What is an Arts Major and is it Right for Me?

Did you love art class as a kid? Do you use every inch of paper to doodle? Do you love visiting interesting museums and exhibits? Do you look at the design of a website or graphic and wonder how it was made? If so, becoming an arts major in college may be right up your alley.

What is an arts major?

An arts major in an interdisciplinary major, weaving together multiple academic subjects like art history, painting, sculpture and photography. Additional areas of study include subjects like the business of visual arts and art therapy.

Is it right for me?

Before you start majoring in the visual arts, there are several important considerations to think about. Arts major don’t necessarily create art all the time, and there could be financial ramifications as well.

Here are several key questions to ask yourself before you officially declare yourself an arts major:

  • Am I prepared for the financial costs of being an arts major, including paying for art supplies or traveling to museums or exhibits and paying fees for those?
  • Am I okay with taking academic classes as well as art classes?
  • Do I have a thick skin? Am I able to take and incorporate constructive criticism I receive from professors and peers?
  • Am I prepared to spend much of my course of academic study alone working on my art?
  • Do I enjoy spending a great deal of time visiting museums and exhibits and looking for inspiration elsewhere?

What can I do with an arts degree?

Just because you major in visual arts doesn’t necessarily mean you have to become a “starving artist,” creating your own exhibits and selling pieces. While that’s definitely a valid career option, there are other ways to make your arts degree applicable.

Some potential career paths include:

  • art professor
  • art therapist
  • graphic designer
  • advertising executive
  • art critic
  • fashion designer
  • textile designer
  • museum, gallery or exhibit curator
  • art educator
  • gallery owner
  • filmmaker
  • photographer
  • photojournalist

What do artists earn?

Pursuing a career in visual arts isn’t necessarily known to be lucrative, and salaries vary wildly depending on where you live, what you do and how much work you take on at any given time.

“Fine artists” like painters, sculptors and illustrators usually make starting salaries around $40,000-$60,000 if they have steady work, whereas people in other art-related careers may make more or less depending on the type of work and how consistent it is (for example, the average annual salary for a graphic designer is $41,000 a year while the average salary for a museum curator is $53,000).

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What Types of Skills Are Best for an Arts Major?

Love art but not sure you have what it takes to successfully grasp the complexities of being an arts major? Here are the five major skills you’ll need to succeed in any college’s art department.

Diverse design skills

At the end of the day, an artist needs to be able to create incredible art, right? But even more important than being able to design and produce thought-provoking work, artists also need to have an understanding and appreciation for the various mediums (such as paint, clay, watercolor, etc.) available to them.

Thus, as an art major, you’ll need to be excited to work with these different mediums and also different design techniques over your course of study.

Ability to take criticism

Like any creative field, majoring in visual arts means being able to take constructive criticism well, regardless of if it comes from your peers or your professors. Art is an incredibly subjective field, and everyone will have an opinion on your work.

Knowing how to incorporate critiques and suggestions and cast asides ones that aren’t helpful is an important skill that takes time to learn.

Knowledge of art history

You can’t be a successful or insightful artist unless you have an idea of the art that has come before you. While you might want to get your hands dirty working on your own art, you’ll still need a scholarly mind to discern the history of art and what different periods in art have looked like to create the best pieces you can.

Time management skills

When you’re an arts major, chances are you’re working on a number of big projects at once spanning all sorts of mediums. Being able to keep yourself on schedule is an important skill in college, and it’ll only become more critical as you transition from majoring in art in college to working in an art-related field after school.

Communication and interpersonal skills

Even though much of your time as an arts major will be spent alone working on your various pieces, it’s still incredibly important to have interpersonal skills, especially when talking to people who are viewing your art and potentially leasing or buying it for their own collections elsewhere.

The personality of an artist is often as important as the art itself, and being able to relay that message to people is crucial.

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Types of Internships for Arts Majors

As an arts major, you may be wondering how your passion for art factors into the real world. The good news is that because of the many and varied skills you develop during your major, there are a lot of career opportunities available to you after graduation. Not sure what you want to do? An internship is the best way to explore all of your options and gain some professional experience.

