What is an Art History Degree?

Individuals with a degree in art history have completed the academic study of the history and development of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, filmmaking, and architecture.

For most people, the above description of the field suggests that an art history major leads to a job in an art gallery. And some people believe that those who earn this degree are eccentrics destined for significant periods of unemployment. The truth is that studying art history can do much more than develop an appreciation for art. While this degree is undeniably specialized, its components typically leave graduates with advanced – and transferrable – abilities in aesthetics and creative expression; memory, analytics, and pattern recognition; critical thinking; and non-verbal communication; as well as interpersonal skills.

Only about seven percent of art history graduates who find full-time employment enter the arts, design, or culture industries. This may be due to the fact that many jobs directly related to art history generally require education beyond an undergraduate degree. However, because the process of earning the degree cultivates a wide spectrum of knowledge, graduates are found in what might be considered a surprising array of business sectors and occupations.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Art History
Art history programs at the bachelor’s level are typically composed of approximately 50% coursework within the discipline, with the option of a minor concentration in another arts and science field. As noted in the summary above, many positions in the art history domain require a graduate degree. However, because even an undergraduate degree program leaves students with a set of broad transferrable skills, a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History is often sufficient to secure a job in other business sectors seeking those skills.

Master’s Degree in Art History
Art history graduates with a master’s in the discipline open many more career doors to positions specific to art history. They tend to find opportunities in the museum, gallery, public archive, and private collection sectors. The minimum requirement for most academic roles is also a master’s.

Doctoral Degree in Art History
A Ph.D. in Art History is typically essential for individuals who wish to teach at the university level or wish to conduct extensive research on a specific, narrowly-defined area of the field.

Study Abroad
While not a degree option unto itself, study abroad is often pursued by art history students, quite simply because original works of art were created and reside in all corners of the globe. Among the most popular destinations for undergrad students are Italy, France, Spain, Greece, England, South Africa, and Chile. To learn more about these programs, click here.

Degrees Similar to Art History

Creative expression is at the heart of many degree options for individuals who may initially consider studying art history:

Liberal Arts
Liberal studies combine concepts from several academic disciplines, including political science, cultural and anthropological studies, literature, education, and the social sciences (examples: history, philosophy, psychology, sociology.

Graphic Design
This degree field is concerned with design theory, color, photography, typography, and commercial design. Visual communication is the common thread between art history and graphic design.

Visual and Performing Arts
Visual and performing arts students typically focus on a single discipline such as art, design, music, theater, or dance.

Interactive Media
The design of interactive media with animation, graphics, and sound is perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the creation of years- and centuries- old original works of art.

Fine Arts
Majors in studio and fine arts focus their studies in a specific branch of art: painting, sculpture, illustration, animation, or performance.

Theater Arts
This artistic pursuit includes studies in acting, directing, drama theory, set design, and backstage technical concepts.

Art / Art Studies
This is an interdisciplinary degree, which combines the investigation of historical, cultural, and anthropological components with the study of art from an aesthetic and compositional perspective.

Interior Design
Architectural drafting, color theory, lighting design, and materials sustainability are the primary components of interior design degree programs.

Rhetoric and Composition
This arts degree program is focused on the study of literature, poetry, journalism, scholarly writing, composition theory, and public speaking.

Digital Arts
As the name suggests, the curriculum for this degree is computer-focused, introducing students to web video, 3D modeling, and animation.

Fine and Studio Arts Management
This degree is targeted at art history buffs interested in the business aspects of the art world. Graduates of these programs typically work in roles relating to legal issues, financial issues, marketing, sales, fundraising, and human resources.

Commercial Art
This degree also has a dual artistic and business focus. It gives students a background in branding, account planning and management, as well as the aesthetic concepts of color theory and composition.

Music
While a music degree is not directly connected to art history, there is most certainly an aesthetic of art and beauty that characterizes both disciplines.

Fashion Design
Fashion and apparel designers, like painters and sculptors, are obsessed with creating the perfect piece of art. In the fashion industry, that piece just happens to be wearable art.

Skills You'll Learn

The meticulous process of studying the history, style, and cultural context of many art forms naturally results in the development of certain skills. While visual literacy – the capacity to look carefully and think critically about the images and material objects that surround us – may be the most obvious benefit of an art history course of study, there are many others as well:

  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Presentations and public speaking
  • Strong writing skills
  • Comfort adapting content for different audiences and users
  • Intensive research
  • Problem-solving and decision-making
  • Attention to detail
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Ability to work independently or in teams
  • Listening and asking insightful questions
  • Open mindedness
  • Aesthetic and design consciousness
  • Broad historical and cultural knowledge
  • Creativity

What Can You Do with an Art History Degree?

With a wide variety of skills learned comes a wide variety of possible occupations for art history graduates. It is not uncommon for art history majors to be found in any or all of these employment sectors:

Employment sectors directly related to art history

  • Art conservation and restoration
  • Art criticism
  • Art and estate appraisal and auctioning
  • Art education
  • Art consultancy – working with clients like hotels and corporations to find the right art pieces for their properties
  • Art law and law enforcement
  • Art dealing – buying and selling
  • Arts media / programming – television, radio
  • Museum / gallery curating, archiving, and administration
  • Museum / gallery marketing and public relations
  • Museum / gallery fundraising and development
  • Government arts heritage policy and protection

Employment sectors outside of the art history sphere, but which seek the skills developed by art history majors (Note: entry into some of these careers may require additional training specific to the role):

  • Art exhibit installation
  • Art therapy
  • Artist management and representation
  • Advertising
  • Marketing and communications
  • Architecture
  • Landscape architecture
  • Architectural preservation
  • Design – interior, fashion, jewelry, furniture
  • Event planning – possibly, for museums and other arts organizations
  • Tourism / travel – example: art tour guide
  • Journalism
  • Photography
  • Grants administration for the arts

Case Study

The field of art law is probably one that does not immediately come to mind for art history grads. But for anyone with interest in both art and law enforcement, and willing to undertake further education, this may be another potential career option.

The FBI maintains a 16-member Art Crime Team, coordinated through its Art Theft Program, located at the FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC. Each agent is responsible for addressing art and cultural property crime cases in an assigned geographic region. Members of the Art Crime Team receive specialized training in art and cultural property investigations and oversee the National Stolen Art File, a database of stolen works of art. They assist in art-related investigations worldwide. Since its inception, the Art Crime Team has recovered more than 14,850 items valued at over $165 million.

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