Careers in Art History
In our image-saturated world, visual literacy skills have never been more in demand. Art History gives us the power to see and understand the power of images – teaching us to observe, analyse, interpret, and empathise.
What can I do with an art history degree?
Art History graduates embark on an extraordinary range of careers. Many pursue careers in the art world, including roles in museums, galleries, conservation, heritage, the art market, and artist’s studios or in roles that support the art world, such as arts PR, arts publishing, art insurance, art law, fine art shipping, framers, collections management systems and online auction sites. Others enter the flourishing creative industries, including film, TV, animation, games, digital technologies (such as arts apps), photography, fashion, design, advertising, and marketing. And while many enjoy traditional arts and humanities careers such as librarian, archivist or teacher, others combine the skills and insights gained from a study of art history with that of another discipline, becoming lawyers, doctors, accountants, business leaders and financiers etc.
Read on to find out more about careers in museums and galleries and the art market as well as for our top tips for pursuing a career in the art world.
Careers in museums and galleries
A career in museums and galleries offers many possibilities. The sector is varied, from large institutions with numerous departments and upwards of 700 staff, such as the major national institutions in London, to collections held by organisations and cared for by one individual or a small group of volunteers. As a manager of a small museum, you may find yourself responsible for everything from researching and cataloguing collections, curating exhibitions, securing loans, writing interpretation panels, programming events and learning activities, giving talks, undertaking marketing and social media, writing grants applications and supervising volunteers. In larger museums, these and other responsibilities fall to specialised teams of staff.
There are various roles in museums and galleries concerned with the care of art works.
Curators oversee the care, display, and research of the collection and share expertise through publications, exhibitions, displays, talks and tours etc. They will often be specialists in a particular area of the collection, such as Chinese ceramics or Renaissance paintings. However, in recent years there has been a trend towards the prioritisation of transferable curatorial skills and experience over niche subject expertise.
Exhibitions Managers are responsible for the project management of exhibitions, including securing loans and their safe transportation, overseeing contractual negotiations, exhibitions budgets and risk registers, and scheduling installation/deinstallation.
Collections managers ensure the care and preservation of art works, for example by co-ordinating housekeeping routines and monitoring environmental controls, undertaking condition reports, and determining an object’s requirements for safe display and transportation. Their role may include or be distinct from that of the Registrar, responsible for updating inventories and cataloguing object information in the institutions’ database management system, as well as for contracts and legal records associated with loans, shipping, and insurance.
Art handlers are responsible for packing and unpacking art, installation/deinstallation and moving art around the museum and storage spaces. They may design and make bespoke cases to fit the unique shape of a particular artwork, so as to minimalize the risk of damage in transit. They may also courier artworks to other museum’s exhibitions and oversee the hanging – although increasingly, due to climate change, this is done virtually.
Conservators are responsible for slowing down the rate of an object’s deterioration, either by manipulating its environment (preventive conservation) or by intervening in the object itself. Having specialised in, for example, easel paintings or works of art on paper, they treat objects, physically and chemically, to preserve them. Their work is governed by codes of ethics, for example around minimal intervention or the reversibility of treatment in the future.
Provenance researchers undertake research into the history of ownership of collection items or new acquisitions. Working with curators, conservators and scientists, they investigate claims of cultural property and analyse and evaluate risks around acquisition.
There are also various roles in museums and galleries around public engagement with the collection and ensuring the accessibility of the collectionto all.
Interpretation managers create accessible, up-to-date interpretative materials helping diverse and intergenerational audiences learn about and enjoy collections and exhibitions. They work collaboratively with colleagues in the curatorial, learning and digital teams to create content in a range of formats, from wall labels to website text, online videos and digital apps.
Learning curators or programmers design and organise formal and informal learning activities such as courses, talks, tours, workshops, Lates and other events. This role requires creativity to find ways to engage diverse audiences with exhibitions and permanent collections. They may specialise in catering for a particular audience segment, such as school groups, families or adult leisure learners as well as those with special educational needs, mental health issues or disabilities, or they may work across audiences.
Gallery educators are called upon to teach and facilitate learning events, for example sharing their love of art and knowledge through tours or leading drawing workshops. They may specialise in audiences, aspect of the collection, learning approaches and methodologies or themes – for example race, class, or LGBTQ+ issues. The role may be combined with that of a Learning curator/programmer.
In addition, there are many other roles within museums and galleries including but not limited to Marketing (primarily focussed on the promotion of exhibitions and events), Press (managing relations with the press and ensuring positive and plentiful coverage), Digital (optimising the museum’s use of digital innovations to engage new audiences), Social Media, Events (overseeing the hiring of the museum for corporate events or weddings as a key revenue stream), Development (raising funds to support gallery activities and initiatives), Membership (creating an attractive programme of events and other offers for members)and Visitor services (welcoming the public and giving information).
