Art Therapy and Its Symbols

We have a tendency to think that Art Therapy uses “symbols” rather than “words”, as in “Talk Therapy.” I want to remind us that words are symbols too—really language is a staggeringly complex system of spoken and written metaphors that we can no longer recognize as metaphors.

What an excellent point that Jim Nolan makes about the shortcut description many art therapists use to describe what we do. It makes me want to rethink my elevator speech to be more accurate. Wittgenstein would be overjoyed about this discussion!

Where to Study – US? UK? Canada?

Posted with the permission of the question asker, with some details changed to conceal the person’s identity:

Hi Liz,

I just stumbled upon your blog via my crazy search for details about art therapy. I realize you must be getting a lot of similar questions about grad school for art therapy but hopefully this one won’t add too much of a burden. I just completed my last undergrad exam for my BA in Montreal and have an Masters in Art Therapy offer lined up at a school in the US. While it’s so exciting to actually be a step closer to working with children with special needs, the financial burden as you’ve pointed out is steep. While the school in the US costs 40000/term for me as an international student, a University in the UK costs approx 18000/term (for MSc in Art Psychotherapy). Half the price?!

It’s frustrating enough that the US school is super fast and wants me to respond to the offer by the end of April, the UK school on the other hand has just been working on a different time frame and I’m having my interview tomorrow. Aside from the horrible timing, there’s also the greater problems of financing a masters and like you’ve mentioned to many others the long term consequences from that.

So I guess much of my dilemma stems from the fact that the US school, as an art school, obviously has a lot more resources available. While I cannot guarantee that the education may be worth double the cost, I am fairly confident that the US school is able to provide a certain quality of education. On the other hand, the UK school appears to have less emphasis on art. While I know that the professional credentials in the two countries differ, I was wondering if you knew any information about how art therapy is used in the States vs. Europe. From your experience, have you interacted with any art therapists who work in North America that obtained their degree elsewhere in the world?

Also, from a financial perspective, would it be worth paying double the price to study at well-resourced arts school as compared to a much lesser known university college who may have less updated information for the field of art therapy?

I realize I might have gone too far in depth into the situation and I definitely don’t expect all answers to be answered. But any insight into this situation would be of great help. Essentially I’m trying to leave my options open to the extent that after my masters I’m not limited to working in a certain area in the world but also not limiting myself because of student loans/ financial burdens.



Your question is an interesting one! I’m not sure how much I can help with the specifics, but I have a few questions for you that may help you along with your decision.

  • Where do you want to live after you’re done with Grad School? If it’s anywhere in the US, I can almost guarantee that you will not get a state license if you study outside the US. Getting a state license is not only essential in order for you to accept medical insurance (which is a complicated issue, even if you are licensed), it also opens you up to 10x more jobs than what you would be qualified for sans license. If you want to live in Canada, check-in with the art therapists in the province you want to settle down in. If I’m not mistaken some provinces have regulated art therapy as a profession and others have not. Again, you need to be sure you qualify for any licenses that art therapists in that province usually fall under.
  • Are you aware of the earning potential of an art therapist in the state or province you want to live in? Can you survive on this salary taking into consideration living expenses and paying off your student loan debt? (Please see my post on being a new mom and an art therapist)
  • Have you looked into Concordia University’s art therapy program? From what I hear it’s a high quality education and Concordia has a strong fine arts department. (They also have drama therapy too…) Also, if you’re already living in Quebec, you’d qualify for in-province tuition, which is so much less than anywhere else in Canada (despite what the protesters are saying!) It maybe worth putting off your MA to pursue this option, simply for the cost savings and the fact that Concordia offers a great education too.

I think the main difference between the practice of art therapy in North America vs. Europe is the theories that are used as a foundation for the practice of art therapy. There are some theories/modes of practice that are only popular/taught in Europe and not the US/Canada and vice versa. So, the coursework will be different and so will the length of study. I believe you can get an MA in 1 year and a PhD in 2 in Europe. I also hear that art therapy is very well respected in the UK, whereas you can be doing ok as a North American art therapist or struggling, depending on the region you live in.

