The foundation of art therapy lies in the idea that studying and creating art can help people work through issues, manage stress and behavior, and increase confidence and self-awareness2. By earning an online masters in art therapy, you can often work as occupational art therapists to help their patients overcome mental health difficulties by connecting with art and using it as an outlet to manage their personal difficulties. However, the career possibilities for art therapy graduates may include education, counseling, and community service work.
Online Masters in Art Therapy Programs
While art therapy seems to be a very specific degree for only one career niche, there are many related careers in art and counseling fields for qualifying graduates with the proper licenses and credentials to pursue3.
In these positions, as appropriate for each specific environment, art therapists will consult with their patients to establish counseling goals; plan therapy sessions with their patients to work toward those goals; assess which types of art will be most beneficial for the patients; lead individual or group art session that emphasize self-expression and creativity; and customize art therapy sessions for different patients or groups of patients4.
Art therapy graduates could also go on to pursue careers in the education of art, counseling, or art therapy5. The degree holder will likely need teaching certification and licenses for the state in which they plan to pursue primary or secondary education careers, while graduates of art therapy Ph.D. programs could qualify to teach or research at the university level.
Graduates with an online masters in art therapy could even open and operate their own studios, taking clients in a more casual atmosphere and leading art sessions and informal art therapy counseling.
Occupational interests, or the characteristics demanded of someone working in a field that might help people to discern whether a career is right for them, can help in envisioning a career in art therapy.
The primary occupational interests for the profession of art therapy are social and artistic. Social interest means that art therapists will likely have an extremely social career that involves communication, interacting with patients, teaching people, and helping others. Artistic interest requires self-expression and working with forms and patterns. Graduates who are both social and artistic may be great fits for art therapy careers6.
A third important occupational interest for art therapy is investigative interest. This involves the ability to determine facts through observation, solve problems rationally, and work with ideas7. Investigative thinking will help an art therapist to assess the root of a patient’s disorder and treat the patient using appropriate art therapy techniques.
Working in the art therapy field generally requires the use of excellent communication and interpersonal skills on a daily basis, so these are assets in the field. The ability to encourage patients’ creativity and show them the meaningfulness and value of art is also foundational.
Art therapists often work in teams that may consist of medical professionals, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, and teachers, but they just as often work alone with their patients, depending on the career and the environment8.
Common Application Requirements
Online masters in art therapy programs typically have similar admissions requirements to other graduate programs. Applicants must have a baccalaureate degree in an accredited four-year institution, and many programs require the applicant to have taken a certain number of undergraduate courses in art therapy, studio art, and/or psychology. If the prerequisite requirements are met, the first step in applying will likely be starting the online or paper application9.
Graduate programs typically require letters of recommendation, a résumé, and official undergraduate transcripts, and some might ask for additional academic records that detail the courses taken if the transcripts do not provide sufficient courses descriptions. This is usually to ensure that the applicant has taken the appropriate prerequisite courses and that those courses have covered required material.
A personal statement or essay is required for almost all programs, detailing the applicant’s academic history, specializations, interests, and academic and career goals. It must provide a complete picture of the applicant’s academic and professional background, why he or she wants to pursue an art therapy career, and what he or she hopes to accomplish by doing so.
Since the field is based on professional interaction and communication with patients, many programs also require a summary of employment and/or volunteer services that details the applicant’s experience with human services and direct client contact10.
Many programs will require applicants to submit a portfolio that represents the applicant’s current body of work and artistic interests. Depending on the program, the portfolio might have specific requirements for types of artworks that must be included11.
Finally, for some programs applicants must submit GRE scores; some programs, however, do not require standardized test scores or they designate them as optional, so be sure to verify the requirements for your specific program. An interview may also be required, either in person or over the phone, depending on the program.
International students must also submit evidence of English language proficiency to apply to United States graduate programs, usually in the form of TOEFL or IELTS test scores that meet the school’s minimum required scores12.