Careers in the art market
The art market includes commercial galleries, auction houses and art fairs and can be divided into the primary market (when a contemporary artwork comes on to market for the first time) and the secondary market which deals in re-sales, whether through a dealer or auction house. Digital skills are increasingly important. For example, many auction houses utilise live auction webcasting or hold online-only auctions, and there are many new apps that support various aspects of the art market. Commercial art galleries range in size, from those led simply by a Gallery Director and Gallery Manager to those with a large support staff. Likewise, the leading international auction houses have departments of specialised staff, whereas at regional houses, roles are frequently merged.
Roles in commercial art galleries
Gallery Managers maintain the daily operations of a commercial gallery, supporting exhibition programmes, research, shipping, artist and client liaison and assisting with sales.
Artist Liaisons work closely with a commercial Gallery’s portfolio of living artists and their studios, being the first point of contact for all inquiries from and about the artists, developing and supporting the execution of their exhibitions, establishing contacts with museums and other institutions, and maintaining the gallery’s artists archives and databases.
Sales associates help maximise art sales by developing sales strategies (whether for Gallery, online or art fair and exhibition sales) and setting annual sales targets. They find works of art for consignment, establish and maintain client networks, notify clients of works that may be of interest, and negotiate sales. They are target-driven, entrepreneurial sales professionals, who can talk knowledgeably and enthusiastically about the art they are selling.
Gallery registrars identify the best (and most cost effective) ways to package, store, and ship pieces to provide the best care to the artwork. They are responsible for consigning artworks from other galleries and collections, and work with insurance companies. They keep abreast of changes in customs and export laws.
Auction house careers
Auctioneers present the art works up for bidding, managing the bidding process, rousing interest in the room and declaring when the work is ‘going, going gone!’ Auctioneers appraise and evaluate items to determine the starting price. This role requires numeracy, interpersonal and communication skills, commercial awareness, and the confidence to command a room.
Specialists (also called Experts) have expertise in a particular area of art (for example, Modern British painting) and are responsible for finding and valuing lots (the items for sale), leading cataloguing, developing and maintaining clients. A specialist requires commercial awareness and strong communication, interpersonal and negotiation skills. The role may involve considerable travel to secure art works for sale and languages may be required.
Cataloguers research and write about art works for sale. Strong research and writing skills are vital. Catalogue entries needs to be concise, accurate and if space permits, enticing. Since the auction world is fast-paced, and a single-sale may consist of several hundred items, a fast-turn around is essential. This is typically an entry-level position.
Valuations managers undertake in-person and virtual appraisals, helping clients inventory and value their collections, whether for insurance or taxation purposes or as estimates for a sale. They will often be the first to scope a potential collection, deciding which Specialists will be required, if it goes under the hammer.
Client Liaison managers handle client problems and questions, assisting the client with all aspects of bidding, buying and selling. The leading auction houses assign wealthy individuals with a key client manager, who learn about their clients, from their tastes in art, to business interests, family birthdays and hobbies, to create a strong rapport and business loyalty. Languages may be required.
Proposals writers seek out speculative business, such as the sale of important private collections. They create beautifully designed and produced books or digital products that set out the auction house’s strategy for a potential sale, setting out how the sale would look and feel, where and how it would be held, details of its marketing campaign and of course how much income the sale might raise. They work closely with a designer to meet the client’s and expert department’s expectations on the look, styling and layout of the documents, which can be very creative in form.
Administrators play a key role in ensuring the smooth operation of an auction house, co-ordinating activities such as shipping and purchase payment. Whereas regional auction houses may have just one or two administrators, larger auction houses typically have one per department.
There are many other auction roles including registrar, technician, marketing manager, bidding assistant (recording the bids), provenance researcher and photographer.
5 top tips for pursuing a career in the art world
- Study the roles that come up on art recruitment websites such as those of Sophie Macpherson, Lacey West and Draw Art Recruitment. Some museums have recruitment mailing lists that you can sign up to, alerting you to roles as they arise. Sign up even while a student, and learn all you can about the range of positions on offer and the skills and experience required, even if you are not yet ready to apply.
- Attend art fairs and exhibitions. Some art fairs have a programme of events, which can be a great way to learn more about issues facing the industry as well to network. Entry charges may apply.
- Join networking associations such as the Young Professionals in the Arts, The Association of Women Art Dealers or the British Art Network and attend exhibition openings. Go prepped, with questions, discussion points and background knowledge on the people you most hope to meet. Google image them, so you recognise them when you see them!
- Seek out opportunities for work experience placements and paid internships. Get your CV and cover letter into good shape, tailored for the organisation that interests you, and get feedback from friends, family, or mentors. Then write asking if they have any opportunities coming up.
- Finally, attend the Association for Art History’s series of free Careers in the Art World seminars. These take place four times a year and are aimed at providing information to 16–18-year-olds looking to pursue a career in the art world. Look out on our events pages or follow us on twitter for more information.