Lastly, I don’t think an art school would necessarily be a better place to teach/learn art therapy. I went to Drexel – fine arts was not their strong suit – and I got an excellent education that was very clinically oriented. I preferred that approach more simply because it was more academically rigorous than other schools that seemed more art focused. But, that was my personal preference and doesn’t necessarily mean that one is better than the other…as long as you can hold your own in a clinical meeting once your degree is completed.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed from reading my other posts, I’m not a fan of student loan debt and I advise you not to go into debt to become an art therapist. The reality is that we’re paid so little that it’s very hard to makes ends meet without a student loan payment – never mind with $500-$1000 of student loans to pay off every month for the next 30 years. I’ve also been asking people interested in pursuing art therapy to seriously consider whether there’s another career path that would be just as fulfilling, but allows you to earn more money and have more job prospects after graduating, e.g., occupational therapy. I would hate for you to follow the art therapy dream only to meet the harsh reality that I and so many art therapists have recently.

I hope this helps! Remember – art therapy will always be around. You don’t need to rush into anything simply because you received an acceptance letter.

Thank you for writing,

– Liz

Student Loan Debt vs Following Your Dreams

A question originally posted as a comment:

Hi Liz!

I am considering returning to school for an MA in Art Therapy and have quite a few questions for you. I am 25 years old with a MST in Elementary education, certified in NJ to teach K-5 and students with disabilities. After earning my degree I received a Fulbright to go teach English in Malaysia for a year. I returned about a year ago and have been struggling to find a teaching position, or any job with a salary for that matter. During my time abroad things about my life and my career choice became more clear to me and I have decided I do not wish to pursue a career in education. (Although I think it’s a very admirable profession!)

Art, photography and painting particularly, is something I have always been incredibly passionate about. I’ve come to realize that it’s something that needs to be an integral part of my life. Earlier, I never had enough confidence in myself as an artist to think that I could somehow make a career out of it. I had been interested in the little I knew about art therapy, but never bothered to pursue or study it. I now realize much more how art is more about the creative process than the outcome.

What originally attracted me to teaching was the thought that I would be helping people. That ultimately, I would be making a difference in the lives of others. I really enjoy making art, I enjoy working one-on-one with children and adults, and I am incredibly patient. At the end of the day I want to have been able to employ all of these things in order to impact others positively, which is why I feel Art Therapy is the right career for me.

I feel like I am finally in the direction of the right path but there are a lot of important factors to consider. I have about $60,000 in existing student loan debt. I am working full-time as a nanny and continuing to apply to full-time teaching and entry-level salary positions in order to pay off this debt. Therefore it is very important to me that I plan this next step in my life carefully before taking out even MORE loans and accruing MORE debt. I am in the process of scheduling information interviews with university programs that have been approved by the AATA in NY, NJ and PA (Drexel’s program looks fantastic) in order to choose the program that is best for my needs. I would like to set up some sort of internship or shadowing experience with an art therapist who works in a nearby facility or organization so that I can confirm that this is the direction I want to go in. (I did work at a children’s hospital in the Bronx for 5 months before Malaysia where I worked alongside an art therapist and liked it.) I am also trying to find out more about what the job market is like for an art therapist. I have read the job prospects are excellent, yet when I do job searches nothing really comes up. I know therapists average about $35-45,000 a year and while making $ is not important to me I do need to make sure I can support myself and pay off my loans upon finishing my MA program.

So I am hoping you can help with answering the following questions:
– Can you recommend an organization or a resource to contact for an internship/shadowing experience in the tri-state area? I tried emailing the AATA weeks ago but no one has responded.
– To your knowledge, what is the job market like for art therapy? Is there a certain area of the country where that field is in higher demand? I am not at all opposed to relocation.
– Are there any other alternative routes to the end goal I have in sight?

Really anything and everything you can share with me would be so GREATLY appreciated. I wouldn’t mind your personal opinion either! What would you do in my shoes?

