Whether in education, curation, preservation or sales, art historians help interpret and conserve the art of the past and present. Careers in the field vary widely. Many students of the discipline go into museum jobs like curator, docent, exhibition technician, or preservationist, but there are a number of other fields in which this degree can be used.
Art historians are needed in education, both within and outside of museums, as well as in retail: be it in art galleries, appraisal companies and antique shops. An art history degree may also be used in specialized positions within law enforcement, governmental agencies, or consulting firms.
Students in art history generally start with an overview of the major traditions and periods in art, including courses on ancient, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and contemporary art. Students can also take courses in studio art to complement their historical studies and provide deeper insight into the discipline. Often, undergraduates take courses in their freshmen or sophomore year about visual fundamentals and color theory, as well. As students continue in the major, they will likely take courses on methods of interpretation in art history, including iconography, semiotics, and social history. As upperclassmen, students usually specialize in a period or type of art.
Many students choose to specialize in one of the artistic periods mentioned, possibly focusing on a region, as well. Alternatively, students can specialize in the history of design, architecture, sculpture, or other types of art. Art history majors often have interdisciplinary majors or double majors, combining their studies in the art department with studies in anthropology, religion, history, literature, or philosophy.
The majority of positions for art historians require an advanced degree, whether those jobs are in museums, education, or journalism. Here's what students can likely do with each type of degree:
Art history students typically get associate degrees in order to transfer those to a 4-year college or university. By itself, an associate degree can earn students positions in retail, such as at antique dealer shops or art galleries, but will not qualify those students for most museum positions.
Art history students with a bachelor's degree have numerous opportunities for employment. Entry-level jobs at museums, such as working as a docent, often require this degree and can be a means of moving forward in the field. Students can also go into publication or journalism related to art history.
Many art history students opt for a Master's degree, since this is often required for employment in museum positions like curation, conservation or preservation, though some of those positions will require a doctorate. Those who wish to teach art history will also need at least a master's degree.
High-level museum curation, appraisal and conservation requires a doctorate, as do many jobs in art history academia. Students wishing to go into art litigation will need a law degree to go into governmental or private law firms.
Ideal Candidates for Art History
Students benefit from a flexible view of academia, since art history often involves interdisciplinary study. Courses call on students' analytical and critical thinking skills to examine and assess art, so students should be detail-oriented and enjoy solving complex problems. Communication skills are also essential, since the art historian's job is to communicate the meaning or interpretation of art to others, whether in a museum, gallery, academia or other realm.
The employment outlook for art history students depends greatly on that person's chosen field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, archivists, curators, and other museum workers will see that job field grow at an average pace of 11% over the next decade, with strong competition for jobs. On the other hand, professors and teachers of art history won't be in as much demand: this field will only grow by about 2%, though teaching jobs as a whole are expected to experience faster than average growth.
Museum workers, including curators, earn a median annual wage of $44,410, while professors generally earn somewhere near $73,650. Art teachers as a whole group earn a median annual salary of $62,160. Of course, salaries will depend greatly on the museum or educational institution at which the student finds employment, as well as depending upon that student's level of expertise or specialization.
If you want to learn more about what it means to be an art historian, connect with museums or professionals in your area. You can also reach out to art galleries, current students, and colleges and universities in order to learn more about this field.