Why don't historians like art historians

Art historian - illuminating the past for identification for today

By Hans-Martin Barthold | November 15, 2020

Marcus Dekiert heads the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne (Photo: private)

Art historians love their profession, even if many have to struggle through professional life with fixed-term and poorly paid project contracts or with the risks of a freelancer. There are two main things that fascinate her about her work. First of all, like few others, they enjoy the luxury of being close to valuable and unique art treasures every day. Marcus Dekiert, director of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, formulates the second reason. “Anyone who understands art as a speaking medium, as a window into another time, which enables an undisguised view into the lives of the people of that epoch, could not be as happy anywhere else as in our profession.” The path taken by the boss of Cologne's oldest museum is for art historians a classic, but no longer a majority career. Dekiert began his studies in Würzburg, after taking the intermediate examination he moved to the University of Bonn, where he also did his doctorate. He then volunteered for two years at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

The art historian with a doctorate then worked for ten years as curator at the Munich Pinakothek. In 2013 he finally took over the management of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Since then he has lived for his collections from the Middle Ages, the Baroque and the 19th century as well as his extensive holdings in the graphic cabinet. But Marcus Dekiert is also a good example of another characteristic of art historians. The public rarely sees their faces, regardless of their position or employment. Art historians usually work backstage. It goes without saying that visitors to highly regarded exhibitions know the names of the artists presented. The names of the curators and the museum educators, both usually art historians, are remembered by very few. Hardly any different when tourists marvel at a monument. The name of the builder remains. The name of the preservationist, also mostly an art historian, is of no interest to anyone.

Working with texts is not everything, but ...

The student Franziska de Vries on an excursion to the Venice Biennale (Photo: private)

But none of this diminishes their merits. Which, of course, are far too little recognized in public. In fact, art historians have to learn to deal with rare praise. Because the added value of their work can only occasionally be recorded in statistical-relevant data. It is clear, however, that art historians are performing that only they and no one else can generate. Regardless of the chosen field of work, they create cultural identification for the social where from and where we are all going. Of course, they first have to find their own way. And it often turns out to be a very thorny course for budding art historians. The experiences of the art history student Franziska de Vries coincide with the official figures of the Federal Statistical Office. “In the first semester we started with ten students,” she says, “now there are five of us.” De Vries is about to graduate and is studying art history in an interdisciplinary curriculum with minor subjects English and theater education at the Catholic University of Eichstätt.

The situation nationwide is even more difficult. 2,800 new students compared to 1,400 graduates last year. Unfortunately, the statistics do not differentiate between Bachelor and Master degrees. Against this background, it can be assumed that the quota of those who throw in the towel and turn their backs on art history long before acquiring a professional qualification is well over fifty percent. The reasons for this are diverse. The key point seems to be in the subject itself, of course. “Art history”, as the first chairman of the Association of German Art Historians Kilian Heck puts it, “is the theoretical exploration of art, the creation of art and its social relationships. Art history, however, is also the constant checking of these results on the original, the description of which should always be at the beginning of every investigation. ”Hermeneutical thinking, i.e. the interpretation of texts and their prior reading, are essential for this. “But that's exactly what a lot of students find difficult,” observes Heck and knows what he's talking about. After all, he teaches art history at the University of Greifswald and has been in close contact with students for many years.

Nothing for prevented artists

Art historian Ruth Heftrig is a partner in the "Sichtwechsel" agency in Halle / Saale (Photo: Joerg Lipskoch)

Ruth Heftrig, who has a doctorate in art history and is now a partner in the agency "Sichtwechsel - Agency for Art and Cultural History" in Halle / Saale, confirms the text and theory weight of the course. At the University of Bonn she switched from teaching English and history to art history. “In contrast to history, however, I also experience art history as very haptic,” she describes her personal impressions, which helped her through many a dry spell. The range of topics and epochs, but above all the variety of possible professional areas of activity, is great in art history. "There were phases when it was a huge burden for me," she admits frankly. She positively remembers both the motivation and the cohesion of her study group. “We organized a lot of excursions on our own at weekends.” It goes without saying that the face-to-face encounter with art objects helps to better understand this work and its artist.

Anything else. High school graduates whose artistic potential is insufficient for studying art and who are now thinking of studying art history as an alternative but do not want to give up their creative ambitions should put this plan aside as soon as possible. Because if there is one thing in art history that is not and never will be, then it is your own artistic action. Not even in the so-called practical monument preservation, where the art historian Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen also worked for 16 years, can this be lived out. The practical relevance is higher here than in a gallery or a museum. To lend a hand, of course, is not their job here either. "In the practical preservation of monuments, art historians are mainly active in advising on preservation measures or a conversion," explains the head of the inventory department of the LVR office for preservation of monuments in the Rhineland. The inventory is upstream of the monument protection.

