An art history major is ostensibly about the study of fine art, sculpture, architecture, painting, decoration, and other forms of artistic expression throughout history. But it’s actually so much more than that. “The magical thing about art history is how it teaches you to think critically and understand how our world is shaped by context. Nothing exists in a vacuum,” says Caroline Ouwerkerk, a career coach who works with liberal arts students and graduates. In truth, art history is used as a lens to study value systems, norms, history, and people.
“My students have found success standing out from a sea of applicants because they have critical writing skills, know how to contextualize or frame big issues, and can write compelling statements that rely on close observation,” says Gloria Sutton, associate professor of contemporary art history at Northeastern University. In addition to more “traditional” creative fields, she says, her students “find success in law and medicine—fields that require close reading, attention to detail, and developing interpretations of how events took place using material evidence.”
I have both an undergraduate degree in art history from the University of Notre Dame and a graduate degree in art business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. I don’t work for a gallery, museum, or private collection—but as a journalist and entrepreneur, I still use my art history skills every day.
There’s a reason art history is growing in popularity as a major. While it may not immediately seem like the most “practical” course of study, there are a multitude of roles in a range of fields and industries the degree could prepare you for.
Art history majors learn important transferable skills that can be useful in a wide variety of jobs—far beyond the traditional ones you’d expect with the major, like gallerist, archivist, and museum specialist. These skills include:
- Research: In this major, you’re tasked with immersing yourself in a particular time period: What was going on historically, socially, and economically during that time? What does art add to our understanding of history? How can you identify, analyze, and synthesize sources to understand more about the art and the artist? Understanding historical importance and holistic context is incredibly transferable to the workplace, where you may be tasked with bringing together information to make an argument or advocate for a course of action, for example.
- Analysis: Art history concerns itself not simply with the surface, but also with deeper meaning. Why did the artist choose the subject and medium? Why and how would an artist insert themself into the piece? What is the artist trying to say? Honing your analytical skills means you can evaluate information, draw conclusions from it, and solve problems, not just in your coursework or when looking at a work of art but also for a potential employer when facing a complex business problem.
- Making connections: A student doesn’t just study one piece or even one artist, but different creators and trends across time and location. How is any given work connected to other contemporary works? What makes it different? What aspects are supposed to be symbols or references—and of or to what? In an art history class or exam, you might be shown a work of art you’ve never encountered and be asked to apply your learnings to it. Forming connections is a soft skill that’s incredibly useful when you need to synthesize any kind of information or data.
- Writing: All of these skills come together in writing. When you’re working on a paper for class, writing isn’t just about memorization and regurgitation but about the creation of new knowledge. You’re making a case for meaning and teaching it to a reader. Writing also requires persuasion, organization, and synthesis—often as part of a timed exam or essay, meaning you learn how to write quickly. Writing skills are essential in any job—even if you’re not a writer, most jobs have an element of communication, whether it’s conveying information via presentation, report, or email.
- Managing long-term projects: As an art history major, you might work on a research paper over an entire semester—which means you have to learn how to sustain focus, manage your time, and break the project into smaller, more achievable action items. Project management is a skill set that can help you stay organized, solve problems, and succeed across different roles and sectors.
It’s clear that an art history major teaches quite a bit beyond the literal subject matter. Check out nine jobs that make particular use of these skills; only three of them require advanced degrees, and several of them are outside the art world entirely. Salary information comes from compensation resource PayScale, reflecting numbers from September 2021 (their database is updated nightly).
Average salary: $42,602
Salary range: $27,000–$79,000
A journalist researches topics that an audience cares about, interviews people, reads primary sources, and writes stories that can convey news, trends, or other information—a natural fit for an art history major who can already conduct research using primary sources and go beyond the superficial to find meaning.
Depending on your “beat” (focus), you could specialize in the goings-on of the art world (gallery openings, special exhibits, etc.) but since that’s a specialized area, you may also need a broader area of focus such as art business, art conservation, luxury travel, or other adjacent topics. I work as a freelancer, which means I’m able to write about any subject that interests me. I do write about fine art, decorative arts, home decor, and fashion, which are directly related to my degree, but my research skills allow me to write about a myriad of topics. A staff job may not allow for this flexibility, unless you work as a “general assignment” writer, but the key here is that you can transfer your skills to report and write about any subject, from culture to health to politics.
