Using your History of Art degree: working in an auction house

Have you thought about a career in an auction house? History of Art lecturer Nicola Sinclair recently caught up with York grad Savannah Holmes to find out about her job at Christie’s auction house.

Savannah works in the Estates, Appraisals and Evaluations department, getting to interact directly with all kinds of art.

Here’s what we learnt:

  1. It took a year of applying to land her dream internship

Competition for roles in the arts and heritage sector is intense, so don’t be put off if you keep getting rejections. Think broadly about the places you apply to. If you’re just responding to job adverts, consider sending speculative applications instead. If you’re just applying to national or well-known organisations, think smaller scale. Rural-based organisations and smaller businesses will get fewer applications than the well-known places.

  1. The knowledge you get from a History of Art degree helps you get going

You’re degree-specific knowledge will be valued in the workplace. It’ll help you impress colleagues and show that you’re up to the task. 

  1. Your art interests will help you stand out

What kind of art do you really love? Don’t be afraid to let your interests come through in your applications and in your networking. Considering that some internships may get a hundred applicants, your passion could be what gets you an interview.

  1. Auction houses mix art with business, making for a dynamic place to work

Are you prepared for the realities of a workplace that exists to make a profit? Getting work experience in an auction house will help you understand what working in one is really like. A passion for working with art will only get you so far if you don’t enjoy the commercial side of the work. Speaking of which….

  1. You don’t necessarily get commercial awareness from your course, so learn it elsewhere

Most degrees won’t teach you about commercial awareness – that’s having an understanding of an organisation’s purpose,  the wider sector it’s part of and a sense of how current issues might impact on it. You can learn this on the job, but knowing it before can help you stand out. 

Watch Savannah’s interview:

What else is going on in the arts sector? Here’s what we know:

  • More fixed term contracts. It’s increasingly common for people to work a number of temporary roles rather than work full time in an open contract. This might mean moving around for work and picking up new skills quickly. Are these your strengths?
  • Data skills. Like most sectors, having a grasp of how to analyse data and communicate findings is increasingly important. If you can’t learn this on your course, think about what else you can do to develop the skill.
  • Have a presence on social media. Use it to network, learn what’s happening in the sector and sell yourself to potential employers. For museums, Twitter is still the most popular place to network.
  • Unpaid experience is still common. Volunteering and unpaid internships can feel like the norm in a sector that can often be underfunded, especially if you’re looking at museums or galleries.
    Fair Museum Jobs has some tips on looking critically at advertised roles. There might be funding to help: twice a year you can apply for a York Futures Scholarship to fund work experience.

Read more:

Christie’s Auction House

Tennants Auctioneers

History of Art profiles on York Profiles & Mentors

Prospects: What can I do with my History of Art degree?

Event: Exploring work experience in Arts and Heritage
Wednesday 22 January, 13:00 to 14:00

This session will explore how you can find and create heritage focused work experience opportunities, in museums, galleries, archaeological digs and heritage tourism.