A conversation with an art historian
In the world of academia, art history is one of the many subjects students have to choose from. Studying art history has many different requirements and necessary skills , and Dr. Claire McCoy, a professor of art history at Columbus State University, is very familiar with them.
To become any kind of professor, one must acquire an advanced degree, typically a doctorate of philosophy (PhD). In order to have a high level-job in the art world (such as a professor or major museum curator, a Ph.D. is pretty much required. However, there are jobs that don’t require a doctorate degree.
“For other jobs in museums or to work as a gallery curator, for example, you can have just an M.A. - you can even get started with entry level jobs if you have a BA in Art History.” says Dr. McCoy.
In order to be an art historian, you don’t necessarily have to become a professor. Many art historians are curators (people who selects and organizes works of art to be shown in a museum), art critics, or free-lance writers, who operate blogs or their own publications.
Like subjects such as world history, there are many subsections of art history to specialize in. Some subsections include Egyptian art, Roman art, Mayan art, and many more. Dr. McCoy’s general specialization is 19th-century European art and sculpture, particularly French art.
“My particular specialty is how the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo was interpreted in 19th-century France and what that meant in terms of the reception of the sculpture of Auguste Rodin in the 1880’s - he was called the ‘modern Michelangelo,’ so I’ve worked on figuring out exactly what that meant.”
Since professors are involved in research beyond their doctorates, they often advise student researchers or conduct research themselves. Dr. McCoy is currently working on several research projects (such as writing textbooks and articles for journals) , which is common for professors to do.
“Right now I’m finishing up an article on Delacroix that Beth Harris asked me to write for SmartHistory and I’m also finishing an article on the production of a play about Michelangelo produced in 1875. I’m starting work on an article about the sculptures of the Great Women of France in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris,” Dr. McCoy remarks.
The day-to-day life of professors is quite different from typical high-school teachers. Instead of teaching seven classes a day, 5 days a week, professors only teach a couple of classes a few days a week. Administrative work, such as serving on committees, advising students and junior faculty members, and continuing their research builds up the typical school day of a professor, and Dr. McCoy’s day is no different.
“I typically teach a class or two and lately I’ve had a lot of administrative work running the Art Department at CSU so that takes up a lot of my day. I also work on publications, conference presentations and public lectures. In the evenings I spend time with my family and my doggie, Bella the Shih Tzu.”
In high school, there are many ways to prepare for a possible career in art history. Taking AP Art History is an obvious choice, but Dr. McCoy recommends taking history, English, and foreign language courses as well. Excellent writing is a necessary skill in the art history field.
Salaries in the art history field normally average about $70,000 per year. Like many specialized fields, there is a limited amount of jobs available at one time, but gaining expertise in the field of art history helps to open up job prospects.
Although becoming an art historian requires dedication and a passion for the subject, Dr.McCoy is an example of all the hard work paying off.
“It’s a great field and a terrific profession. I feel very fortunate that I’m able to make my living as an art historian and professor even though it’s very hard work, I never envy anyone else’s job.”