Whatever your interests, you can actively seek out an internship or summer job that allows you to practice writing about these topics. Also, find someone who does this work and ask to shadow them or conduct an informational interview. This work is tough to break into, but very fulfilling.
Average salary: $46,572
Salary range: $34,000–$65,000
Graphic designers might use templates, typography/fonts, illustration, photos, layouts, and color schemes to create collateral for an organization—perhaps to market a good or service in a pamphlet or on their website. They might work in-house for a company or take on projects for different clients as freelancers or as part of an agency.
Art history gives you a sense of how design has changed over time, which styles have been popular when, and what influenced the designs we’re familiar with today. Art history majors also have a strong eye for complementary shapes and patterns, which gives us some baseline design proficiency.
It’s worth noting here that art history programs don’t usually include art practice coursework. So think about how you’d like to apply your understanding of art and art history, as you may need to supplement with one or more courses in illustration, design, and/or coding. Since the major often sits in the same department as art and design, it wouldn’t be a stretch to sign up for relevant classes if those are of interest. Oewerkerk adds that LinkedIn Learning and other sites that offer online classes can help with supplementing a knowledge gap. See if you can work as an intern for a more established designer to learn the ropes.
Average salary: $30,492
Salary range: $23,000–$50,000
A museum coordinator might help a curator put together exhibits, from the physical handling of objects to communication with donors. Someone in this role might also assist with fundraising and complete administrative tasks.
Museum jobs can be very competitive. It can be challenging to get experience unless you have experience—so it can feel like the jobs are exclusive and unobtainable. Luckily, the art history major is already a relevant credential towards museum work. And although there aren’t an abundance of museum jobs, you can be hired out of college. When interviewing, speak about programs or events you planned in school, or share how you were able to execute on a project with limited resources. “Fundraising is a huge part of the job for many people at museums—whether it’s explicitly part of your job description or not,” says Ouwerkerk. “If you’re still in school, find ways to practice this skill. Universities are always hiring students to call alumni for donations!”
Additionally, if your school has a museum, see what work you can do for them on a volunteer or part-time basis as a more feasible alternative (or supplement) to unpaid or low-paid internships (which, as Muse career coach Lauren Wethers points out, also tend to be in major cities where rent and cost of living are high).
Average salary: $61,132
Salary range: $40,000–$104,000
A publishing manager is, in a sense, the project manager for the publishing process. You’d take books from submission to publication, overseeing the market research, editing, print/digital production, and marketing involved. The work can vary depending on the size of the publishing house and the types of books it works with.
Art historians often work with rare and historically significant texts, which means they have a sense of how the publication process has evolved over time and what makes a book relevant to an audience—they can analyze books that have been selected for publication and understand how to market them to potential readers. They also have a sense of what’s aesthetically pleasing in terms of design and layout.
Much like museum jobs, publishing jobs are concentrated in certain areas like New York City and there isn’t an overabundance of them, which means an internship or a summer position—even if it’s for a university publication—can help you get a foot in the door. It may also be useful to supplement your major requirements with coursework on digital media or marketing to make yourself competitive.
Average salary: $45,439
Salary range: $35,000–$50,000
As a marketing coordinator, you’d work on campaigns that are designed to bring in new customers or users or appeal to an existing client base. As part of your job, you could write copy on a webpage, design an email series, craft a print mailer, develop a social media strategy, manage a brand persona, or conduct market research. You may also work with designers to develop the look and feel of the content.
Plenty of marketing professionals work in the art world for galleries, museums, and other entities, but you don’t need to limit yourself—organizations in every industry need help reaching and appealing to consumers. An art history major has insight about visual media as well as relevant research, assessment, and writing experience that’s useful for a marketing position.
If you’re still in school, see if you can complete a class in marketing, sales, or user experience. It can also be useful to shadow a marketing manager or complete an internship to see what the work entails. Even if you do ultimately want to go into the art world, completing an internship in a different field might be a good idea: “The ugly truth is that taking an internship outside of the art world also offers a better chance of finding an opportunity that pays fairly,” Wethers says.
