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So You Want to Be an Art Therapist, Part Seven: Art Therapis

You have now entered the Art Therapy Twilight Zone...

In a previous post, I cited the lack of a specific listing for "art therapist" as a distinct profession in O*NET, one the most widely used detailed job descriptions for job seekers, employers and human resource (HR) staff in the US. The good news is someone is apparently reading my blog (although I have been harping on this issue since at least 2004). There now is a placeholder page for "art therapist" on the O*NET site and a description of the predicted tasks of an art therapist in the workforce. There is a survey underway to identify additional information on the profession. Good news, huh? Okay, now for the bad news, or at least the "confusing" news.

In "Art Therapy Education," I reported on the movement within art therapy education to integrate counseling coursework to meet license standards for professional and/or mental health counselors at the state level. This movement has even led to the development of degree titles such as "art therapy counseling." The intent is to enhance the ability of art therapists to be part of the array of master's level mental health professionals who practice psychotherapy. But where is the profession called "art therapist" now being positioned within the O*NET system? Not within a code that defines psychotherapy or mental health professions. It has been placed in a category right next door to recreation therapy, a bachelor's level, activity-oriented profession (Code 29.1125.00 for Recreation Therapy; Code 29.1125.01 for Art Therapy). Similarly, art therapy professors in higher education are now listed as part of "health specialty teachers" under the broader category of recreation therapy in O*NET's education section.

Honestly, I cannot wrap my head around this positioning of art therapy in a zip code next to recreation therapy and can now only wonder if art therapy is finally spinning out of control due to its own long-standing and unresolved identity crisis. Historically, art therapy is a field that emerged from psychiatry and psychology on one hand, and on the other, visual art. Like many art therapists, I was educated in a tradition that even required one to enter personal psychotherapy for experience and as part of preparation to work with clients. I have had to pass several licensing examinations, receive hundreds of hours of supervision, complete more than 3000 hours of post-grad work, and become board-certified and licensed as an art therapist. Current students are taking anywhere from 60 to 90 graduate level units to complete master's degrees--- an undertaking that often requires substantial student loans and a lot of personal sacrifice.

To my knowledge, recreation therapists do not routinely have to leap through these multiple and often expensive hoops; after all they clearly perform as activity therapists and leisure specialists. In all fairness, there is at least one of the creative arts therapies, music therapy, that has tended to see itself as an allied health profession like recreation therapy, physical therapy or occupational therapy. It is positioned in the same O*NET code as recreation therapy, but again bachelor's level music therapists do not function as psychotherapists; they provide valuable services that are grounded in behavioral, educational, rehabilitation and healthcare practices.

So where does this leave art therapy? And where does it leave you if you are pursuing art therapy as a career? I have no simple answers to this one. I hope by writing about this challenge, that perhaps some art therapists are called into service to address it. We worked too hard as a field to promote this powerful approach to health and wellness to give up now. This is not the vision held by the founders of this field who worked toward a profession grounded in the practice of psychotherapy, even when art making was embraced as the "cure," in and of itself.

Be well,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPAT, LPCC

Check out Occupy Art Therapy. If you are on Facebook, there is a group of intrepid art therapists taking an "occupy" stance in order to make their feelings known about this issue and others; you can find it at


Addendum on January 31, 2012: The proposed classification of art therapy within the O*NET system has been moved to the Code 21 category [community and social services, where counseling is located]. Whether it will finally end up in that category remains to be seen; a survey of art therapists will be conducted to see if skills sets, work settings and other career aspects match this category. Congratulations to those members of the art therapy profession who are making their opinions known on this and other professional issues. And then, guess what? It was moved back to Code 29, near Recreation Therapy. A survey will determine its final resting place.