Art Therapy Education
Art therapy graduate programs combine the practice of visual arts with the study of psychotherapy13, focusing on training students to help people with mental health issues to express themselves through art and using art to communicate and work through problems14.
The goals of art therapy graduate programs include training students to think empirically and to be effective researchers, as much of the field is based on investigative skills.
An online masters in art therapy program will also focus a great deal on psychology theories, including ego psychology, behavioral theories, human perception of art, the concepts behind human relationships, and much more. Many programs emphasize psychoanalysis, and students can expect to study the work of scientists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and others who have done relevant research in a related field15.
Students in art therapy programs are trained to develop evidence-based clinical skills, to use art therapy theories fluently, and to employ social skills in many cultures and environments. Students are also expected to stay abreast of developing art technologies and different types of media emerging in the art world16.
The ideal goal is for graduates to be sensitive, self-possessed, and emotionally stable, with an eye for behavioral observations and the ability to discern individual needs.
Once the program requirements have been fulfilled, students will graduate with a master of arts in art therapy, though some programs offer a master of science. Depending on the program, an M.S. may focus more on psychology than an M.A., which may be more focused on art and communication17. Applicants should research their programs of choice thoroughly to determine which channels will be right for them and for their academic and career goals.
Art Therapy Courses
Art therapy graduate programs differ in their course offerings depending on the school, but most programs will offer classes that cover the skills that are accepted as necessary for the field. Some common classes that a student may encounter in an art therapy graduate program are described below:
Art therapy assessment courses are designed to help students understand and administer assessments of patients. Students will learn about both structured and unstructured assessments, and they will develop writing skills that will be useful in writing clinical reports. Students will also learn about how to administer assessments for different populations of patients, such as children, older patients, mentally handicapped patients, and more18.
Research and/or evaluation courses teach students how to conduct research in art therapy and how to employ different research methods. The course will likely cover the research process, research approaches in different aspects of the field or subfields, and constructive critiques of scholarly research19.
Art media and materials courses will emphasize the different types of art and media that could be used in the practice of art therapy. These classes will likely focus on which types of art and media are most appropriate for which populations, and will teach students how to use the particular medium in their patients’ therapy to maximize results. Issues relating to ethics and safety when using the media and materials are likely to be emphasized as well20.
Cultural issues courses are designed to help students become aware of the challenges presented by applying art therapy across different cultures. Students will likely study the use of art in different cultures, as well as examine their own cultural upbringing and become aware of its effect on them. Students will also be encouraged to appreciate diversity and to learn to overcome language barriers through art and nonverbal communication21.
Group therapy courses are designed to orient students to working with groups, which is a skill that is likely to be needed in an art therapy career. The course will likely teach students about the differences between working with an individual and with a group, and the challenges presented by those differences. Students will learn techniques and methods for group therapy, study the effects of group therapy on the individual members of the group, and understand the development process that is unique to group settings22.
Diagnosis and treatment courses help students to be able to identify different disorders or mental issues in their patients and determine the appropriate treatment. These types of courses typically use case studies that will teach students to identify a broad range of mental conditions, and students will explore the effects of art therapy on people with these conditions to make informed decisions about the right therapy and media for them23.
Ethics in art therapy courses are designed to train students in the best practices for the ethical use of professional art therapy. Students will learn how to avoid and resolve ethical dilemmas, how different ethical problems arise in situations such as abuse and breaches of confidentiality, and how to act ethically in different professional environments. Legal issues, advertising, research, security, and other issues relating to ethics are usually discussed and studied in these courses24.
Family therapy courses are often offered in art therapy programs and vice versa, due to the beneficial effect of art therapy for family and relationship counseling. These classes will deliver instruction on using art therapy specifically for relationship and family counseling. Students will learn about family counseling, sensitivity with different types of families, the cultural and social impact of family therapy, and basic theories in family and relationship counseling25.
