Written by G. John Cole

The arts sector is a highly appealing place to work. You don't need to be artistically talented to find yourself drawn to the creative atmosphere of the art world, and there is a wide range of degrees and jobs for those who don't consider themselves to be an artist.

The art world tends to be less profit-driven, more tolerant, and more invested in people than many other industries. (Exceptions certainly occur, but it is a characteristic of the sector to be self-critical and to pioneer progressive ways of working together.) Arts sector roles often involve a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice. But the sense of fulfillment when you collaborate in facilitating an artistic experience is special enough to create a competitive market for arts jobs. 

If you can demonstrate engagement in the aesthetics, meaning, administration, and business of art, then your application will have a distinct advantage.

What is a master's degree in arts studies?

A good arts studies master's program will emphasize the connections between the art and ‘real' world. It will encourage students' personal passions and instincts, and involve them in rigorous investigations into the politics and business of art funding, creation, distribution, and exhibition.

Students may follow a core curriculum, with activities and field trips to deepen their knowledge and understanding of what goes on ‘under the bonnet' of arts organizations and institutions. At the same time, they will pursue a more individual route of study into the artist, movement, art form, or other area of interest that excites them the most. 

This individual route will often form the basis of the student's thesis. Your specialism during your arts studies master's degree operates as a case study from which to develop on, but will likely be of specific use during your career. For example, you may find work in a museum dedicated to your artist of choice, or get invited to talk and network at arts events, seminars, and schools about your area of expertise.

So just what degrees and jobs are open to you as a non-artistic arts lover?

Art history

Art history is the analysis of art objects in the context of their place in time. It's an exciting field because the meaning and influence of historical paintings, sculptures, and architecture actually expand in all directions. 

An art historian researches how an artwork (or artist) fits into the civilization that produced it. This research illuminates our understanding not just of the artwork, but of the civilization. But it also allows us to trace the effects and influence of historical artwork today. These relationships put today's artworks and art world in a new perspective.

The practice of art history is also multi-directional. Like any form of history, the history of art is not to be studied in a bubble. Field visits and interdisciplinary co-operation with archaeologists, anthropologists, and political, social, and cultural historians (and their written work) are essential.

Finding work directly connected to art history requires some imagination and dedication, but is certainly doable. Indeed, there are many different career paths you can pursue. You could become a curator, gallerist, evaluator, auctioneer, or buyer (on behalf of clients). You might work in a gallery, museum, or a historical site such as a castle. Or you might start your own business or venue. 

And of course, for some, the academic pursuit of art history becomes a vocation, leading to fellowships, teaching, and writing opportunities.

Arts management

Arts management is a broad term for a wide variety of exciting, people-oriented roles in the arts.

The ‘ultimate' arts management role is curating. Undergraduates and graduates consider this a dream job, and the good news is that the number of available curator positions is increasing faster than average. Curating requires a decent background in art history because context is everything when assembling a collection or exhibition. 

But there is also an element of entrepreneurship at play. Regardless of the size of the institution, a curator always operates within a set budget and with (highly variable) economic outcome expectations. Like a sharp businessperson, a curator has to find the right mix of novelty, zeitgeist, familiarity, and saleability to cultivate an effective and sustainable practice. They must inspire audiences, investors, and their exhibition team, but also be prepared to listen.

Other types of arts manager may work in public or private arts organizations, distributing funds, and creating events and initiatives. Like curators, they must combine their critical and aesthetic faculties with a flair for inspiring others and bringing people together. 

Collections management also belongs in this category. Collections managers develop, care for, and utilize collections of art and cultural objects. It may be less showbizzy than curating, but collections managers often work with curators to find new ways to share their collections with the public. As with all arts management roles, collections management requires you to carefully balance the needs of the ‘art' and of the people who work with or experience the art.

Art theory

Art theory is the field which looks at the intentional and unintentional meanings in artists' work. 

Art theorists use established and developing strategies (e.g., semiotics, feminism, intertextuality) to analyze the techniques, appeal, and implications of the work that we celebrate, and how we organize and understand it. The discipline attempts to label and interrogate the materials, techniques, and effects of art.

There is an element of art theory in any arts job, depending on the interests and the relative weight given to social responsibility. Art theory as a specialism is particularly valuable for jobs in curating, collections management, and arts librarianship.

By the nature of the work, an art theorist tends to work in academia as a researcher and teacher, or to create a composite career of writing, public speaking, and consulting with institutions. But a graduate with a particular interest and talent for art theory might instead apply their knowledge in an editorial role, as a policy analyst or advisor, or even in arts marketing.

Conservation

The world of preserving or conserving artworks may sound fusty, but the techniques and technology used are cutting edge, and the work is deeply interesting and challenging. Conservators must balance a detailed understanding of the original artist's technique and intentions with the physical challenge of maintaining or repairing complex materials that may be hundreds or thousands of years old.

The route into conservation has traditionally been that of apprenticeship. But that has changed over the past few decades with most professional conservators now educated to postgraduate level. 

Internship, voluntary work, or other technical work within a conservation environment are usually favorable to acquaint graduates with the gritty day-to-day work of conservation. These approaches also provide an ‘in' into the organization where you wish to work. 

Further education in the arts may not be thought of as the best way to get an immediate return on your investment. However, the human skills – research, critical thinking, ethics, empathy - that such an education provides are not just transferable but highly sought-after in industries outside of the arts. They are valuable whether you stay on the path to the art world or end up taking a different route. 

Art enriches our lives and our ideas and can provide welcome escapism. But it also empowers us to interrogate and process the personal, local, and global challenges of the day. A degree in the arts tools you up for enviable professional positions and enriches your appreciation of the world around you, equipping you for fulfillment at work, in your leisure time, and even when you reach retirement. 

It may seem a long way off, but the value of arts studies transcends instant gratification just as the greatest artworks transcend time and culture.

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