Art Historian

Art historians study and write about works of art. They may also deliver lectures on art history, advise on art, look after historical and contemporary art collections and conduct research and present exhibitions. 

Art historians are also known as art curators and some work as art collection managers and others as art history lecturers, teaching art history at tertiary institutes or secondary schools. They often provide public access to historical art through journal catalogues and databases.

Art historians might decide on art works, artists, periods of art or cultures to research, then gather research information from a wide variety of sources, including libraries, galleries and contacts. They then organise, analyse and interpret the information and may write up and publish their research.

They advise clients, museums, galleries, auction houses and other institutes on art and often have to make decisions about which pieces of art should be added to a collection or displayed in an exhibition. They advise on historic sites, buildings and monuments; advise legal firms on copyright issues; and advise government on issues relating to historical art.

Art historians need to know about: the history of art; past and present theories of art; research methods; sources of art history information such as libraries, galleries and books; galleries and how they work; national history; and a range of cultures.

Many skills, such as how to handle the objects correctly, are gained on the job. Some art historians may attend courses and seminars to keep up to date with changes in the art scene. They also need to keep up to date with readings and publications that are available on various topics of interest.

Art historians generally develop expertise in the art of a specific region, period or medium, often specialising in the work of a particular artist or group of artists. Some work in art libraries, while others have administrative roles in organisations that deal with art. Some art historians may be involved in the use of chemicals for preservation and conservation of works of art.

Art historians usually work independently when doing research, or as part of a team. They interact with a wide variety of people, including other art historians, art dealers and collectors, artists, and art gallery and museum curators, and they may supervise students or colleagues. Depending on their role, some may have contact with members of the public.

Art historians usually work indoors in storerooms, archives, offices, exhibition halls and galleries. They usually work regular office hours, but at times they may work longer hours, including weekends.

Art historians work in a variety of places including universities, art galleries, art museums, libraries, archives and auction houses. They may work in offices and galleries, or from home. They may travel around the country and overseas to attend conferences, exhibitions, art auctions and conduct research.

Personal Requirements

  • skill in analysing and evaluating art
  • good written and oral communication skills
  • sound research and report-writing skills
  • some foreign language skills are helpful
  • enquiring and accurate, with an eye for detail
  • patient and persistent ? have good judgement
  • good eyesight and normal colour vision
  • people skills and able to deal with a wide range of people

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

Compulsory Subjects: Visual Arts or a related subjects is highly recommended
Recommended subjects: Visual Arts, Design Studies, Engineering and Graphic Design


  • An art portfolio is required to demonstrate your creativity, abilities and commitment.
  • If you intend studying towards a degree in Fine Art at university, you will need to a Bachelor's pass in matric. If you intend studying a diploma in an art-related field, then you will need a Diploma pass in matric.
  • Meet the admission requirements (APS) set by the university or requirements set by the college.

What to Study

Degree: BA (History of Art) and a postgraduate degree is preferred by most employers - UNISA

While studying, students can gain relevant work experience through practical components of their course, or volunteer work at galleries.


  • art galleries
  • museums
  • university art history departments
  • libraries

Further Information

Any of the above potential employers

Getting Started

  • make an appointment to speak to an art historian about this type of career
  • useful experience for art historians includes research work, writing and public speaking
  • try to get some experience in art galleries or with exhibitions
  • work as a librarian can also be helpful if having to catalogue or find works of art

Programmes by Study Institutions

Related Occupations

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