Think outside the box

What can you do with an art history degree?

By Maura King Scully

David Duncan ’79, on the construction site of one of the many homes he has designed
Photo: Al Ferreira

In the early months of 2014, President Obama infamously told a group of Wisconsin workers, “Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing … than they might with an art history degree.”

Unfortunately, says Trinity Professor of Fine Arts Kathleen Curran, “Art history gets beat up a lot, unfairly. People think it’s a lightweight degree–that it’s ‘art appreciation.’ It’s actually very rigorous.”

David Duncan ’79, a former art history major and current architect who has his own firm in Old Lyme, Connecticut, has heard the slights before. “As with everything, if you do it really well, it can be very hard work,” he says. “Art history is a way of learning how to see, think, and compare. You learn how things fit together and how they came to be here.”

Art history is also an extremely versatile degree. A look at the occupations of Trinity art history majors reveals a plethora of positions: from clothing designers to fashion journalists, museum conservators and curators, gallery owners, and entrepreneurs, as well as attorneys, architects, and financial analysts, to name a few.

Though understandably biased, Curran calls art history “the ultimate liberal arts,” adding, “Our field is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Art doesn’t just happen. When you’re looking at objects, you need to know about the related cultural, political, religious, and scientific history.” And it doesn’t stop there: students then need to be able to interpret that information, synthesize it, and write critically about it.

Willie Granston ’13, on Trinity’s campus
Photo: John Atashian

It’s not for the faint of heart.

“Art history is about human living. I think that’s hugely important,” observes Willie Granston ’13. This fall, Granston began studies at the prestigious Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware—an elite graduate program that accepts only eight students each year.

Carolyn Carta ’11, an interdisciplinary major who combined art history, studio arts, and chemistry, recently finished a master’s in chemistry at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she researched the fading of dyes in polymers for application to art conservation. This fall she entered the materials science doctoral program at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, where she is establishing a partnership with the Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative at The Getty Conservation Institute.

“Art history prepares you for analysis of your environment,” says Carta. “In art history, there’s not just one answer. There are many answers. It’s about how you come up with your answer, how you research it to find evidence to support it.”

Abigail Cook Stone ’10, atop NYC’s Center548 during a gathering of Young Folk, the young patrons group at the American Folk Art Museum Photo: John Atashian
Abigail Cook Stone ’10, atop NYC’s Center548 during a gathering of Young Folk, the young patrons group at the American Folk Art Museum
Photo: John Atashian

In art history, Abigail Cook Stone ’10 found “an eye for design and a visual vocabulary.” “Design is so important today,” she continues. “You need to be able to speak to design if you’re going to produce any kind of product.” Stone also credits her Trinity major with honing her writing skills. “The nature of the course work calls on you to do a lot of writing. And writing is critical no matter what you end up doing—whether it’s writing a press release, a pitch letter, or a solicitation to a donor.” In Stone’s case, she wrote a senior thesis at Trinity, which was not only great experience writing but also managing a long-term, independent project.

Stone put all these skills to work at Ralph Lauren in New York, where she was part of the company’s art acquisition department, the unit charged with selecting artwork for all of the retail giant’s outlets. She was bitten by the entrepreneur bug, however, after starting Young Folk, the young patrons group at the American Folk Art Museum, and has just enrolled in the M.B.A. program at Columbia Business School. “My best skill set is creating a vision,” she says. “I see myself as the nontechnical cofounder of a future company.”

After earning her art history degree, Trish Mairs Klestadt ’80 ended up going to law school and becoming an attorney. Though she didn’t stay in the art world, her two daughters, both Trinity art history majors, did. Lauren ’11 is now an assistant art buyer for One Kings Lane, an online home furnishings retailer. Alexandra ’09 worked at Sotheby’s and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and is now an art title insurance underwriter at ARIS, a title insurance company. Serendipitously, she is now also following in her mother’s footsteps. “Alex is going to law school at night,” notes Klestadt. “In the title insurance business, it’s a big asset to be a lawyer. But her art resume is a home run.”

At Trinity, art history has the added benefit of being a small department where professors and students develop personal relationships. “My professors saw something in me that they encouraged,” says Malcolm Daniel ’78, director of the curatorial department of photographs at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “I think because it was so small, they knew me and saw my growth. I don’t think that would have happened at a larger school in a larger department.”

Malcolm Daniel ’78, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Photo: F. Carter Smith
Malcolm Daniel ’78, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Photo: F. Carter Smith

That mentorship took Daniel to Princeton University, where he earned both a master’s and a doctorate in art history. He then took a more “traditional” route for an art history major, spending 23 years at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, working his way up through the curatorial ranks. “I always knew I wanted to work in museums,” he explains. “In high school, I did a senior project at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And when I was at Trinity, I worked at the Wadsworth Atheneum.”

Those experiences were instrumental in helping Daniel decide on a career as a curator. “It’s important to make sure it’s what you want to do,” he says by way of advice to current majors. “Things like summer internships, spring projects– those practical experiences can help make museum work less of an abstraction,” he says. And the contacts students make “can also help you get a job or into graduate school.”

The College’s Career Development Center helps as well. “We’re here to support students and alumni, both individuals seeking careers in the arts and those looking for opportunities outside the field,” says J. Violet Gannon, the center’s director. “We provide space for students to self-reflect and explore their interests. We look to help them find a goodness of fit between their passions and their skills.”

That breadth is the beauty of a liberal arts degree like art history, according to Duncan. “A liberal arts education gives you flexibility,” he says. “Now that people will have a number of jobs throughout their careers, it’s better to be more broadly educated so you can adapt your skills to doing more than one thing.”

Gannon couldn’t agree more. “You can teach someone technical skills specific to their field, but those are likely to change over time,” she says. “A liberal arts education teaches habits of mind that facilitate lifelong learning.”

In that way, Duncan sees art history as no different from philosophy, religion, or English. “When you think of it, few liberal arts majors are ends in and of themselves. There often is not a direct application to the next thing you’re going to do. What I learned at Trinity gave me the confidence to pursue the next step in my career.” In Duncan’s case, that was earning his architecture degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

After the Winterthur Program, Granston says, he sees his “next step” as earning a doctorate and ultimately teaching at the college level. Asked what you can do with an art history degree, Granston’s answer is simple: “whatever you want to do with it.”