How To Make A Living With An Art Degree

by BUST Magazine

They don’t call ’em starving artists for nothing. So how can you actually make a living with an art degree? I’m doing it as a New York-based scenic artist. Here are my tips for making bank while still playing with paint.  


It’s great if you can paint and draw, but the notion of graduating from art school and selling paintings to make a living isn’t realistic anymore. Even major artists sell more than art—whether they start street-wear companies or do design collaborations. Successful artists (à la Jeff Koons) are actually more like corporations with a publicist and assistants, and they even employ other people to make their art. But there are lots of ways to get paid while being creative, especially in the entertainment industry: you can build props, make costumes, or do hair and makeup—all artistic jobs that have their own unions. Or you can do what I did, and become a scenic artist, crafting and creating set elements for theater, TV, and movies.


Instead of choosing a basic art degree, I pursued one in theater production with a minor in studio art so I could be an artisan and learn a craft. These days, a lot of my time is spent sanding, prepping, and painting walls, but that all pays off when I get to do something fantastic like create a lava field for Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah, or re-jewel Jambi’s box for The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway. I spent last summer helping to sculpt a sinkhole out of styrofoam with chainsaws and power tools for the new Tina Fey and Amy Poehler movie Sisters. When I started out as a scenic artist, I made $20 to $25 an hour. Now that I’m in the union, I make significantly more hourly, and I have full health care, a 401k, and a pension. If I am doing an art installation or mural job, my contractor’s day rate is $500-plus. 


I did two internships in college and when I graduated, I was accepted into the internship program at the Juilliard School in N.Y.C., which helped my skill development. A good paid internship is like real life with training wheels. You can fuck up and it’s OK because you’re still learning. Lots of people in the film industry and on Broadway started in theater. Try doing an apprenticeship or internship at one of the regional summer stock theaters across the country. North Carolina School of the Arts offers degrees in scenic painting and the trade-school-like Cobalt Studios in upstate New York offers a training program in scenic art. My union, United Scenic Artists Local 829, has an apprenticeship program as well.  

Article by Amanda Hagy

Photo: Cheylene Tattersall

This article originally appeared in the December/January print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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