Average salary: $50,663 (high school); $49,086 (middle school); $47,074 (elementary school)
Salary range: $36,000–$79,000 (high school); $35,000–$74,000 (middle school); $34,000–$71,000 (elementary school)
Teachers work with students to convey information about a particular topic, which involves crafting a lesson plan, teaching information in a methodical and engaging way, testing students on their knowledge, and helping them stay focused throughout the entirety of a course. A high school art history teacher requires less specialization than a college professor and normally teaches art history across multiple time periods.
The beauty of learning art history is that it’s interdisciplinary: It can encompass history, writing/English, art and design, and even potentially sociology or anthropology, depending on your focus. You don’t have to be limited to teaching art history if you want to broaden your focus, in other words. Art historians are already good teachers, both in presentations and in writing, since they’re used to explaining why a particular work is relevant to a larger context.
Depending on the grade and the requirements of your state, you might need an advanced degree, but this can be a fulfilling position if you really connect with a particular subject and want to share your enthusiasm with others.
Average salary: $51,049
Salary range: $33,000–$85,000
Curators work on exhibits in a gallery, university, museum, or corporate collection. They might coordinate logistics, manage finances, oversee the physical care of the objects, inventory the artwork, and of course select the theme and placement of the works themselves. Exhibits can range from artistic to historical to scientific, depending on the organization, and the work requires you to have a strong understanding of the content as well as the ability to forge relationships with artists, donors, colleagues, and other important stakeholders. You could also work as a visual resources curator with libraries or collections on digitizing their work and keeping it up to date.
To excel here, you need detailed knowledge of the works and associated time period(s) of the exhibits you’re curating. Depending on your undergraduate art history program, you might be able to specialize in a particular time period or medium before you graduate. But you may need an advanced degree.
When you’re interviewing for a potential position, Wethers says, “being able to show exactly what areas of art [you] can speak to, especially if they align with the mission or focus of the museum, can help [you] stand out from the other applicants.”
As a producer, you’d manage a video project from start to finish, including all aspects of pre-production, production, and post-production. This might include finding financing, hiring a director, writing, editing, and releasing the project (depending on its size and scope). You could be working on a TV commercial, a corporate video, a movie trailer, a creative project, or a full-length feature—and your roles and responsibilities would depend on the type of project.
An art history major already has a strong eye for high-quality visual work. As Wethers explains, art history majors have studied what people respond to from a design perspective. Additionally, art history majors who have completed any kind of study in modern art may have already been exposed to video art.
Some technical training may be necessary here—for example, learning cinematography or sound design—but art history majors already know what it means to take on a project, delegate, research what they don’t know, and execute on an artistic vision. You might need an internship or summer job for competitive positions in a hub of production like NY or LA, but you can also work with corporations, colleges, and other organizations on their video content. Do some preliminary work by shadowing or conducting an informational interview with a producer to make sure it’s a fit for you first.
Average salary: $66,129
Salary range: $45,000–$99,000
Someone who works at a private bank interacts directly with individuals or companies with high net worths—which is the same clientele buying art, by and large. In particular, associates help clients with their financial and investment needs, from sending out wire transfers to an individual’s business to collaborating with a financial advisor to helping clients purchase assets like art and luxury goods. This might not sound like the most intuitive choice of jobs for art history majors, but if they’ve done any work in art business, they understand the needs of a high-net-worth individual and the motivations behind buying art and other assets. If the financial aspects of art and luxury goods appeal to you, this might be a good fit.
After graduating from Sotheby’s during the recession of 2008, I actually obtained a client associate position within a private bank, holding the job for three years—with no prior financial background. You might need to supplement with a finance course or two, but much of the skills involved can be learned on the job. At the heart of the position, you’re building a relationship with the client, understanding their unique financial needs, and helping them execute their goals. Many banks have a private bank division, and associates sometimes work with interns or are willing to have students shadow them—so reach out and ask.
This list is just a drop in the bucket of potential jobs that you could obtain with an art history degree. Ouwerkerk has seen people work in industries as varied as tourism, college admissions, and nonprofit administration. One of her clients even became a sommelier.
The key to pursuing any one of these positions is to convey your relevant experience in language that the hiring manager will understand, says Wethers. If you were in charge of promoting events for a student group on campus, for example, you can play up the market research and communications skills you acquired.
So don’t be intimidated by the idea that you won’t find a job when you graduate. Art history majors bring invaluable skills to the table, and many, many employers could make use of your expertise.