I’ve found your blog incredibly insightful and empowering – so thank you! And my apologies for the life story, I just thought you might be better able to assist me if I provided you with a bit of a background.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Hi Nina,

I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner to your email and post. I feel torn about how to guide you because I know how powerful the need to follow your dreams can be, and how art therapy can feel so right. But the reality of Art Therapy is that you should expect to earn approx 35-40K out of school. The potential of bringing in a bigger paycheck may grow (private practice, working for the gov’t in some capacity), but it will take years and many people don’t earn very much more than 50K. Your area – NJ, PA, NY are hubs for art therapy. If you’re not seeing art therapy jobs advertised, I would take that as a bad sign. And, as someone who learned new skills (graphic design and web design) after graduating school so that I can supplement my income, and possibly even change career paths, I gotta tell you that making 40-50K a year doesn’t cut it in CA (and probably where you live as well)…even if your partner makes 2-3x more than you. Not if you want a family.

My advise is not to take on more debt to get an art therapy degree. You’ll have a hell of a time paying off your first student loan on an art therapist’s budget. Plus, an art therapy MA can easily be 60K-70K after tuition, living expenses, etc… I recently read in the Wall Street Journal how young people are delaying things like buying a car, a house, getting married or having children because of their 4-digit student loan debt repayments. I think my grandfather had some excellent words of wisdom for me (and all of us) when he said, “the most money I ever made was never paying interest”.

So, if I were in your shoes, knowing what I know now, I would get an MA in a field that would yield a much higher return on invenstment. There are so many ways of helping people that doesn’t involve drowning in debt. If you like healthcare, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc… are rewarding, much higher paying and are in high demand. Even working in a business setting can offer you lots of opportunity to help people. For example, I’ve been interested in working at start-ups within the education field. That could be a good choice for you too, given your background. A revolution beginning to take hold in the education sector, democratizing education.

Actually, that’s another reason why I wouldn’t get into student loan debt right now. There are so many places online to self-educate, that once you have a good basis, why not learn on your own and do something that isn’t bogged down by licensing and bureaucracy to help people? That’s the thing I like about working in the business world – if you have the skills to pay the bills, then you’ll move forward and have the potential to do much more with your career than if you stayed in a blue model job.

That being said, it does sadden me deeply that I’m encouraging you to look elsewhere for your career. I wish art therapy was evolving with the times, but it’s not (AATA not responding to your question is an indicator…) And it’s not 2004, a year before I started grad school, when art therapy was declared a “Hot Job”. The recession combined with the changing nature of work in general is transforming the needs of the work force in unprecedented ways. If there is any way to merge your interests in goals with technology, I encourage you to do so.

—Lecture Ended—

To answer your other questions:

I don’t know any organizations that help connect those who want internships/volunteer work in art therapy prior to entering the field. But, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Try the Art Therapy Alliance message board on LinkedIn
  2. Email local organizations with art therapists, asking if they are open to an intern
  3. Email art therapy schools in your area to see if they have any ideas

A side route to art therapy is to get your MA in Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy or other MA’s in the psych field, and then get an art therapy post-MA certificate. This is a good option because it may help you be more mobile (if you ever need to move to another state) and it may open up more jobs to you.

I hope this answer helps!

Thinking of Getting a Master’s Degree? Think Again.

An article by Walter Russell Mead talking about what those us working art therapists already know. Here are some highlights, but this article is definitely worth an in-depth read.

“Young people graduating from master’s programs with low-paying jobs and crippling debt…

‘About one-third of people with master’s degrees make less money on average than a typical bachelor’s degree holder’.

Masters programs hit the sour spot of higher education — they tend to be more expensive with fewer financial aid opportunities than other programs, with a smaller payoff.

The jobs of the future will be more based on innovation and less on bureaucracy, and expensive degree programs will do little to help people navigate them.