Here are just a few of the best internships for arts majors:

Art gallery intern

As an art gallery intern, your responsibilities vary from clerical, communications-related tasks to those that are more organizational. This internship will familiarize you with the setting and running of an art gallery — from maintaining the gallery space to communicating with national and local artists. You may assist with gallery exhibitions in every capacity from installing artwork to adjusting the lightwork and eventually dismantling, repackaging and shipping the exhibits to another gallery. You will also get to build your professional exposure to the art world with duties such as researching and compiling information about artists, looking into art sale techniques and engaging guests during shows.

Art therapy intern

Whether you have previous clinical experience or not, as an art therapy intern you’ll be shadowing certified art therapists in group sessions. You may assist in the logistics of the session and gain experience as a part of a team of professionals. By working as an art therapy intern, you’ll also be exposed to the use of creative and expressive arts in settings such as a hospital, community and youth care or rehabilitation facility. This is a great opportunity to use your skills to help others and to learn the real impact of art in a clinical setting.

Graphic design intern

A graphic design internship is great exposure to the field of graphic, and a step up the ladder towards a full-time job after graduation. You could get accepted for a graphic design internship at an ad agency, a corporate firm or an art studio. During your internship, you will be assisting a graphic designer in designing prototypes, logos, social media graphics, flyers or whatever the organization requires.

Photography intern

Whether you’re capturing a candid of the bride in an extravagant wedding or researching stock photos to accompany a magazine article, a photography internship involves a great deal of hands-on experience, collaboration and insight. You could be employed at an in-house studio, a magazine or a newspaper. There’s a lot you can learn on the job, from the extent of communication required with related departments such as costume & make-up to what it takes to organize and categorize photo submissions or assist in print production.

Marketing intern

Your creative insight and discipline as an artist will come in handy in a marketing internship. Whether you are interning for a marketing organization or a marketing division of a huge corporate company, a marketing internship gives you more than a general idea about the marketing industry. From writing copy to working on concept creation or even to a stint in a public relations department, you’ll be able to experience several facets of the marketing industry and apply your creative skill to each one.

From knowing the story behind every nook in an art gallery to researching a rare sculpture, or creating a great design, an internship is a wonderful and safe space for art majors to explore, learn and re-invent themselves.

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How to Get a Job at an Art Gallery

If you’re passionate about art and interested in working at an art gallery, you might be wondering about what a career in the art world looks like. For example, what types of job opportunities are available in a gallery setting and do you need to be an arts or design major to be eligible for them? To find out how to land a job at an art gallery, we spoke with Melanie Kimmelman, a promotion and events coordinator at the David Zwirner Gallery.

Here are some of the key things you need to know about working in the art world.

What types of art gallery positions are there?

Although it’s common to think that most art gallery jobs are art-focused, the reality is that there are plenty of other opportunities too. Typical jobs at a gallery include positions such as a gallery associate, an events coordinator, a social media manager and an office manager. In short, regardless of your major, you’re likely to find an opportunity that works for you. The key is to be passionate about art. “I handle all events related to exhibition openings, dinners and cocktail parties and I also do a lot of publicity to support exhibitions,” Melanie explains about her position as an events coordinator, emphasizing that like most roles in a gallery setting, her role is a cross-functional one. In order to succeed in this type of setting, it’s important to be truly passionate about you’re doing and to be well-versed in what’s happening in the art world.

What types of skills do you need in order to work at an art gallery?

Although there is a lot of variation in the types of positions you can find at an art gallery, one thing remains constant: the ability to work across different departments. Some of the skills that are crucial to any type of gallery position are:

Knowledge of the industry

Even if your position doesn’t directly focus on the art or artists represented by the gallery, having a solid understanding of the industry is key. “I work with every single artist that we represent and I think that’s really exciting because it builds my knowledge of the company as a whole,” Melanie says, emphasizing that this knowledge helps her better represent both the gallery and the artists.

