What Does an Art Historian Do?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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As the title suggests, an art historian is an individual who is concerned with various historical aspects of artworks, such as the artistic movements to which they belong and the social and political contexts in which they were created. Beyond this basic definition, the exact description of an art historian’s job can vary widely. Some art historians work in education, while others work as curators or preservationists. Still others pursue publishing or journalism, or work as appraisers. Most art historian positions require an advanced degree.

Education is a common career path for art historians. Some may choose to teach at the high school level. More commonly, however, art historians interested in education opt to teach at the college level. In addition to delivering lectures in her areas of expertise to undergraduate and graduate students, a professor of art history is generally also expected to pursue her own research, and may be obliged to publish books or scholarly articles on that research. She may also be required to lead student trips to destinations of artistic significance.


It is also common for an art historian to pursue a job as a curator. Often, a curator is employed by an art gallery or museum, but she may also work for a large commercial company that displays a significant amount of art. The exact duties of a curator can vary, but generally she will be involved in acquiring new pieces of art, deciding how pieces should be displayed, and ensuring that pieces not in use are properly stored.

Preservation work is another common avenue for art historians. This job involves ensuring that artworks such as paintings, sculptures, and buildings remain as close to their original state as possible. Achieving this objective may involve controlling environmental factors, such as lighting and temperature. It may also involve performing restorative work to minimize damage sustained by a piece over time.

If an art historian has a special talent for writing or editing, she may opt to pursue a career in journalism or publishing. An art history journalist writes articles about art-related topics for magazines and newspapers. The art historian who chooses to work in publishing may compose textbooks on various aspects of art history or may edit the work of other art history authors.

Appraisal work is another popular option for the art historian. In this type of job, the historian uses her advanced knowledge to establish the monetary worth of artworks. She may be employed by a fine art auction house or may work for an estate sale firm.

The bulk of art history career options require an advanced degree. College-level art educators, curators, and preservationists in most cases need a PhD in art history with a specialization in their particular area of interest. An art historian who wishes to work in journalism, publishing, or art appraisal may need a master’s degree.


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Post 3

@Fa5t3r - Aside from that, art history has entered the popular consciousness more than it probably ever has before. It's not just something for the rich now. So an art historian might find themselves on screen, narrating a documentary, or helping with fact checking for a TV show or movie.

People realize how intelligent and intricate art often is and how much it can tell us about the artist. I mean, even the hand paintings that they find in caves from 40,000 years ago have revealed things like that the artists were female and that one of them had had a broken, or at least crooked, thumb. It's no wonder the world is becoming fascinated with art.

Post 2

@bythewell - Well, you can look at it that way and it's certainly true that there have been some tragic losses. But we have so much fantastic art in museums all over the world. Art which has been preserved for thousands of years. So that's something to celebrate.

I think of art as a way of connecting people, like a language which is more universal than mere words. And we are still able to connect with people who lived in the prehistoric era. Being an art historian, especially one on the cutting edge of art history discoveries must be really exciting for the right person.

Post 1

I imagine it would be painful sometimes to be an art historian. I know I always feel a pang when I read about a piece of art that has been ruined by stupidity or neglect or ill intent and it must be so much worse for those who have studied the subject and know exactly what each piece of art is worth to the world.

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