Monument protection sometimes like this, sometimes like that

As a high-tech architecture of the modern age, the Aachen University Hospital has been a listed building since 2008 (Photo: Wikimedia / Mali)

Typically, art historians deal with individual cases in the inventory of historical monuments. Questions that art historians then have to clarify are, for example, the following. Does the property already have monument status? If not, does the property have sufficient historical substance to claim a monument value? How is the monument value to be justified? Which things of the property are particularly worth preserving and must therefore be described in detail in the report? Which objective is to be pursued technically and legally and economically feasible? While art historians hold numerous professions in the preservation of monuments, from architecture (see: “Architect - A Profession Between Technology and Aesthetics; https://www.berufsreport.com/architekt-ein-beruf- Zwischen-technik-und-aesthetik/ ) about civil engineering (see: "Civil engineer - where being fascinated"; https://www.berufsreport.com/bauingenieur-wo-das- werden-fasziniert/), various craft trades up to restoration (see: “Restorers - Preserving the Cultural Heritage”; https://www.berufsreport.com/restauratoren-die-bewahrer-des-kulturellen-erbes/), they are more of a lone warrior in the inventory.

"For research you not only spend a lot of time in the object on site, but also in archives and libraries," says Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen, describing an important aspect of everyday work in inventory. The similarities to studying art history are obvious. “The supreme discipline for monument preservationists is, of course, the systematic recording and evaluation of art and cultural monuments worth preserving,” says the woman from the Rhenish Office for Monument Preservation in Pulheim, drawing attention to another aspect. She gives an example of this. "The Ministry of Monument Preservation in North Rhine-Westphalia financed a project from 2009 to 2016 to record and evaluate all churches built after the Second World War." The aim was to give the dioceses and the Protestant regional church planning security in dealing with potential architectural monuments. First of all, it's about comparability. Which church fulfills the criteria of the Monument Protection Act and is therefore more worth preserving than others?

“Our first task in such projects is therefore to develop standards for the assessment on the basis of the Monument Protection Act,” explains Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen. Here art historians can show what they have learned during their studies. However, it is by no means just about the architectural-historical classification, which is just one facet in a complex network of justifications. It is also about the more general testimony value of an object. Which can also lie in the local, social and technical history or folklore. Urban planning aspects must also be taken into account. An art historian in the preservation of monuments must therefore have a broad professional base. In addition, one more thing becomes visible, which is why many art historians feel so closely connected to their profession. Whether in the preservation of monuments or in the museums, they maintain and preserve visible points of social identification.

History leaves little room for the present

View of Arles by Vincent van Gogh (Photo: Wikimedia)

These points of identification are primarily works of the fine arts, such as architecture, painting and graphics, with some cutbacks also from the applied arts, and more recently photography as well as film and video art. Students and professionals alike complain about the increasingly rare opportunities to hold such objects in their own hands and, in both senses of the word, to be able to grasp them. It is true that art history first and foremost analyzes the peculiarities of art historical epochs, art styles as well as individual artists. Nevertheless, it also proves to be an object science in no small measure. For art historians who are striving for a career in the art trade or in a relevant auction house, reliable knowledge of objects even becomes an absolute must. Of course, those interested in studying art history should be clear about one thing. The focus of her studies and subsequent professional activity is arthistory. The preoccupation with contemporary art takes up only a small extent in both cases. Contemporary art is not completely absent from the curricula, but you should find out more about the focus of the institutes at the various universities if you have a special era or genre in mind.

Like Franziska de Vries, numerous students miss contemporary art and the preoccupation with the new art forms such as action-oriented and ephemeral performance art At an auction house, the Eichstatt art history student is considering switching to art and media studies after completing her bachelor's degree. So was art history a wrong decision? “No,” she says, “on the contrary. It was a wonderful time. ”During which your professional goals were also concretized. She sees this in the mediation of art and culture, perhaps one day in one of the Goethe Institutes. And she can take a lot with her into her new course of study. For example, knowledge of image strategies, the gradation of perspectives, analysis methods, symbols and their socio-political references.

General education, curiosity, ambition

Kilian Heck heads the Association of German Art Historians (Photo: private)

The art history professor Kilian Heck knows such student developments well enough. And therefore relies on intensive orientation both before and during your studies. “However, the rigid austerity constraints leave us less and less time to think, talk and discuss together,” he regrets an obviously insoluble structural handicap. In addition, he regrets the current character of the increasing visual overkill. “First-year students are simply no longer used to looking at a picture for twenty minutes,” he regrets their lack of patience. “Studying art history”, he adds, “requires a broad general knowledge of lexicals, great curiosity, a lot more passion, and an unmistakable instinct for quality in art.” For the almost endless reading work, above-average textual competence is more the willingness to read for hours and days is an indispensable prerequisite.

Even if the course content has been more structured since the introduction of the Bachelor / Master’s degrees, good self-organization skills remain an important requirement, says Ruth Heftrig, looking back on her studies. Sometimes she had to write no less than three extensive term papers during the semester break. And when the art historian, who also had a doctorate, decided to set up her own business with a fellow student and founded her own agency, self-guided learning began all over again. How do you create a business plan? What do you have to think about when filing your tax return? How does fundraising work? Which contractual pitfalls do you have to watch out for? At the end of the day, she gives budding art historians another recommendation for starting a career. "Internships helped me a lot for orientation and personal self-assurance."