In light of the recent classification of Art Therapy under “Recreation Therapy” by the Dept. of Labor, and the fact that one needs to hold a BA in order to become a recreation therapist, and my own personal experiences, Russell Mead’s words resonate with me more than ever. This plus the guild mentality that is so present in the mental health profession leads me to recommend that all those seeking a degree in Art Therapy to think twice. There are many ways to help others, and unless you are prepared to diversify your skill set beyond your MA and innovate, you may end up like so many art therapy graduates—working as baristas, secretaries, artists and sales people with a few hours a week here or there for actual art therapy.

Art Therapists are Recreation Therapists?

Sigh. As Cathy Malchiodi pointed out on her Facebook page today, it’s very disappointing to see that the US Department of Labor considers Art Therapists to be Recreation Therapists. Not Therapist or Mental Health Counselor. And of course, not just plain old Art Therapist. Art Therapy apparently can’t stand alone, like Marriage and Family Therapist, Counselor or Social Worker.

Oddly enough, according to AATA, Art Therapy is now a “distinct employment classification” according to the Department of Labor:

“The Association has been working diligently in the past 2 years to add the profession of art therapy to the Bureau of Labor Statistics database as a distinct employment classification.”

Apparently, according to AATA, the definition of a “distinct” profession is to simply be classified at all. But, the meaning of the words and the taxonomy used to describe any given thing defines how we perceive that thing. If Art Therapy is merely a sub-classification, then we’re on a path of public misconception. And once that path is forged is very difficult to gain back ground.

And, while I’m glad that Art Therapist made it onto the list of jobs recognized by the Labor Dept, it’s a blow to the profession that AATA did not come through for and Art Therapy classification that is worthy of the Art Therapy field. To be a certified Recreation Therapist you need a BA. All art therapists at minimum have an MA, and many are PhDs, with specializations in specific psychotherapeutic techniques to treat mental illness and trauma. I’ve worked with several rec therapists, and they all were fly by the seat of their pants when it came to clinical work (if they were even expected to do any clinical work)…because they were not trained in clinical work at the level of an Art Therapist or any other clinician for that matter.

I’m having trouble understanding AATA’s rationale for this decision. Is it that they’ll take what they can get and be happy to be included in the Labor Dept statistics at all? How can they justify Art Therapists needing an MA in order to practice if we’re lumped in with a profession that only requires a BA? Why are they ok with placing the Art Therapy profession on the wrong path? Is it not worth struggling for a longer period of time, but actually being a truly distinct profession, such as Marriage and Family Therapists?

Volunteers Needed in Montreal

I receive emails from time to time from readers trying to decide if art therapy is the right career path for them. I always suggest volunteering with an art therapist to see if they like it and to get their toes wet a bit.

Here’s a volunteer opportunity in through Concordia University at their Loyola Campus in NDG. Good luck!

What Is It About Art That Can Potentially Cause Harm?

Shared by Dr. Laura Dessauer via the Art Therapy Alliance on LinkedIn.

This article, found in the International Journal of Art Therapy, is an excellent reminder that although using art therapeutically may seem straight forward, it isn’t. Art making is powerful and reaches parts of oneself that may have been unconscious, semiconscious and defended away. Therefore, when therapists or therapeutic programs incorporate art into their practice with little training they may not realize they are exposing their clients to the risk of doing more harm than good.


The notion of arts-based risk is rarely acknowledged outside of art therapy. This paper describes an injury sustained as a result of art activity. The case was subject to legal proceedings which established arts practitioner and organisational negligence. The case was consequently settled out of court for a large sum. The paper reports the legal argument and explores what the process tells us about how art can both help and harm participants. This specifically concerns the power of art to make the subjective seem real and the need for practitioners to able to competently assess participants’ psychological vulnerability to this. The case represents an important milestone in the current arts and health debate, particularly with regard to the protection of the public. Lessons to be learnt for organisations seeking to deliver arts and health projects to vulnerable people are discussed.

Springham, Neil (2008) ‘Through the eyes of the law: What is it about art that can harm people?’, International Journal of Art Therapy, 13:2, 65 – 73

Art Therapy Decision Time

Posted with Leia’s permission:

Hi Liz,

I have been following your blog for awhile and have found it incredibly helpful this past year. I’ve wanted to become an Art Therapist for years but have stayed in my current career (film industry) because of the convenience. I’m at a crossroads here and was wondering if I could get your advice.

