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Career Overview: Art Therapists design and guide art activities as coping mechanisms or to treat psychological illnesses or conditions
Career Salary Range: $30,000 to $80,000
Estimated Years of Schooling Required: 6
Required Minimum Degree/License: Master’s Degree in Art Therapy
Become an Art Therapist
An Art Therapist is a professional who practices in the realm of behavioral health. Art Therapists treat all types of patients using the creative process to make art to help resolve or improve a wide variety of mental health conditions. Before an Art Therapist can determine directives, they must first understand a patient’s current state and condition. Treatable conditions may arise naturally or as a result of stress, trauma, feelings and behaviors or general awareness. The process of art therapy can also be used to help patients convey messages through their art, or to evoke the process of healing. Furthermore, creating art may additionally provide a patient with a greater understanding of themself. Each Art Therapist is trained to pick up on metaphors and symbolism often conveyed through the patients’ works.
There are few limitations on what materials can be used to engage in art therapy, but typically the materials involve felt pen, markers, paints, modeling clay, chalk, colored pencils and the like. Similarly, there is no one “type” of art which is thought to be more effective than another. Genres of art often used include collages, photography, sculpture and digital art. However, usually what separates art therapy from other types of therapy is that no language (written or verbal) is used in the creation of the works. Ultimately, art therapy and resulting artwork are extremely personal.
“Being an Art Therapist is very rewarding as well as exciting,” Catherine Falkenhagen, an Art Therapist practicing in California, said. “Often, patients discover information about themselves through the art-making process which is a reward in and of itself. Completing an art directive in advance of facilitating the art with a patient may yield informative results helpful to the Art Therapist in both a personal-growth and patient impact.”
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Education & Training
To become an Art Therapist, many of these professionals first pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts or Psychology. Upon graduating from one of these programs, learners next apply to an art therapy Master’s Degree program. Undergraduate coursework in psychology and art are prerequisite to the Master’s program.
During these advanced degree programs, learners will receive at least 60 hours of graduate level coursework including ethical standards, human development, psychology, creative processes and artwork. Learners must additionally complete 100 hours of supervised practicum during program and 600 hours of supervised art therapy clinical internship. After these requirements have been completed, students may obtain an Art Therapy Credential and/or pursue a Marriage and Family Therapy License in their respective state. “Completing a Master’s Degree Program in Marriage and Family Therapy and Art Therapy took me 3 years and 8 months,” Falkenhagen, who attended Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, said. “Their courses were typically held in late afternoon, early evenings and during the weekdays to accommodate students who work during the day.”
Falkenhagen further explained that the biggest challenge in completing this Master’s Degree program was staying organized. She noted that staying organized and focused is integral because the program itself contains information on topics such as how to obtain Registered Art Therapist credentials (ATR) and Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) licensure, making the curriculum itself critical in the post-degree career searching process.
One way to advance a career as an Art Therapist is to become board certified through the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Additionally, these professionals can choose to become self-employed, or open their own art therapy practice. While this can pave the way to great advancement opportunities, both financially and professionally overall, having one’s own practice also comes with increased responsibility (human resources, budgeting, etc.)
“An Art Therapist can advance their career by obtaining a Ph.D. in Art Therapy. The graduate school I attended provides one of the nation’s few Art Therapy Doctorate programs,” Falkenhagen said. “Art Therapists can also apply to become a Board-Certified ATR, which is required to provide supervision to Art Therapist trainees as they build hours toward their own ATR certification.”
Experience & Skills
To be an effective Art Therapist, these professionals should possess strong communication skills, allowing them to converse with and better understand their patients. They should also have strong problem-solving skills which are solution driven, enabling Art Therapists to determine ideal treatment plans and art directives for each of their patients. Furthermore, they should be able to work with individuals of all ages and backgrounds, and who may have a challenging time expressing their feelings. Therefore, before entering this profession, having experience working with a multitude of different patients is critical, as is having explored various modalities of art therapy (painting, photography, sculpture, etc.)
“Being able to have multiple art therapy directives in mind when working with clients is an important skill to have in this career,” Falkenhagen explained. “Flexibility is another important skill, allowing an Art Therapist to offer different directives during a singular session, more easily accommodate a group or family session and clients of different cultures, and to meet clients ‘where they are’ in their recovery process.”
She added that the ability to explain what art therapy is and how this career contributes to the client’s treatment plan is very helpful not only to clients, but also to members of the treatment team. Falkenhagen also mentioned that, although art therapy has been around for decades, many people still do not know about the rich benefits of using Art Therapy to treat mental health issues.
“A person considering Art Therapy as a profession needs to have the drive to help people,” Falkenhagen stressed. “They’ll also need patience with themselves as they learn more about art therapy, and when working with clients that may be reluctant to participate. Creativity is also typically part of the Art Therapist personality.”
Yet, above all, Art Therapists should be kind, understanding and empathetic toward the mental states and conditions of their patients. Many patients seek the assistance of Art Therapists when they are experiencing challenges impacting their mental health or overall wellbeing. This means that an Art Therapist should be able to guide patients toward solutions, as well as to offer them support in overcoming their challenges. This processes may take weeks, months or even years to achieve depending on a patient and their personal recovery. Thus, Art Therapists should be patient professionals who remain open-minded, motivated and determined despite possible obstacles.
