On studying Art History (a useless degree?)

As I was waking up this morning and doing my usual ritual of checking email/Facebook/Wordpress/Dragonvale, I came across a blog (which I will not link here) that featured an article from bestdegreeprograms.org. This article listed Art History as one of the “10 Degrees Hiring Managers Don’t Want to See: The College Majors That Won’t Get You an Interview.” The following degrees were also included: architecture, Latin, music therapy, theology, English literature, American studies, puppetry (wtf, that’s a degree?), and poetry. Here is a link to the article, which also referenced Rutgers, Georgetown, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as sources contributing to the study.

Oh Donald, say it isn’t so!

Alright, so in other words, this isn’t some BS speculation that someone made up. There is actual data to back up the fact that these degrees make it difficult to find a job in an already competitive market. But this article also said that having a degree in Art History only qualifies you for one job: being a museum curator. It goes on to say that it is much more beneficial to have a degree in design, as that would give you a more valuable skill set. As soon as I read the word “curator,” I said to myself, “Clearly, whoever wrote this didn’t do much digging into the actual field of Art History.”

Pablo Picasso, “The Dream” (1932)
(Image from pablopicasso.org)

There is no denying that Art History is a difficult degree to work with if you don’t have another valuable skill set– or another degree– to bolster it. It’s not like Brad Pitt in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” when he said that he majored in Art History because “It’s reputable!” (though I don’t recommend going into the hitman business to give you an edge). You have to know that you want to work in the art world, especially if you’re majoring in AH as an undergrad, and you should be prepared to go on to at least the Master’s degree level. Bestdegreeprograms.org seems to be geared towards prospective college students, and implying that getting a Bachelor’s in AH is enough to be a curator is absolute crap: most curators have a Ph.D, though the trend seems to be turning more towards needing a minimum of a Master’s degree. A Master’s degree is two years; a Ph.D takes at least 6 years nowadays, programs are incredibly competitive, and finding a job no easy task (then again, is it easy anywhere?). Curatorial assistants typically have MA’s, though there was a time not too long ago that you only needed a BA for that.

Being a curator isn’t the only option available to people with AH degrees. If this article had been accurate about how curators need more than a BA, it would have also said that teaching would also be a career to consider. If you want to teach at the university level, you almost certainly need a Ph.D (not to mention years of post-doctoral research, and you have to regularly publish if you want tenure), though art and design schools who employ art history faculty aren’t always so strict on that. Community college teaching usually only requires an MA.

Simon Vouet, “St. Jerome and the Angel” (1625)
(Image from Back to Classics)

As far as other careers in AH, yes, the bulk of them are in museums. For registration, collections management, and education, to name a few, it’s a good idea to get some experience outside of the bookish confines of Art History. There are schools that offer a dual degree program in AH and Museum Studies– my school offers a certificate program in Museum Studies and will couple nicely with my MA (I hope)– or some people simply get two separate MA degrees. It’s a good idea to get an MBA if you want to go into Development or work in some sort of directorial capacity. It’s also good to have a degree in Communications if you want to work in PR. Art History is a good gateway into conservation, but you will DEFINITELY need to get an MA specifically in Art Conservation if you want to have any sort of career in it. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can own a gallery and have an edge with your AH knowledge.

Believe it or not, there are even more careers outside of museums (well, “outside” in a rather literal interpretation of the word, since most of the time you’re still involved with museums in some capacity). There’s art shipping– where it definitely helps to have a background in studio art, art history, and/or museum studies– as well as art appraisal, auction houses, and private collections management and registration in which one works for an actual collector.

For all of the aforementioned careers, one has GOT to get some additional experience– internships, volunteering, anything. For me, my extraordinarily obscure Bachelor’s degree (Pre-Art Conservation) and related work ended up being crucial in helping me find all sorts of work. Having experience in conservation means that one is good with their hands, has a sharp eye, and is not afraid of getting dirty. I also got to know a lot of really great people who were vital in helping me get a foot in the door, which then gave me room to grow. For a more complete story on my decision to major in AH, check out my page, Art History-ing.

The moral of the story here is: if you are only majoring in Art History because you can’t think of anything better to do or you think it’s “classy,” then yes, you are going to have a hell of a time finding a job. But if you take it seriously and work hard, then you can have a fulfilling career in the arts. So dream big, because Art History isn’t really the most useless degree you can have!

Follow-up: If you would like to learn more about what it is like actually studying Art History and a critique on working in the arts, please check out my post Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously- is it a useless degree??).

“I never went to MIT. Notre Dame. Art history major.” “…Art?” “History! It’s reputable.”

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6 thoughts on “On studying Art History (a useless degree?)

  1. Gah! This is something I am SO passionate about! My degree is in art, not art history, but I plan to continue with a masters in art history. While paying the bills is certainly important, and working in your field is a major plus, we need to rethink our concept of education. What does it mean to be educated? I have known countless people with great jobs and degrees who are not “educated.” Education, in the classical (and correct, I believe!) sense is about a pursuit of knowledge, not a job. Studying the “useless” subjects like English, history, philosophy, art history, etc. gives you a broader understanding of humanity, stretches your soul, and absolutely benefits you no matter how you actually bring home the bacon.

    • I couldn’t agree more. We unfortunately live in a society where we are made to believe that money is the only thing that matters, and consequently, many end up in soul-sucking cubicle jobs that promise to pay well. It’s so unfortunate how prominent this has become in our society, and one could argue that money is contributing to our intellectual downfall (not to mention the disappearance of humanism, since everyone is so busy making money for themselves and not caring about those in need). But I digress. I’m glad you liked my post, and good luck in your Art History pursuits!

  2. Such a good look into these sorts of degrees and the job outlook. I hear many things about my degrees in Historic Preservation and Museum Studies that fall into a similar vein. A lot of “so you are going to be a curator” questions.

    I can only stress your point of getting additional experience. So many job listings want an MA plus 2 years of experience, and experience is definitely provides a leg up on the jobs that are out there, and they are out there.

    Thanks for a great read!

    • And thank you for reading! I just love your educational background! I can’t believe that people ask if you’re going to be a curator a lot, since both of your degrees (to me) are more practical and hands-on than Art History. People just stare at me when I say I’m getting my Master’s in AH, and one not-so-bright fellow even said, “You can get a Master’s degree in that??” Experience is definitely key, and I know that I had to learn to take whatever I could, even if it was unpaid or less than pleasant. It all ended up working out well.

      • I think a lot of the questions stem from people just not knowing what a particular degree can lead to. After I get the curator question I say no, I’m not limited to that, I could go into collections care, museum education, or even run the museum if I chose to do so. It’s the same with those who ask about my preservation degree because many think of either saving really important buildings or limiting the paint colors on one’s old house.

  3. We have exiled beauty replacing her with profit. The day we say that art or history is useless then we have degenerated into animals.

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