Being able to moderate conflicts

Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen heads the inventory department at the LVR Office for Monument Preservation in the Rhineland (Photo: Vanessa Lange / LVR-ADR)

Above all for freelance art historians, but also for art historians permanently employed in museums and galleries, the work is increasingly organized in project form. The resulting constant change of personnel in the teams requires above-average social skills, communication skills and a willingness to compromise with simultaneous assertiveness. Especially in the preservation of monuments, which is a compulsory task for the municipalities, but is often a shackle for the owners, these different interests also regularly lead to conflict situations. "To be able to persist in this, objectivity, willingness to deal with conflict, assertiveness as well as frustration tolerance and the ability to adapt to the most varied of interlocutors are essential requirements", are Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen's experiences. That observed another development. The protection of historical monuments, which is based on a law, i.e. represents a politically desired communal compulsory task, is becoming less important in times of climate protection and ecology. Optimal monument preservation and sustainability are almost synonyms. "We have to justify what we do much more often than we did twenty years ago."

Ruth Heftrig fears that this will not only place the clients of her agency under ever increasing pressure to save. The corona pandemic is likely to exacerbate this trend even further. She is convinced that all other fields of art-historical work will also be affected. “The red pencil hovers over the entire industry”, she expects difficult times. Especially since there are no framework agreements on the structure of the fees. Freelance art historians should also be prepared for two other peculiarities. “The workload can hardly be planned and is often very discontinuous,” explains Heftrig. “We also work on numerous projects with many voluntary partners, whose point of view is sometimes completely different from that of us professionals. You have to be prepared for that. ”However, it does not apply to alarming people. Ruth Heftrig is now widely networked and has a good reputation. She curates exhibitions, designs and conducts seminars, excursions and conferences, edits publications, proofreads texts and moderates many formats.

Art history and the art of formulation

Every art historian should be able to formulate factually accurate and catchy, and every art historian should enjoy it. “In museums, we have an intermediary function between science and our visitors,” says the Cologne museum director Marcus Dekiert, explaining the task assigned to him and his employees. “So we have to break down the complexity of things to the demands of the respective target group.” Even more, we have to find ways to remain visible in the digital age without losing core competencies. What does the boss of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum mean by that? Last year, his house published a comic for children as part of a highly regarded Rembrandt exhibition. "Rembrandt and the frog by Diana Ciesielski and Sebastian Remmert attracted many little tots, ”reports Dekiert. “Otherwise they would probably not have found their way to us.” However, the line between art and commerce is fine.

"As a member of the monument preservation department, I often have to speak to political bodies," emphasizes Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen. And by this means the ability to be able to formulate target group and situation appropriately. How do you learn that? By doing it and continuously educating yourself. Marcus Dekiert worked as a museum guide when he was a student. Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen and Kilian Heck worked as tour guides for art historical group tours. Ruth Heftrig gained experience in seminar work and as an assistant in teaching. Galleries, too, are always looking for student assistants who are experienced in writing and knowledgeable in phrasing to create catalogs. Finally, art historians should have seen a lot of the world. And that with watchful eyes. Helmtrud Köhren-Jansen went to Rome for three years at the Bibliotheca Hertziana for her doctorate. Mobility already counts during your studies. “You should change universities at least once,” recommends Professor Kilian Heck from Greifswald. He himself dared three changes of location during this time.

"You have to be able to afford art history!"

Is the choice of university important? Of course! What distinguishes a good university? “It should not just have a professorship, but a complete institute and not just offer art history as a minor,” says Heck's advice. "When the place of study breathes art in all places, on every street corner, it proves to be incredibly motivating for the course," is Franziska de Vries's experience. Language learning is also part of the course. Without Latin, Italian and French you cannot become anything in certain areas. Curiosity and ambition are indispensable qualities for every art historian, for Kilian Heck also the ability to organize and motivate oneself. In addition, there is the secure financing of the studies. At the 35th German Art Historians' Day, a student speaker complained: “You have to be able to afford to study art history (editor's note: and also a career as an art historian).” True enough! The reward, however, follows immediately.

Data, facts & links
(Status: 01.11.2020)
Working art historians: Due to the high number of freelance art historians, no reliable data is available on the number of working art historians.
Age structure of working art historians: as above.
Unemployed art historians: as above.
First-year students in the winter semester 2019/2020: 2,814 (proportion of women: 76%)
Graduates with a university degree in the 2019 examination year (without differentiation between Bachelor and Master): 1,358 (proportion of women: 86%)
Income: Due to the high number of temporary and project contracts as well as freelance art historians, no reliable data is available here either.
Study options:

Additional information:


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CategoriesProfessions under the microscope