Art therapy is a mental health field but it is also in part an "art" field and any career field that involves art comes with career challenges. Naturally, it attracts many individuals with art degrees who have a passion to help people through art; frankly, it is also a magnet for undergrad art majors who realize that a financially viable career as an artist is probably not in the cards. For the former, I applaud your commitment; for the latter, be prepared, because finding a financially viable career as an art therapist may not be so easy as academic advisers have led you to believe.
In Part Three, I ended with a teaser about which sets of letters behind your name make a difference in getting a job. If you are planning to attend graduate school to get a master's degree, you should first make an effort to understand the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) standards for education and the credentials that they lead to. Current educational standards for "approved" art therapy master's degree programs (programs that have met standards for curricula and other aspects of educational content) require that programs include specific competencies in art therapy so that graduates can meet the requirements for registration (ATR) and subsequent board certification (ATR-BC). All approved art therapy graduate programs should help you become eligible for eventual achievement of these credentials, post-graduation.
More recently, the focus of art therapy graduate programs has turned to licensure eligibility for graduates. Because art therapy is not a licensed profession in most states, as of mid-2007 the word "counseling" was officially infused into art therapy educational standards for approved programs. In brief, most art therapy graduate programs now include or offer coursework to help students prepare to become licensed professional counselors or mental health counselors. Eligibility for counseling licensure is the desired outcome, thereby hypothetically expanding job possibilities for graduates to apply their art therapy skills under the job title of "counselor." The AATA also promotes alternative licensure options; here is a direct quote from a February 2011 position statement in its members only section:
"The Association is dedicated to advancing the profession of art therapy through the broadest scope of career choices for art therapists, thus, appreciates that members working within the demands of various state regulations must have access to the broadest scope of state licensure options and portability of licenses from state to state. These options are necessary, in order to promote the practice of art therapy, to afford the greatest opportunity for art therapists to serve the public, to achieve economic security and career advancement, as well as to realize personal fulfillment within their profession."
While this statement talks about "advancing the profession of art therapy," it is really saying that a license in another profession (counseling, marriage and family therapy, etc) is preferable and perhaps necessary to being able to find employment in which to apply your art therapy skills. So while art therapy master's programs advertise education that theoretically leads to work as an art therapist, in reality you may end up getting a job as a licensed counselor or other mental health professional who uses art therapy as part of one's work rather than an art therapist per se. Some graduates are content with this endgame, but if you invested time and money to become an art therapist, this may not be the result you expected. And if you have student loans coming due, sometimes you may have to take a purely counseling or case management job with no opportunity to apply art therapy skills, in order to pay your bills. For some individuals, that may not necessarily lead to "career advancement" or "personal fulfillment" as portrayed in the national organization's position statement.
The recent emphasis on becoming licensed in a field outside of art therapy is also beginning to have wide-ranging affects on the development of art therapy as a profession. In my opinion, it promotes the "practice of art therapy" rather than the "profession of art therapist" by defaulting to counseling or other licensure as a way to address regulation and the job market; since art therapy is not regulated on the state level, registration and board certification as an art therapist may also become less important or even obsolete. And in the long run, art therapy may be lining itself up to become more like it's second cousin, play therapy. "Play therapist" is not considered a profession per se, but is a designation that one can achieve after completing a graduate degree and achieving a clinical license in counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, psychology or nursing. Becoming a play therapist is an add-on to a license and is accomplished through additional courses and internship hours as required by the Association for Play Therapy (more about this in a future post).
Okay, I am going to lay one more situation on you that you ought to know about. You may be surprised that the term "art therapist" is not a category in the Department of Labor or on O*NET (Occupational Informational Network), the online mega-dictionary of professions. Someday it may be, but right now even the savviest career counselor has a hard time finding the term "art therapist" on standard career databases for that reason; it's also why you currently may not find many listings for "art therapist" on sites like CareerBuilder or Monster.com. It also means that any demographics you encounter from anonymous websites claiming to know art therapist salary ranges and other data are unreliable; so do your homework by asking actual art therapists about their salary and workplace satisfaction.
Now I did not set out to be a Debbie Downer, but I do want you to understand the challenges of getting an art therapy job. And despite everything I have just told you, you can make a career as an art therapist with some creative elbow grease. There are settings where you can find satisfying work and as an art therapist, not a counselor; that will be the subject of my next post. Until then...
Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPAT, LPCC
Note: Art therapists, related professionals, art therapy students and potential students: To read what art therapists are saying about the issues discussed in this post, consider joining the discussion at the Art Therapy Alliance on LinkedIn. There are approximately 4000 individuals from around the world involved in this social media platform sharing opinions about leading edge issues in the field of art therapy and related topics.