Principles of psychotherapy courses are important in art therapy programs since psychotherapy is integral to art therapy. Classes will likely emphasize the study of Freud, Jung, and other scientists crucial to the field, and their theories and ideas. Students will learn fundamental clinical approaches to psychotherapy in practice and how best to employ it in the field26.
For courses in art therapy, students should remember that many courses have prerequisites, and so it is advised that art therapy students verify the appropriate sequence designated by their particular programs to properly fulfill the program requirements.
Earning Your Art Therapy Degree
There are several different routes to earning a graduate degree in art therapy. First, the degree can be earned on campus or online, or a hybrid of the two. Some programs may offer accelerated options that allow students to earn their degree in a shorter amount of time.
Secondly, there are art therapy degrees for both master’s and doctorate degrees, depending on the career the student wishes to pursue. A master’s degree in art therapy may be a good fit for students who wish to pursue careers in clinical and/or medical environments, in primary or secondary schools, and most other art therapy occupations that do not involve intense research or higher education. The latter two are typically reserved for those with a Ph.D. in art therapy, leading to careers as university professors or researchers.
Many programs require students to spend a certain number of hours working in a supervised environment in an internship or practicum that promotes work experience in direct client contact27. The internship/practicum often takes place in the second half of the program and supplements the material taught in the coursework. It serves to give the students work experience to provide them with a possible edge in the job market.
Graduate programs in art therapy will typically have a research and writing component in the form of a master’s thesis, culminating project, or a doctoral dissertation, depending on the level of the program. A master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation will likely involve working with a faculty member as a mentor while researching and writing about some aspect of the field, and presenting the resulting paper or case study to the department at the end of the program28.
A culminating project could include any non-writing project, agreed upon between the student and the department faculty, which employs the skills the student has acquired during the course of the program.
Many graduate programs also require candidates to take and pass cumulative or comprehensive exams that test the skills and concepts taught during the program and which are vital knowledge for success in the field29.
Selecting an Art Therapy Schools
When choosing art therapy programs to apply to, there are several things to consider that are specific to this profession.
As mentioned above, many programs require a practicum or internship as part of the program, which involves a certain number of hours of supervised direct client contact30. This could be excellent experience and may give the graduates an edge when applying for careers. It would also help to reinforce the theories and methods taught in the program with real-life experience31.
Some programs have more intensive internship requirements than others, so applicants to art therapy programs may want to consider the practicum or internship requirements of their prospective schools, especially if they want to pursue becoming registered art therapists. Students should also consider what types of opportunities the school will provide to students—for instance, whether the school has a special connection to a prestigious internship site or how much credit they will award to students for their practicum/internship.
The location of the graduate program is also an important factor to consider. For example, programs in cities are likely to have more internship/practicum choices than programs in more remote areas32. By networking a student might even want to seek employment after graduation at the site of their internship, so the location is important to consider in that case as well, depending on where the student would enjoy living and working.
Another factor an applicant may want to consider when selecting a school is academic interests. Different programs emphasize art therapy subjects to differing degrees, so applicants may want to choose a school based on how much they want to focus on one aspect or another. For instance, a school may focus more on the artistic aspects of the field, promoting the idea that the art therapist’s artistic abilities and growth help to promote the patient’s recovery and wellness. Other programs, however, could focus on the theoretical and research aspects as a means to promote and supplement the students’ investigative and clinical skills33.
Finally, time commitment may be an important aspect to consider when choosing an art therapy graduate program. While most master’s programs take two years to complete full-time, others may take more or less than two years, and a few are even attached to an undergraduate degree in art therapy in a joint B.A./M.A. program34. Depending on the amount of time the applicant wishes to spend or can afford to spend studying, time commitment could help to narrow down the choices of graduate programs.
As graduation from your art therapy program approaches, it is important to find out which requirements are needed to pursue a career practicing art therapy in the field.
