Art Appreciation 101 · Art History

What Is an Art Historian?

When I tell people that I’m an art historian, I’m often met with general confusion and awkwardness. It’s clear that people don’t really know what that title means. I had no idea what it was until I started college, too. So, what is an art historian?

Met Cloisters What is an art historian?
Visiting museums is a bit part of my education and work as an art historian. This is the Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum) in New York City.

Education

I have a B.A. in art history. This degree is offered at many colleges and universities; it’s much more common than the general confusion suggests. In order to receive my degree, I studied major styles of art and architecture from prehistory through the 20th century. For each style, I learned about important artists and artworks, major ideas, historical context, accepted interpretations, and significant scholarship in the field. I also spent a lot of time doing reading and analyzing academic papers, as well as writing responses, research papers, analyses and comparisons of artworks, etc. As an upperclassmen, I took additional research and writing-based classes where I learned about methodology, became familiar with the research resources commonly available to art historians, and did a lot of writing. I also spent a semester studying contemporary art. Before I graduated, I wrote a 100-page honors thesis, where I conducted my own research to create and defend a unique position I came up with on a topic of my choosing.

Some day, I hope to earn an advanced degree in art history. In order for this to happen, I will have to chose a very specific field of study, take more advanced classes in theory, research, and methodology, and then write a dissertation related to my chosen specialty.

Montreal Museum What is an art historian?
Designing and arranging exhibitions is the work of a museum curator, who is most likely a PhD in art history. This one was at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2012.

Careers

The two jobs most often associated with the field of art history are curator and professor. A curator works for a museum, managing the study and display of the museum’s collection and organizing exhibitions. Larger museums typically have different curators for different types of art, and many have different levels of curators, each with different responsibilities. A professor works for a college or university and teaches classes of the sort I mentioned above. Both curators and professors do a lot of research and writing in areas closely related to their specialties. Their work is often published in academic journals, exhibition catalogues, and books. Museum curators and university professors almost always have PhDs.

However, art historians can have many other jobs, and not all of them require an advanced degree. The possibilities include:

  • Other positions in museums, including educator, conservator, and administrator.
  • Positions in art galleries and auction houses, such as director, curator, specialist, and researcher.
  • Appraiser (someone who determines how much an artwork is worth on the art market).
  • Educator at a museum, school, or non-profit.
  • Conservator (someone who cares for and repairs old or damaged artworks)
  • Historic preservationist (similar to a conservator or museum administrator, but for a historic site).
  • Researcher on a variety of projects, typically related to a museum or university.
  • Art therapist (someone who uses art and art making to help people heal).
  • Journalist, writing reviews and other art-related articles for newspapers, magazines, and websites.

Many of these jobs require extra study and training. In particular, conservation is an entirely separate field that has to be studied separately. There are also degree and certificate programs for appraisers, historic preservationists, and museum administrators.

I would consider myself to be part educator and part journalist, with a little bit of researcher in the mix. But if you called me a wannabe professor, I wouldn’t argue with you.

In a separate post, I will dispel some common myths about what an art historian is and isn’t. I’ll also talk about what makes an art history degree useful even if you don’t pursue one of the careers listed above. Update 1/17/18: read the second post here.

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