Dr. Bjorn Mercer

Start an arts and humanities degree at American Public University.

By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Humanities, Music, Philosophy, Religion and World Languages Programs, American Public University

Many people dream of making it as an artist. Whether it is as a writer, a musician, a painter, an actor or a dancer, countless people dream the dream. The problem is that for the most part, it is the impossible dream.

Nevertheless, there are rare cases when a lucky artist hits the jackpot right out the gate. Take the case of John Legend. He was a University of Pennsylvania graduate who started receiving musical acclaim during school, only to make it big just a few years after graduating.

John Legend is a huge talent and a voice for his generation, and he worked hard to achieve success. He is one in a million.

A Career as Any Kind of Artist Is Never Easy

This leads me to an article I read on Vox by E.J. Roller titled, “My parents gave me $28,000 a year,” Roller describes the difficulty of establishing a career in the arts, even with financial help from her parents to cushion her living expenses. In the age of social media indignation and unabashed righteous anger, Roller probably received a good bit of criticism for her article. But I think it was an honest attempt to write about the reality of a career in the arts, and that reality requires money.

Throughout the article, Roller advocates for new voices to be included in the arts, which I agree with 100%. There needs to be diverse representation in the arts that is a reflection of who we are as a people and a society.

No Obvious Path to Becoming a Successful and Self-Supporting Artist

When it comes to the arts, however, there is no obvious path to becoming a successful artist that will allow you to support yourself. For Roller, her path included:

  • An undergraduate English degree from Yale, paid for by her parents
  • An MA from John Hopkins, paid for by her and the state (her job)
  • An MFA from New York University, again paid for by her parents

The $28,000 a year that she received from her parents is the maximum tax-free annual gift that parents can give their children. The money helped Roller with her living expenses and other costs.

Roller freely admits that getting degrees from highly selective schools debt-free was a blessing. If she had had to pay for them herself, Roller would be anywhere from $62,000 to $125,000 in debt, even though scholarships paid for 50% to 75% of her schooling.

She also freely admits that when she was working full-time, it was extremely difficult to write, submit her work for publication and network with artistic peers. It was only after Roller started receiving her parents’ gift stipend that she was free from the stress of working full-time and could engage in those activities that gave her artistic career direction and momentum.

You May Not Make It as a Self-Sustaining Artist, but You Can Still Be Happy

So can you have a career as a self-sustaining artist? Probably not. But there are ways that you can still be happy in your chosen career path.

From my perspective, which is guided by my own experiences and observations, the healthiest way to be a sane, productive artist is to make your art your full-time hobby. This requires getting a gig that pays the bills and lets you concentrate on your art during your free time.

Does this align with the bohemian fantasy of starving in a frigid garret in Paris that has been part of Western culture for generations? No, but Roller agrees that artists should not have to suffer to succeed. I have known too many artists who have been so burned by their experiences that they just quit their art and moved on.

So if you come from a family with financial means, as E.J. Roller certainly did, and your parents can pay for your degrees and also provide you with $28,000 a year tax-free, be an artist! But if you are thinking of becoming an artist or even have a degree or two (or three) in your chosen artistic endeavor, get a gig that pays the bills and let your art be your full-time hobby.

An article in The Atlantic recently detailed the discoveries Harvard graduate Deborah Copaken made 30 years after her graduation. She observed that her fellow graduates who went into the arts “were mostly happy and often successful, but they had all, in some way, struggled financially.”

If you make your art your full-time hobby, your productivity will be slower and your output will be less than if you had devoted all your waking hours to your art. You might also never become world-famous. But you will be happy, your stress will be mitigated, you will have an obvious way to explain your creativity, and your life will have artistic direction and purpose.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.