. You will meet some extraordinary people who, through deep experience of mental distress have grown compassionate, humorous and resourceful.
- In my own career as an art therapist, you actually gain value with age and experience - think about how so many sectors still discriminate against ageing!
- You will never reach the stage where you feel you have done and seen it all - there will always be something new to learn which can help to keep an open mind. This, I believe, really helps to avoid burnout and cynicism, which do not add much to our lives.
Finally, just to add that choosing maths & sciences can lead to extraordinarily creative and stimulating careers for people who feel passionate about these subjects. The arts do not have the monopoly on creative working lives and yes, it is possible for some artists to maintain a closed mind and cynical attitude. My hope is to avoid railroading everyone in the same direction and making a choice many will deeply regret later on in life. Despite the difficulties involved, choosing to follow a passion for the arts can indeed sustain you for life.