Though art is the central and common focus of museums, galleries, and auction houses, there's one important difference—museums provide a custodial function for works of art, whereas galleries and auction houses sell works of art. Most museums are nonprofits; galleries and auction houses are places where the fields of art and business intersect.
Some common careers in a museum include museum educator, conservator/restorer, curator, registrar, researcher, slide librarian, and librarian. In addition, museums hire professional staff in all the managerial functions found in any organization (finance, marketing, public relations, etc.). The best preparation for museum work is to take as many art history and studio art courses as possible (many art museums will require an undergraduate degree in art history), become fluent in at least one foreign language, and intern at a museum. Students with an interest in conservation or restoration will also need a solid background in chemistry, physics, and computer technology.
Galleries and Auction Houses
Typical positions in galleries include gallery owner/director, salesperson, gallery assistant, and crater/packer. Taking courses in art history, history, psychology, and communications will be helpful in preparing for gallery careers; it will also be important to develop applicable business skills. Auction houses require a skill set similar to that of both galleries and museums; in fact, it's usually not possible to find work in this field, except at the administrative assistant level, without prior experience in sales, research, management, and museum curatorial work.
Arts management includes some of the same administrative positions that might be found in a museum (development, marketing, human resources, for example) but covers a much broader scope—arts administration positions aren’t limited to museums or galleries but can be found in all types of arts organizations, from large centers for the performing arts to living history museums.
Internships are available in museums, auction houses, and art galleries. Well-established internship programs, such as those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, are often a great place to start because they offer a wider range of opportunities and often provide a stipend. (Internship programs that offer a stipend are very competitive; don’t leave your application until the last minute!) But smaller museums and galleries and lesser-known auction houses can also provide a first-rate learning experience, as long as both you and the organization are clear regarding one another’s expectations. Keep in mind that well-established programs are generally more structured, have specific application deadlines (some as early as January), may require a minimum of junior standing and/or an art history concentration, and are usually offered only during the summer. Smaller museums, galleries and auction houses may have more flexible requirements, and may offer internship opportunities throughout the academic year. Doing at least one internship will help you to develop the skill set you'll need to get a job in these fields. If you’re interested in working at a gallery or auction house, an internship that entails sales or the development of other relevant business skills is also very helpful. Arts administration internships can be found in most any type of arts organization.
Employers in these fields don’t generally visit college campuses to recruit; they hire as the need arises, known as “just-in-time” hiring. This means there’s no set time to apply for these jobs; you should begin applying no earlier than three months prior to your start availability. Most jobs are found through networking, so don’t neglect this aspect of the job search. Remember: the time to build your network of contacts is before you need it! Jobs can also be found by visiting dedicated sites (sites that post open positions only in a particular field), or going directly to the website of the specific museum, gallery or auction house in which you’re interested. Although most arts organizations, museums, galleries, and auction houses hire to fill open vacancies, some, such as the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also have postgrad paid fellowships (which will have specific application deadlines). Even if you’re not looking specifically for arts administration positions, keep in mind that many of the entry-level job openings, particularly at large museums or auction houses, will be administrative in nature (for example, an administrative assistant in the curatorial department). If you’re interested in museums but prefer non-administrative work, museum education is often an area with many openings due to a higher turnover rate than many other departments.
There are many international opportunities in these fields, particularly internship opportunities. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have offices abroad, and provide the opportunity for full-time employment as well. The majority of opportunities in museums, galleries, and auction houses are located in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, but students have also interned in museums in Argentina, Australia, Jamaica, and China. If you speak the language of the host country at a fluent or near-fluent level, your chances of securing an internship or job will be much greater, regardless of whether English is the country’s secondary or tertiary language.
Graduate and Professional Programs
It's not necessary to have an advanced degree to obtain entry level positions in this field and it will be helpful to have several years of work experience on your resume before applying to grad school. In order to obtain positions in specialized or directorial functions though, it will likely be necessary to obtain an advanced degree. For those interested in museum curatorial work, conservation/restoration, or serving in an upper-level administrative capacity, the typical degree is a Ph.D.; check the Smithsonian Museum Studies Training Directory for a listing of graduate programs, both domestic and international. For galleries and auction houses, advanced degrees in art history, business, or both are useful. Auction house appraisers may also have specialized training (for example, from the Gemological Institute of America) relevant to their particular field. In addition, Sotheby’s and Christie’s offer graduate programs. For students interested in arts administration, you may want to consider an MBA with a nonprofit track, or a graduate arts administration program.
Check CARAT or the OCS Summer Funding Page to see if there are any fellowships that may fund an international internship in these areas. Funding for domestic internships will usually come in the form of a stipend from the organization itself. Many students find that planning ahead and getting a term-time job during the academic year, or signing up to work on dorm crew during Commencement, gives them the flexibility to take an unpaid internship. Other students may opt to find a second, paid job during the summer, though this can be tough to manage if the internship is full-time.