Communication skills

Being able to communicate effectively is important in any field, and in the fast-paced art world, it’s especially crucial. This is because you’ll often be coordinating events, exhibitions and art deliveries across multiple departments and with outside teams. In order to ensure that everything goes smoothly, it’s important to develop a communication style that is clear and effective.

Organizational skills

“The gallery world is very fast paced,” Melanie explains. “You have to be able to juggle all of your day-to-day duties and be able to prioritize and drop things when something is urgent.” The key to doing this effectively is to ensure that you have a clear understanding of your priorities and to manage your workflow accordingly.


How do you get your foot in the door for an art gallery job?

As is the case with most competitive industries, the key to landing a job at a gallery is to develop your skills while also growing your professional network. Melanie emphasizes that although her education as an art history major played a big part in developing her passion for art, it was her internship experience that paved the way for her career. “While I was in college, I interned at a museum for two years over the course of my junior and senior year,” she says. The contacts she made there landed her a job after graduation. “I maintained a relationship with my old boss and as soon as there was a position open, she reached out to me.” The result was a full-time job that successfully jump-started her career.

An art gallery job is a great option for those who are passionate about art and interested in learning about its many facets. To find out if a career in the art world is right for you, we suggest taking on an internship and getting some first-hand experience in the field.

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How to Get a Job at an Auction House

Working with rare pieces of art is a dream for many people, but for those who work at an auction house, it’s also a reality. If you’re an arts or design major, or just someone who’s interested in learning more about the art world, you might be wondering about the types of career opportunities you can find at an auction house and what you need to do to be considered for those opportunities.

To find more about how auction houses operate and how you can land a job at one, we spoke with Alexa Mendez, a post sale coordinator at Christie’s.

What are the different types of auction house positions?

Like most other fields, the art world involves a variety of different positions including roles like marketing, operations, sales and business development. And because not all of these roles require an art background, it’s entirely possible to find a position you like and that also matches your skill set. Alexa’s advice? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. “It’s about what you can do in the industry that you want to be in,” she says, explaining that her own academic background in finance and international business seems far removed from the world of art. However, by leveraging her business skills she was able to find an opportunity on the finance team at Christie’s and has since advanced to be a more senior role as a post sale coordinator.

What types of skills do you need to work at an auction house?

Even with so many opportunities for different careers, most jobs within an auction house setting require two things: 1) A strong knowledge of the art industry and 2) The ability to work as part of a cross-functional team.

Some of the skills that are crucial for any type of auction house position are:

Knowledge of the art industry

Although you don’t need to be an arts major to work in the art industry, having strong knowledge of the field is a key requirement of working at an auction house. In order to develop this knowledge, you can either take some art electives in college, or you can do your own research on the industry by reading relevant publications and following your favorite artists on social media.

Communication skills

Because of the cross-functional nature of the art world (and of auction houses in particular), being able to communicate in a clear and timely fashion is a crucial part of being successful in this field.

Organizational skills

Due to the many steps involved in organizing and hosting an auction (such as sourcing the pieces, planning the event and generating publicity around it), having strong organizational skills is extremely important for anyone working in an auction house setting. This will ensure that auctions and sales are well coordinated and that clients are happy with the way their purchases are handled.

How do you get your foot in the door for a job at an auction house?

One of the biggest misconceptions about auction houses is that you have to have a certain artistic or personal background to work there. In fact, when applying for her job at Christie’s, Alexa was prepared to do pretty much anything to get her foot in the door. “I will scrub the floors if that’s what it takes to start here,” she remembers saying after she reached out to them through a cold call. But she didn’t have to. Instead, she was able to demonstrate her talents in business operations and finance and prove that she could bring a lot of value to the organization. “I started off as a finance assistant and now it’s almost four years and three positions later,” she says, emphasizing that her finance background not only helped her get her foot in the door but also helped her advance within the organization. Her biggest tip: Figure out what you can bring to the table and show the employer what you can do for them.

Working at an auction house is a great opportunity for those who are interested in the business side of the art world. To find out if this type of career is right for you, we suggest doing an internship and getting some first-hand exposure to what it’s like to work at an auction house.

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