For instance, the credential to practice art therapy is the art therapist registered, or ATR, according to the standards of the American Art Therapy Association (AATA). The ATR can be attained upon graduation from an AATA-approved art therapy program for qualifying students who have completed 1,000 supervised hours practicing art therapy directly for clients during the course of their program35.
Once you have acquired an ATR credential, qualifying students may be eligible to take an exam to earn board certification, or BC. The combination of these two credentials is one of the highest qualifications for an art therapist. The ATR and the BC are granted by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB)36.
A license is not required to practice art therapy in most states37. The only states that do require licensure for art therapists to practice are New Mexico, Kentucky, Maryland, and Mississippi. The license is typically known as the LPAT, or licensed professional art therapist38. If you plan to practice in these states, you may want to plan on acquiring an LPAT as graduation approaches.
If you intend to teach art or art therapy with your graduate degree, you will need teacher licensing and certification for the state in which you intend to teach39.
To enhance your career after graduation, you may want to look into acquiring a counseling license. A licensed counselor may be able to qualify for a wider variety of careers since it is less specific than licensed art therapy, but a caveat could be that your career may involve less art therapy than you anticipated or hoped, depending on the career40.
A Short History of Art Therapy
Art itself is one of the oldest known professions in the Western world, practiced in Paleolithic times in the form of cave paintings, in ancient Greece and Rome to honor political figures and athletic champions, and all throughout history for a variety of reasons. Whether art was seen as mental therapy is unclear, but art has always been valued and recognized for the aesthetic and social effect it can have on both the creator and the viewer.
Art therapy as a profession, however, wasn't formally recognized until the 1940s, when it developed independently in both the United States and Europe. In England, artist Adrian Hill was among the pioneers of the British art therapy profession. While he was in a sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis, he suggests that art therapy could be beneficial for the patients and began leading them in art classes. He went on to devote his career to art therapy41.
Artist Edward Adamson joined Hill in his mission, working to introduce art therapy into mental health institutions across England. Adamson promoted non interventionist art therapy in that he encouraged patients to create art freely and discouraged outside criticism or judgment. He also promoted art therapy as strictly a means of self-expression for the patients—not as a tool for psychiatrists who might use the patients’ art in their psychological evaluations42.
Psychologist Margaret Naumburg and artist Edith Kramer were pioneers of the art therapy field in the United States. Naumburg encouraged art therapy as an alternative form of communication and expression in what is considered a psychodynamic and psychoanalytic approach43. Kramer, a believer in the healing powers of art44, founded the art therapy graduate program at New York University (NYU)45.
As art therapy began to be recognized as a useful method for encouraging patients to communicate and express themselves creatively, the art therapy profession began to take hold in the United States and Europe46. In the 1960s the first art therapy journal and national professional organization were founded, and in the 1970s the first graduate degrees in art therapy were awarded47.
Since then over 30 art therapy graduate programs have been founded and art therapy has been increasingly practiced in medical institutions and in schools and community service centers. In recent art therapy history, evidence-based practices48, mind-body approaches, and neuropsychobiology have been of professional interest in treating mental health patients and patients with trauma or diagnosed disorders. A resolution to the conflict between art therapy theory and practice is being sought in modern scholarship as well49.
Today art therapy is becoming increasingly accepted as a legitimate form of clinical counseling, with many academic institutions offering art therapy degrees and four states even requiring a license to practice. And with projected job growth staying on par with the national average, the art therapy profession certainly has a positive outlook50.
For those who appreciate art and the creative process and who love working with people and helping them, a graduate degree in art therapy may help to provide an edge in the career market and a channel to a fulfilling career.
Art therapy can help—and has helped—people from all stages of life, in many mental conditions, and from many cultures and backgrounds. The field of art therapy is relatively new, but the beneficial effects of art therapy on mental health are recognized by the counseling and scientific communities. Art therapy is a career that is likely to provide fulfillment and joy not only to the patients they help, but to the therapists themselves.