Architects: Why are they in the NEA Jobs Report?

Posted by Mandee Ferrier Roberts, Nov 03, 2011 3 comments

Mandee Ferrier Roberts

Mandee Ferrier Roberts

They’re skewing the data. They make the most ($63,111 median income); they are the highest educated (88.5% of architects have Bachelor’s degrees or higher) and 70%  actually majored in their discipline; they’re the most likely to be foreign-born; 75%  are men (and are paid on average $12,000 more per year than the women in their field).

And I don’t think they’re necessarily artists.

Alright, alright, I take that back. Let me put it this way: they’re not just artists.

There’s more to architecture than what—literally—meets the eye. Of course, mating great design with practicality is an architect’s goal, but last time I checked, I didn’t have to concern myself with public safety or meeting codes when I created that painting or wrote that song.

I am of the opinion that the primary goal of architecture is not purely in the design, but in the usability of the space (with the best architects being those who can successfully balance aesthetics with pragmatics). The most “haute” of architecture (think David Fisher’s forthcoming rotating skyscraper) still must be able to be inhabited. If a building can't be, it's a sculpture. It's an interesting fine line.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of the very same resources used to compile this NEA research note, art and design are not the most important aspects of the job:

Architects create the overall look of buildings and other structures, but the design of a building involves far more than its appearance. Buildings also must be functional, safe, and economical and must suit the needs of the people who use them…In developing designs, architects follow building codes, zoning laws, fire regulations, and other ordinances, such as those requiring easy access by people who are disabled.

Architects working in the U.S. must be licensed. There are no other professions listed in the report for which a person must be licensed (correct me if I’m wrong!). In gaining licensure, the architect must pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). This exam “concentrates on the professional services that affect the public health, safety, and welfare” and candidates are not tested on the aesthetics of their design, but on its functionality and the architect’s ability to translate their design to working blueprints.

It would be like me getting licensed to be a music composer, and instead of being tested on my music itself, I was tested on my ability to create the sheet music for it.

Architects are also skewing the data in regards to artists with undergraduate degrees (Table 3 in the report). Every major field of study represented in the table earns a Bachelor of Arts degree, except for architects, who earn a Bachelor of Architecture. This is not a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture; this is a specified degree program that recognizes there are more components to the architect’s education than design studies.

Right now it looks like artists actually make $3,950 more per year than the average U.S. worker. This does nothing for those of us that are advocating for more government support for the arts. It, in fact, hurts our case! Take off the architects, and the average artist’s yearly income will come much closer to the national average.

(Please don't get me wrong. I love architecture! Maybe what's really bothering me is the way artists are categorized in this research. Where are the teachers? The stagehands? Are web designers counted?

Another factor not discussed is the massive salary gap between artists who are just starting their careers and artists who have achieved celebrity, as well as between artists working for nonprofits and those working commercially. There are also surprises in some of the metropolitan areas profiled. I may write another blog to address these issues!)

3 responses for Architects: Why are they in the NEA Jobs Report?


Joseph Futral says
November 03, 2011 at 10:29 am

The larger question, I think, is "What is art that it can or should be quantified?" Essentially what this study focuses on, really, is the arts' professions, not the arts. One can be an artist and never be an arts professional. One can be a professional in the arts and never really create art. In this context I mean that as the creative professional, not the support and administrative professions in the arts. One can be creative and create many things, but that doesn't mean everything they have created is art. It can be well crafted, but still not be art. It can be artistic, as a descriptive term, but still not art.

For myself, I define art as something created that is more than the sum of its parts. The Mona Lisa is not art because it is a portrait. It is art because it is more than a portrait. What is it that separates that awful painting of flowers over the hotel bed from van Gogh's Sunflowers? Architecture can certainly be more than the sum of its parts and create a emotional impact far more than just the business or home it creates. And even impractical. Frank Lloyd Wright designed theatres are some of the worst theatres, from a technical perspective, to perform in.

But whether something is or isn't art is not something a study can quantify. Because we love to measure things, we are left with needing to create an applicable definition for what makes someone an artist (generally accepted creative endeavors, though not necessarily strictly art creating endeavors). And once you start quantifying something for polity affected/affecting reasons, you introduce all sorts of issues and influences that may or may not really have anything to do with art.

"Rules" are the beauty and bane of humanity. I remember a conversation with a friend once about why people want "rules". I said they want them to make decisions easier, so we know what we should and shouldn't do. He said (lawyer that he is) we want rules so we can justify why those rules don't apply to us.

As an artist, I don't really care if institutions consider architecture art or not. I care even less about those who would find reason for such a study to affect their support for the arts. Art is important in a way that whether those salary figures were $0 or $100k for each category, it wouldn't matter. If someone can't see that on their own, no report will change their minds.


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FCM says
November 18, 2011 at 10:20 am

Architects as artists? Please.

Let's discuss this over a latte, please don't spill on the blueprint, 'kay?

If the criteria are:
- toiling masses beneath celebrity practitioners
- some aesthetic consideration for their work

Well, let's see. Med students toil before become plastic surgeons, who then deal with beauty of rebuilding skin. I-bankers toil away before starting their own hedge funds, which CREATIVELY eschew taxes and ethic restraint. Credit default swaps? The most creative restructuring of financial tools since picasso reorganized the human face.

So... I guess the whole world is filled with artists?

They design buildings, ok? Like graphic designers design ads. Like sound designers design ads. Like furniture designers design furniture. It's functional, commercially viable work that deserves a lot of respect. It has artistic elements.

There are grey areas, ok? Noguchi designed a coffee table. The trouble with defining art is that you can always play word games with the definition. It's like the famous judge said, "I know pornography when I see it." It just takes some common sense to draw the line, and a willingness to accept SOME exceptions.

But if the WHOLE point of this is to look at incomes of people who have committed themselves fully to the aesthetics of their medium, to sacrificing commercial viability, then architects do not fit the bill.

You can call them artists, or tomatoes, or creative professionals, WTF ever you want, but they are NOT IN THE SAME BOAT at us. And you know who "US" is.

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November 03, 2011 at 10:37 am

My family have architects in the ranks going back two generations. One thing that makes architecture closely resemble the arts world is how for every well-known celebrity architect atop the pile, there are thousands of practitioners toiling in obscurity.

In an economic downturn, they are the first to lose development work and go unemployed. While the elite create design partnerships, most work at the whim of their 'betters' and are dismissed with ease when the economy catches a cold. Many toil with the strain of the onerous student debt racked up to obtain their training. To make ends meet, architects must work in survival jobs that have an ancillary relation to their true aesthetic passions.

The precarious situation MOST architects struggle with would resonate strongly amongst other disciplines without much stretching of the imagination.

Most architects discover their passion while painting and drafting -- skills that without the structural code knowledge you dismiss would seem remarkably similar to artists you deem more legitimate.

The problem is not with the inclusion of architects as an artistic category, it's that the NEA seeks to commodify artistic output as a measure of monetary income -- and then we legitimize this endeavor. Why should artists' creative output to be commoditized and made comparable to other forms of wage income? Should a song you write or painting you make only have value if it sells?

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