A Guide to the Study of Art History


What is art history?

Art history is the study of artists, their work, their patrons, their critics, their collectors and their historical contexts. The student of art history recognizes that artists do not create alone, but are influenced by the economic, political, social, and cultural environment in which they live. Consequently, art history is also the study of the history of ideas. Thus, art history is a multidisciplinary study which uses the art object as one, among many, primary documents to explain and understand the experience of human beings and their material cultural expressions.

Why should I major in art history?

Because art history is multidisciplinary, drawing from history, literature, philosophy, psychology, religion, music and even science, it is an ideal major for students of the liberal arts. The study of art history enhances visual literacy and is especially important in advancing our understanding of our multicultural reality. For the liberal arts student art history is particularly helpful in encouraging students to understand the contemporary world from a comparative view. Further, because art history stresses analytical and critical skills, along with the ability to communicate well through research, reading, writing and speaking, the undergraduate student of art history is well on the way to a complete education.

What do I need to become an art history major?

The student of art history needs to be critical, write well, enjoy studying art objects, spending time in the library and museums. Students of art history should be prepared to spend considerable time doing research, and should enjoy going to museums and galleries at every opportunity. This is an ideal discipline for students who love to travel. The art history student is one who has many interests such as history, literature, music, etc., which he/she wishes to combine with his/her study of art.

Senior Thesis

The Art History major has a two-part capstone: Art History Research & Methods (ARTH 487) and the Art History Senior Research Thesis (ARTH 490). Students are required to enroll in the Research & Methods course during the spring of Junior year. The Senior Thesis is completed and presented in the fall of Senior year.  More on senior thesis in art history

What courses, besides those in art history, should I take at Hartwick College?

Certain areas of study help the student of art history more than others. When you work out your plan of study, you should think of studying in the following areas: Religion, Philosophy, Classics, Languages--concentrate on French or German or both, English, Music, Studio Art, Museum Studies, History, Anthropology, Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies. All students, no matter what their major, need to know how to operate a computer.

What languages should I study?

Art History majors are required to achieve reading competence in a foreign language. Generally, this can be accomplished by taking a two-course sequence of beginning level language.

At the graduate level, students of art history are expected to have reading knowledge of German and French. If the student plans to specialize in areas such as Italian Renaissance or Spanish painting, a third area of expertise is required. It is recommended that you take one to two years of French or German while at Hartwick. In preparation for graduate school or an art history related career, check the two following texts which are designed to facilitate reading knowledge: Apelt, H.-P and Mary L. Reading Knowledge in German for Art Historians and Archaeologists. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1975. Sandburg, Karl C. and Eddison C. Tatham. French for Reading. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, c. 1980. You can probably order these books through the college book store.

What else do I need to do to prepare for a career in art history?

Students who plan to go to graduate school for art history must take GRE's. It is important that you prepare for these exams at an early date and that you take the exam no later that the first semester of your senior year. You may wish to take the exam more than once, and you may also wish to prepare for it by taking a mini preparatory course offered by some schools. You can also acquire computer software that prepares you for these exams. Check around for such courses and also make sure you register for the exam, which, like the SAT's, is only offered at certain locations on certain dates. If you are not planning to go to graduate school immediately after graduation but expect to do so in the future, take the exam while in college, you will do much better. Remember that when you apply to graduate programs you will be competing with students from all over the country, many of whom have been to schools with very strong art history programs and excellent reputations. You must be competitive in order to get into graduate school.

What else can I do while I am in college?

Students who are serious about a career in art history should also get as much experience as possible outside of the classroom. Consider some or all of the following:


First-hand experience is always a good way to get your foot in the door. Hartwick College offers an extensive internship program and students who have been successful often use internships as a résumé builder, but also as a way to experiment with possible careers in art history. Internships are not available for first and second year students. Do as many internships as you possibly can, either during the semester, in January-term, or during the summer. You may do an internship for credit or just for the experience. On occasion an internship will provide a salary, but more often experience is your reward. If you are unsure how to go about getting an internship, talk to one of the art historians and visit the Center for Professional, Service, and Global Engagement . Internships can be done in Oneonta and the local area, in museums and galleries in your home town or in institutions in major cities. Recent graduates have worked at The Whitney, The Archives of American Art, The Hirschorn, among others. In this regard, students also often participate in the American University museum studies program in Washington, D.C. which offers great internship possibilities.

