Christine Kuan jokes that she had a rather non-traditional career path. The CEO of Sotheby’s Institute of Art received an MFA in Creative Writing Poetry before deciding to pursue a career in art. Holding positions at major arts institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum to the Oxford University Press and the digital startup Artsy, Kuan says her ascension to CEO of one of the world’s most storied arts institutions is the product of a fruitful, 20-plus year career – one that many Sotheby’s students get to skip.
“I built my career by working in this business, but some of our alumni are already at the director level and they’ve only been out of our MA program for a few years,” Kuan says.
The Sotheby’s Institute program, after all, is designed to provide its graduate students with an unmatched, one-of-a-kind art business education. “Sotheby’s gives you that insider industry knowledge so you can grow quickly without having to put in decades of work to acquire the same knowledge,” says Kuan. Whether graduates are seeking careers in art, or dream of becoming a full-fledged art business owner, Sotheby’s Institute promises to uniquely enrich the ‘art school’ experience by providing art historical, connoisseurship, and art market training.
These days, the decision to pursue careers in art can be considered more of a gamble than a sure thing: Curatorial positions are notoriously coveted, yet hard-to-obtain jobs; and competition among galleries and online art platforms is becoming increasingly fierce. Positioning yourself as an expert – not only as an art historian or art market devotee, but as a well-versed authority on legal issues or appraisal and insurance procedures – can be necessary to land the right gig.
“A lot of graduate programs in art history are generally about theory, but our program is focused on what it means to practice professionally in the art world,” says Kuan. “We cover the international art market, art law, connoisseurship, valuation, appraisal; we really emphasize the practical, day-to-day work you might encounter in a career in art.”
Currently, Sotheby’s offers several distinct masters’ of arts degrees, in addition to a variety of courses that are offered both in-person and online. Its master’s degrees programs include Art Business, Arts Management, Contemporary Art, Modern and Contemporary Asian Art and Fine and Decorative Art and Design, each taught from the Sotheby’s Institute’s three global locations in London, New York, and Los Angeles.
Sotheby’s Institute Uniquely Prepares Students for Art Business Careers
Unlike most contemporary art master’s programs, the Institute’s curriculum covers a broad range of topics that arise in art business. For example, in the Valuation and Appraisal courses, students learn about authentication and valuation, which is an increasingly important – and complex – aspect of running a successful art business. Students can prepare to take certification tests for art appraisal. “This course is designed to prepare you to think about valuation projects,” Kuan says. “For instance, if you need to insure a painting or a piece of video art, how you would establish a value so you can do so effectively.”
Like any higher education degree, the cost of attending a Sotheby’s program runs steep: A semester of tuition at Sotheby’s Institute costs about $23,000, not including travel and living expenses. But Kuan emphasizes that for many, the price tag is commensurate with the privileged access, alumni network, and important opportunities afforded to Sotheby’s Institute graduates. That’s especially true considering the Institute’s newly launched initiative with Sotheby’s auction house, which offers enhanced internship opportunities, new group mentorships, and an exclusive job project bank via its expanded relationship with Sotheby’s auction house.
“A huge segment of our alumni population go into Sotheby’s or other auction houses, and the new partnership has expanded opportunities for our students to have direct access to these opportunities,” says Kuan.
Of course, with a global network of over 6,000 alumni, there are a variety of traditional and non-traditional career tracks that Sotheby’s Institute graduates occupy. A Sotheby’s Institute pedigree prepares students for a multitude of careers. Gallery directors, museum fundraisers and development executives, art researchers and artist agents can all benefit from coursework that laser-focuses on the business of art.
“Quite a lot of our graduates establish their own business, and many study here to open galleries and establish nonprofits or tech businesses,” Kuan says. “One of the things people don’t know is that museums hire a lot of Sotheby’s Institute graduates because they often need people who understand art business to run the marketing and development side.”
Kuan also stresses that the Institute’s non-degree courses are an invaluable opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge of the art market without having to commit to a course of study, and remarks that many of the Institute’s online students are art business professionals looking to deepen or enhance their expertise. “There’s a lot of people who can’t physically be at a Sotheby’s location, but benefit from gaining access to industry information and having that expertise and advice at their fingertips,” says Kuan.
Prepare for Careers in Art and Design, Fashion, or Even Financial Services
In addition, Sotheby’s challenges students to consider non-traditional career paths, something that many art-focused universities often fail to do. In particular, many Sotheby’s Institute grads work in the fashion industry, which is increasingly carving a nexus between fine art and fashion. “Luxury brands and fashion houses curate shows and work with artists often, and not purely for exhibition,” says Kuan. “Many of our graduates go on to work with luxury brands because they want to work with people who have art knowledge.”
In fact, Kuan says that graduates are increasingly being tapped for the financial services realm, as art continues to evolve as an alternative investment vehicle. “A lot of banks hire people with an arts background, as finance is a key sector in which fine art is used as a big piece of the overall financial portfolio,” says Kuan. “In addition, insurance companies are hiring Sotheby’s graduates because they understand how works of art are to be insured.”
Ultimately, the decision to pursue careers in art means that you’ll need to stand out from the competition – and equipping yourself with a well-rounded education is a fast-track to success. Says Kuan: “I think the decision to go to grad school is more about accelerating your career in the art world, and I think that’s why people come to Sotheby’s Institute: they know they want to be in this business, and they want to hit the ground running.”
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