I’ve been accepted into a program here in California (PGI) and am due to begin in the Fall but I recently have began to have some major doubts due to articles I’ve read and wondering if you could lend your insight and opinion here.

I’ve been reading on several blogs and articles about the discontent within the Art Therapist community about finding jobs that one can actually practice the “art therapy” rather than just being an MFT. I wouldn’t want to go through all that schooling to find that I am not actually practicing art therapy. The other complaint is the low pay (after spending 60K on grad school) not making the money back. Do you have any personal insight on this or through other Art Therapists you may know out there? I saw on one of your posts you put the salary at 45-65K…

My next question involves the family aspect. Do you know of any who have gone back to school while trying to start a family and how that has affected their path to practice? My partner and I want to start a family soon and I’m concerned how this will prolong getting through my internship and the lack of income for following years because of the delay it may cause in having the kids. Any insight on others who have managed this? And what to expect?

Lastly, I have been searching online for other routes (shorter and less costly) that would lead me to working with children and using art. Do you know if I can obtain an Art Therapy Credential along with a teaching credential? To teach art in california? I’m really open to any options or ideas at this point that involve children and art :)

I’m sorry to overwhelm with the long list of questions- you just seem to know quite a bit about all this. Any guidance, insight or ideas on any of the above would be greatly appreciated!


Hi Leia,

I’ve been thinking about your questions, and they’re difficult ones to answer in many ways.

The reality about being an art therapist is that in order to be marketable and have a wide range of job options, you definitely want to have an state license along with an ATR. You may have been picking up on some frustration art therapists express about the ATR not being able to stand on it’s own, and that it’s not a viable path towards obtaining a state license in many states.

The MFT is currently one state licensing option in California for mental health professionals. The ATR is a national license and is not recognized by insurance companies for reimbursement, meaning that if you were in private practice, you could take cash only. If you wanted a job in a hospital or another institution they would not hire you (at least not for the positions you’d want to qualify for) because they need you to have a state license in order for them to get paid, so they can then pay you. Also, once the LPCC license finally gets going in California, it’s my understanding that having only an ATR and being in private practice will not longer be legal, since all practitioners practicing counseling or providing therapeutic service will need to have a state license.

Most of the time, you can find a job that is asking for an MFT and integrate your art therapy skills into the job. When you’re doing a job interview, for example, you can talk about how the art therapy aspect is very important to you as a clinician and that it will be the primary orientation that you use in group and individual practice. Also, you can check to make sure they’d be willing to offer you some kind of an art supply budget, as well as a space where it’s ok to get messy and make art work. Many times art therapists have to be creative about budgeting and spacing issues. In my previous job, I didn’t have an art room, but I was able to get a cart that I used to store art supplies, which I wheeled into whatever group room that was available.

Salaries are a difficult thing to give an accurate picture of. It really depends on whether you’re working towards licensure or currently have a license and whether you’re working for a private or public institution, or in private practice. To start, in CA, I would expect to be making between $30-45K a year while you’re working towards licensure. But, that’s simply my experience, and others may have had a different salary range to start. I’ve seen job postings through the City of San Francisco for recreation therapists (art therapists sometimes find jobs under this title as well) making $75K to start…but those government jobs are highly competitive and few and far between. Plus, with the budget issues facing CA at the moment, I don’t think the inflated public sector salaries can last. But, who knows?

Your question about starting a family is something that resonates with me at the moment. I’m currently pregnant with twins, and I’m staring the earnings/work/life balance issue in the face. One of the major realities I had to come to terms with was the cost of childcare if I was to work outside of the home. Do you have family nearby? Would they be willing to care for your child while you’re working? If not, take a look at how much infant daycare or a nanny costs. Since I’m having two at once, it quickly became clear that I needed to find a way to work from home (hence the development of Liz Beck Designs) because otherwise I’d be spending my whole salary on childcare.