Work-study or college employment:

Students eligible for these are encouraged to work in an area that best benefits the student's career goals. Consequently, as an art history student, you should be prepared to work:

  1. as a research assistant for one of the art historians
  2. in the slide library filing, making, researching slides etc.
  3. in the Foreman Gallery installing and dismantling exhibitions; however, merely being a gallery guard doesn't do it!
  4. in Yager Museum as a research assistant or curatorial assistant
  5. as a tutor/peer advisor for students of art history
  6. as assistant for the maintenance of the student art collection.

Other experiential opportunities

There are many activities on campus that can benefit your career goals. The Department of Art and Art History is always looking for students to edit its newsletter or review art exhibitions for Hilltops. Join one of the student organizations and promote activities that will champion the arts. Form student organizations that bring art, artists and art historians to campus. Organize a film club. Join Artistocracy, the Department of Art and Art History's student organization. At every opportunity travel to museums and galleries either in the United States or in other countries.

Events: Be an active member of the Department of Art and Art History by attending the numerous art-related events that are offered. Art historians are included in the Department of Art and Art History's Lecture Series; remember to check the Calendar of Events on a regular basis.

Study abroad: Take a semester or your entire junior year and enroll in a program abroad. Students at Hartwick have participated in many off-campus programs including: Semester at Sea, Rutgers summer program in Paris, Syracuse program in Italy. There are many programs to take advantage of and studying the works of art in situ is extremely beneficial. Remember to check with your advisor before you leave about the suitability of the courses offered by other schools.

Finally, remember that when you start applying for jobs or graduate school the student who has been active in all aspects of college life, and has shown enthusiasm for his or her major, is the student who gets the position.

What can I do with an art history major after I graduate?

Students of art history are able to enter numerous occupations that call for good writing skills, the ability to find information, be organized, think independently and creatively, and the ability to communicate well. In order to increase chances of entering a profession after graduation, students should combine their study of art history with other majors or minors. The following is a list of possible career choices and some suggestions for what further training they require:

  • Teaching: Very few Elementary or High School programs call for an art historian, although it is possible to find them in private schools. Regardless, combining an art history major with a second major in art, can be extremely rewarding. Certification would then lead to a successful career teaching art in the school system. Students who wish to teach art history at the college level must go on to obtain a Ph.D. in art history. Students who wish to follow this line of study should work closely with their advisor and should plan ahead. Entry into graduate programs is extremely competitive. Students need reading knowledge of French and German at the Masters level, a good distribution of art history courses over and above those required for the major, and excellent GRE scores. The art history department keeps a booklet of graduate programs in art history in the slide library. Teaching at the college level is ideal for students who wish to do research in art history.
  • Museum Work: There are an enormous variety of positions within the museum world including registrar, public relations, grant writing, curators, conservators, research assistants, preparators, etc., and this can be an extremely rewarding career for the student who likes the excitement of being directly involved in the preparation and installation of exhibitions, as well as the daily management of a museum. Students who wish to pursue this line of work and are particularly interested in working in art museums should preferably have speaking and reading knowledge in at least one language, should obtain preliminary experience by doing at least one internship while at Hartwick College, and are encouraged to combine their major with a minor(s) in museum studies, American studies, anthropology or history. Although it is possible to enter museum work directly after graduation it is very rare and there is little room for advancement. Students who wish to be successful in this respect should plan to obtain an M.A. in art history or Museum Studies. Some positions, such as curators of large institutions, also expect a Ph.D. in art history. Copies of Aviso, the monthly news letter and employment opportunities of the American Association of Museums, along with the periodical, Museum News, are kept in the slide library or Professor Dejardin's office. Alumna, Jen Patrick now works for the Sackler Foundation in New York City.
  • Art Conservation: Students who enjoy working with their hands but do not feel they have the talent or ambition to be an artist, may wish to pursue a career in art conservation. This involves graduate school in an art conservation program such as the Wintherthur program in Delaware or a similar program offered at SUNY, Buffalo. In order to enter graduate school, the student should combine the major in art history with one in art, or major in art history and minor in art. The student should also consider a minor in chemistry or at the very least have two years of chemistry at the undergraduate level.
  • Art Librarian: Many colleges and most large museums employ art librarians. Students who particularly enjoy books may wish to pursue a career as a librarian after they graduate. Art history can prepare them to be a general librarian or a more specialized (art) librarian. In either case the student should expect to get an Master of Library Science degree, and should again combine an undergraduate degree with fluency in at least one language. Slide Librarian. Skills for a slide librarian involve a knowledge of photography and an ability to be very organized. An M.L.S. can be helpful in this regard although some slide librarians have masters degrees in art or art history. A good knowledge of art history is required as well as a thorough knowledge of new technologies, especially computers. Alumna Jill Thorp is currently Hartwick's slide librarian.
  • Arts Administration: This is an ideal career for students who wish to combine an interest in business and management skills with a love of art. Most museums need directors and presidents who have managerial skills. Many museums have a large staff of experts in business who raise money and manage the museum's complex budget. A student interested in this area is encouraged to combine an art history major with a management major or minor. Students should be prepared to continue their studies at the graduate level in an Arts Administration program. Smaller galleries and arts councils also employ people with management backgrounds.

  • Journalism: The student who loves to write and especially enjoys art criticism might prefer to work for a periodical or newspaper as an art critic. The student should combine a major in Art History with one in English at the undergraduate level, and then should plan to go on to a graduate school, such as Stoney Brook, which specializes in art criticism. Writing for Hilltops is helpful in this regard. Book Arts. The publication of books on art is expensive, some are glossy coffee table types and others are scholarly contributions to the field. There are many possible jobs in this field including editing, layout, writing articles, interviewing, photography, publicity, etc. which combine an interest in art history with an emphasis on good writing skills. Students with good studio skills (especially photography and graphic design) or management skills will also find job possibilities here.
  • Art Law: Many lawyers have majors or minors in art history at the undergraduate level. Because art history encourages fact finding and analytical skills, an art history major can be helpful in preparing a student for law school. Some lawyers work for museums and corporations and specialize in art law. Check the library for books on art law if you are interested in this career.
  • Art Education in Museums: Art education is a specialized area in museums and spans a large range of activities from children's programs to the training of docents. The Bank Street School in New York City is a good place to investigate if you are interested in this career. Alumna Beth Byrnes has successfully completed this program.
  • Grant Writing: A combination major in Art History and English can lead to a career in grant writing. Many organizations, museums, and corporations are dependent on writing grants to fund exhibits. Auction houses, art consultants, etc. There are also many careers available in auction houses such as Christies and Sothebys, where connoiseurship is important. Students who like looking at works of art and pride themselves on their ability to distinguish fakes from authentic works, or who enjoy the study of artists' styles, do well in these careers. The student should also be fluent in at least one foreign language. Alumna Lisa Denisevich Roush is both a curator and a private consultant.
  • Archivist: For the student who enjoys working with primary sources, this career is very suitable. Archives house the documents of the artist, including letters, journals and other memorabilia. Students need a good grounding in art history combined with library and conservation skills. For more information concerning careers in art history check Career Alternatives for Art Historians, created by Charles M. Rosenberg.

The art historians regularly update information about graduate schools, internships, and other opportunities. Check the bulletin boards outside their offices for important information. You will also find updated information about recent art history graduates. When you graduate, please keep in touch.