Can $75,000 make you a high-flier?
A prestigious new course promises to teach graduates the skills needed in the art trade—but it’s not cheap
By Bendor Grosvenor. Comment, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 28 February 2013
I recently learned of two new and “unique” educational courses, which, by coincidence, both cost around $75,000. One, at Goodwood in the south of England, will teach you to fly a Spitfire. The other, in Los Angeles and run by Sotheby’s Institute of Art, will help you get a job in the art world. Or so it claims.
As something of a Spitfire anorak, I’m at least partially qualified to discuss the merits of the course on offer at Goodwood. But readers of The Art Newspaper will be glad to know that I’m only going to focus on the one offered by Sotheby’s Institute. Is it, in essence, worth it?
For your $75,000, you get a 14-month course leading to a master’s degree in art business. As part of it, you get access to Claremont Graduate University’s prestigious Drucker School of Management, and semesters in London and New York at the heart of the global art market. But will such an investment really help you to, as the Sotheby’s Institute prospectus puts it, pursue a career as “an auction-house expert, dealer, curator, marketer, insurer, consultant, adviser or journalist”?
My qualification for asking this question is that I am fortunate enough to have a coveted job in the art world, as a dealer. I would never want to do anything else (nor do I know how to), and, having sampled the pleasures of working among beautiful objects and interesting people, I can understand why so many people aspire to the sort of jobs Sotheby’s Institute offers to help you secure, and even that they would pay handsome sums to increase their chances of success. Still, $75,000?
The course content is impressive, though I must declare an interest as a sometime lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute in London (and having discovered how much the institute charges its students, I’ll definitely be asking for a pay rise). I’ve long been an admirer of the institute teaching method, which is to constantly expose students to the reality of life in the art world, either through visits to the places where it all happens—museums, auction houses and galleries—or by having lectures and seminars with art-world professionals. The institute is also one of the few places to teach, and sing the virtues of, connoisseurship (an essential skill if you want to be a dealer, an auctioneer or even, yes, a curator), which is rarely taught on traditional university art history courses.
As a director of a gallery that occasionally employs art history graduates, I often find that students leave university with impressive degrees but nonetheless wholly unequipped for a job in what we might call the real art world. University art history has become overly theoretical, and although students may have achieved good grades with dissertations on, say, the semiotics of political discourse in 16th-century Norwegian woodcuts, they will not have been taught how to closely examine actual objects, and many other necessary art-world skills.
Too much art history is taught using small reproductions in books, or images on screens. As a result, students sometimes do not understand questions of attribution, or how to assess an object’s condition. There are even stories of graduates not being able to distinguish between prints and drawings. It is unfortunate that institutions like Sotheby’s Institute are the only places that still teach what should be the fundamental building blocks of any art historical education.
That said, a degree in art business can rarely be a substitute for the best way of learning the skills needed to get on in the art world, which is through first-hand experience. When the specialist portrait dealer Philip Mould offered me a job in 2005 as his researcher, I had no formal art qualifications at all. I was a historian by training and had previously worked in politics. I vaguely knew my way around British portraiture, but that was about it. Philip taught me practically everything I know, and it feels almost embarrassing to think that he paid me while I received one of the best art-historical educations anyone could hope for.
Unfortunately, jobs in the art world are rarer than an appreciating Damien Hirst. There are few opportunities to find positions that give that much-needed experience. Internships are jealously guarded and rarely advertised.
Then there’s the question of what gaining that experience can cost. It’s a fact that most internships, even in museums, are unpaid or very poorly paid, and are thus taken up only by those who can afford to work for free. Indeed, one could argue that your $75,000, if you had it, might be better spent not on a master’s degree, but on supporting yourself for a few years as an intern at a museum or an auction house. You would probably learn all you would ever need to know.
Happily, no such lengthy and exploitative internships exist (though we must all be concerned that a field already perceived as elitist is becoming exclusively for the wealthy). In the absence of such opportunities, then, courses like that offered by Sotheby’s Institute are probably the next best thing. I would certainly recommend them to those who can afford it. Personally, though, I’d go for the Spitfire.
The writer is a director of Philip Mould. He edits the website Art History News
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