So, it’s very probable that starting a family will delay your ability to intern and get the hours needed to become licensed. It’s also possible that you can find part time intern positions to work towards your hours, which could delay licensure by a few years depending on how many hours you actually work. But don’t be discouraged—if you start planning today, saving and setting up your life so that family or friends can help, you should be able to make things work. Many women go back to school with young families and they make it work—so can you! You may want to post this question on one of the Art Therapy Alliance groups on LinkedIn and see what ideas others have.

I don’t think there’s any way to become an ATR without an MA in the psychology, counseling or art therapy field. Art therapy is rooted in psychology, and the restrictions for credentialing reflects this. The only fast track to getting an ATR is if you already have an MA or PhD in the field of psychology. Then you’d qualify for a certificate program. Pratt’s MPS in Art Therapy/Special Education program seems to integrate education and an art therapy degree, but again, this is a master’s degree and it’s based out of Brooklyn. Saint Mary of the Woods College offers an online degree, which maybe helpful for you? Check out the American Art Therapy Website for more information about educational requirements.

Unfortunately I have no clue about the requirements to becoming an art teacher in CA. Sorry! Try looking on craigslist for art teacher jobs and see if you’re asked to have a specific educational or credentialing requirements.

I hope this helps! Good luck!

– Liz

Adding Art Therapy to a Nursing Background

This question was posted with Stephanie’s permission:

“Hi Liz,

I stumbled upon your blog today because I was surfing the web about art therapy. I am currently a pediatric registered nurse in the process of changing my career. I’ve been looking into a MFT program with specialization in clinical art therapy at Loyola Marymount University. I have a passion for therapy in the family setting and children and never knew this degree or career existed! I did have a few questions as to how to start this journey. How do I find therapists that I can shadow? I’m also a little worried about the time and money (more so the money) involved that I would have to invest in so I want to make sure there are jobs out there for art therapists and MFTs. Could you please email me with some advice or resources that I can use to research more about this field? Thank you for your time and patience :)


Hi Stephanie!

Are you on LinkedIn? The Art Therapy Alliance has a bunch of sub-groups on LinkedIn with very active message boards. You may want to join one or more of these groups and ask if there are any art therapists in your area looking for a volunteer.

You also can look around for an art therapy oriented studio around LA. For example, in the Bay Area we have Creativity Explored, which is an art studio for developmentally disabled individuals. It’s not art psychotherapy, but volunteering at in a similar space will give you a good idea of what art-as-therapy is (also valid approach to art therapy).

At this point in California, getting licensed as an MFT is a must. After you’re done school and you’re doing your job search, you will most likely find jobs that are looking for MFT interns (they may not say they’re interested in art therapy), but during your interview, you can describe the added bonus that you’d bring to the job with your art therapy skills. That being said, there are some jobs out there specifically asking for art therapists, but the MFT portion will give you more range and choice in the jobs that you are qualified for.

Also, the fact that you’re a pediatric nurse is fantastic! There are many art therapists who work with medically compromised populations—in hospitals, in eating disorder clinics, etc…and your nursing background may prove to be very powerful in landing a job or even forging your way into new places that art therapy is not currently available.

Now for the money aspect…I can understand your concern with this. School is expensive, and then once you’re done your earning potential as an MFT will take a long while to match your current earnings as an RN. In California, while you’re working towards getting licensed you will most likely be in the 30-45K/year range. After you get your MFT, your salary will go up, and if you land a job working for the city or the state, the salaries are very inflated at this point, meaning that your earning potential will be at least double than the private sector…at least for now (we’ll see what kinds of cuts are in store). In your case, however, I suspect that your RN license will change your earning potential for the better, even before you obtain your MFT. Maybe you will find an art therapist with a similar background to guide you more in this matter on one of the Art Therapy Alliance’s message boards?

In terms of student loan repayment, there are jobs your can take once you’re licensed that will lead to student loan forgiveness. Check out this post for more information.

Also be sure to read Cathy Malchiodi’s 6 blog posts on art therapy education, job prospects and licensing issues.

Thank you for writing! I hope this helps clarify things for you.

Warm Regards,
– Liz