Since the majority of patient appointments with Art Therapists are pre-scheduled, these professionals tend to work relatively “normal” 9 am to 5 pm business hours. However, their hours on the clock are largely dependent on their workplace setting. For example, Art Therapists employed by schools may find themselves working roughly 8 am to 4 pm, possibly having to stay later if student demand is great. Alternatively, Art Therapists who work in hospitals, which are open 24/7, may be asked to work evenings, nights, weekends or holidays as needed.
Additionally, this career can be quite frustrating and stressful, especially when patients have a difficult time opening up to their therapist. However, once a patient begins to actively engage in the therapies and positive rapport is formed, the profession is incredibly rewarding. Some Art Therapists also find their own personal practice of art very relaxing, which can help relieve the stress which the career demands.
“In this career there is usually a ‘planned day,’ and then there’s the real day, meaning how things actually occur,” Falkenhagen explained. “On a ‘normal” day’ I would see five clients, each in 50-minute individual sessions, and hold one 2-hour group session of 8 to 10 attendees. Often, clients ‘no-show’ or there is a walk-in emergency patient to accommodate and your schedule is subject to change.”
Falkenhagen added that she believes the key to success in this career is being prepared and being flexible. She expressed that each Art Therapist should have a certain number of art directives at their fingertips that use various materials, and that can address different treatment plans and patient diagnoses.
“Also, being able to document the patient session outcomes and any treatment plan changes concisely and quickly is vital,” Falkenhagen said.
In recent years, as mental health awareness has increased, more and more Art Therapist positions have opened up. Art therapy is a preferred treatment methodology for many patients, as this practice does not immediately involve the use of medications to help improve mental health states or conditions. The states which employ the greatest number of Art Therapists are New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Massachusetts and California.
There are a variety of settings in which Art Therapists may work. These settings can include schools, hospitals, rehabilitation care units, assisted living centers and senior communities. Although less common, these professionals may also find employment through crisis centers, clinical research facilities, wellness centers, detention centers and forensic institutions.
“Don’t limit your position title searches to the term ‘Art Therapist.’ Searching on ‘Therapist’ could yield positions that use art therapy like Activities Therapist, Behavioral Health Therapist, Mental Health Therapist, Counselor and more,” Falkenhagen advised. “Also, students and graduates, as well as professionals and retired professionals, can join the American Art Therapy Association.
The median annual wage for Art Therapists is $46,060. While the lowest 10 percent of earners make less than $30,000 annually, the highest 10 percent is recorded to earn more than $80,000 annually. So, there exists great earning potential in this career!
“People do not enter the career of Art Therapy to get rich,” Falkenhagen stressed. “While research shows that art therapy helps contribute successfully to patient treatment plan outcomes, many insurance companies do not recognize the practice. However, some healthcare organizations are now starting to recognize the value of art therapy and are hiring Art Therapists.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) is an organization which brings together art therapy professionals who are all dedicated to using art to heal and enhance patient outcomes. This organization also seeks to promote the practice of art therapy.
The Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) is a credentialing organization designed to protect the public by promoting the competent and ethical practice of art therapy through ensuring the highest quality and standards of art therapy professionals.
- Determine which colleges or universities are of interest, and that offer undergraduate degrees in art and psychology
- Enroll in classes and keep all syllabi for reference when applying to graduate schools
- Apply to graduate school
- Network with art therapy professionals
- Select a Practicum site
- Try to choose one that provides working with the population or in the setting that they are interested in working in after graduation
- After graduation, obtain a number of grad school transcripts as these are needed to obtain certification and licensure
- Reach out to connections for insight into employment opportunities
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Catherine Falkenhagen
Practice: Odyssey Art Therapy Center
Location: Sacramento, CA
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Promote what Art Therapy is and its benefits. Even though Art Therapy has existed for decades, the practice is often misunderstood. Someone getting into this career will need to be willing to educate clients as well as employers and co-workers on just what art therapy is and how their various art directives can contribute to patient treatments and recovery. For example, adult coloring books are now widely available. Some people consider them to be art therapy, but without the leadership and facilitation of a trained Art Therapist this act is just using coloring as a distraction, which in itself can be helpful, but is not considered therapy.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Strength in psychology and art are needed for a career as an Art Therapist, however some people minimize the analytical, technical and computer skills required. Many art therapy college assignments require use of video-conferencing, recording, editing, playing video, using presentation software, navigating an online college student portal and using library search skills. Being proficient in art and psychology alone is not enough.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What will be the total cost of my art therapy education? What will be the return on investment? What are the employment possibilities in my area, and am I willing/able to relocate?”
Why did you choose to become an Art Therapist?
“I learned about the art therapy vocation through my own personal behavioral health counseling while working in the stressful world of IT service delivery and project management. I discovered things about myself through my own art-making that aided my personal development. I have always been good at and interested in art, and I wanted to move into a career where I could use both my art and technical skills to help people directly.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Creativity. Creativity applied in art-making, but also in preparing for client treatment sessions. During a session, a client may bring up information and the art directive previously planned is no longer appropriate. That is when one needs to be creative in using other art directives and / or art materials.”
*Credentialing organizations: The Accreditation Council for Art Therapy Education, Art Therapy Credentials Board