Growing Art History Major Gives Students Edge in Creative Careers

Want a major that will take you on tours of elite artist studios, get you involved with book publishing in your freshman year or maybe set you up to be a dermatologist? Look no further than the art history major at Manhattan College, a small but dedicated (and growing) group of students who say they chose the major for its opportunities, variety and depth.

“Although the major began in 2010, it has grown tremendously due to the profound interest in visual culture by the student body as well as the wonderful resources of New York City and here on campus,” said Mark Pottinger, Ph.D., founder and department chair of visual and performing arts.

The major now has 16 students, some of which say they came to MC with a different path in mind but declared an art history major after taking an introductory course.

Recent art history graduate Kylie Knee thought she wanted to go to law school until she took her first art history course with Daniel Savoy, Ph.D. and assistant professor of art history.

“It just clicked with me,” Knee said. “I just understood how to draw conclusions out of certain paintings. Taking that class just made me realize that I wanted to take more.”

Now Knee is applying to Ph.D. programs in art history while interning under a curator at the Art Students League in Manhattan.

Freshman Kelsey Quartulli has a similar story. She came to Manhattan College with the intention of earning a communication degree, but just made the switch to art history in her first semester.

“I was in a first year art history class. I fell in love with the professor and the subject matter,” she said. “Art is already something that I’m very passionate about.”

Even as a freshman, she is getting involved in academic work by helping Savoy publish his new book.

Assistant professor of art history, Marisa Lerer, Ph.D. said that this kind of access students have with professors is due to the small size of the major.

“All the professors make ourselves very available,” Lerer said. She also said there is an emphasis on helping guide students through potential career paths by meeting with them or advising their research projects.

Lerer said she believes the diversity of career choices available to students is another reason students are drawn to studying art history. She said both MC students and students at her previous institution have pursued opportunities with curators, galleries, museums, auction houses, teaching and even medical school.

But drawing students to the major is one thing. Keeping them engaged is another challenge, one that faculty have overcome by being “very progressive in how we teach art history,” Lerer said.

“I like to think that the art history major has been growing because of the new approach to the discipline offered by myself and my colleague, Dr. Marisa Lerer, which focuses on the experiential study of works of art and architecture – through various technological platforms, regular museum and gallery visits, student presentations and debates and study abroad – rather than the memorization of a “Canon” of art-historical masterpieces,” Savoy said.   

This student involvement in various non-traditional art experiences have bridged what they are learning in the classroom to real life, both in NYC and across the globe.

“I had learned about all these works of art and I got to go see it in person,” Knee said of her study abroad trip to Florence, where she took in the local architecture and various museums and galleries.

Adding to the curriculum, professors bring their outside work to the classroom so students can learn more of what’s being done in the art world.

“I am involved with numerous digital art history projects, many of which I integrate into the classroom.  One example is the Venice Canal Project, which is a web-based platform that makes available immersive videos of the waterways of Venice and its lagoon,” Savoy said.

Lerer works with curators on exhibits, and said the practical skills she’s acquired there is important to relay back to students.

“When it’s a contemporary exhibition, I explain how curators work with artists,” she said.

The dynamic education and progressive curriculum in art history has majors and students with a casual interest coming back for more and filling up classes quickly.