Art News / Art History: Profession or Pastime?

Recent figures released by the UK’s Higher Educations Statistics Agency (HESA) confirm a significant dip in students choosing to study art history at university. Earlier this month, The Art Newspaper cited a 17.5% decline in the last ten years, with the most significant drop in students taking art history at undergraduate level at 28.5%. More and more the government have prioritised the promotion of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), leaving arts and humanities to dwindle.

“Tate Modern 4 (1 of 1)” by d_morfis is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The government’s attempt to strip schools of art history A-Level in 2016 was faced with backlash and subsequently was not pursued. The Department of Education later invested a sum of £500 million between 2016 and 2020 into arts education. Despite this success, the figures cannot be ignored. The engagement of young people studying art history has progressively lessened over time. The arts are often typified to be dead-end subjects with little to no career prospects. For prospective students, spending three to four years on a path that leads to nowhere is not a major selling point. There is overwhelming anxiety around employability, and students are choosing subjects accordingly. In fact, the HESA figures show a 7% increase in students choosing to study subjects like Business and Finance in the past year. Art history is all the while struggling to survive like a goldfish in the ocean. If there is still money being invested in the subject, should this not be reflected in the number of students choosing to devote their studies to it?

Education is an important home that can provide the foundation of an interest in art, but it does not end with graduation. Public galleries and museums are amongst the top sites to see in London, and the high number of visitors per year suggests that the arts are very much alive. London’s Tate Modern is the second most visited public gallery for individuals aged 16 to 24. The introduction of Tate Collective aims to engage young people in the visual arts and immerse them in the collection. Tate Collective also provides discounted exhibition tickets at £5, introduced to the programme in 2018. The National Gallery is also seeking a younger audience with a similar reduced exhibition entry scheme.

It cannot be purely coincidental that impressionable arts organisations such as these are trying to get more young people through the front door. It is their way of saying that learning about the arts, whether that be through one’s studies or visiting exhibitions, is crucial for young people as the foundations of our society. Even so, a distinct gap remains between those who visit art in public galleries and those who study it at degree level. Perhaps it falls to the responsibility of such organisations to ensure that the intellectual importance of art remains understood in such a way that young people can engage with it. As Tate’s Talking Point stresses, “creativity is essential in a global economy that needs a workforce that is knowledgeable, imaginative and innovative”.

But it is not enough to simply open the doors of institutions in the hopes that individuals will choose art as their future path. As the figures suggest, out of the millions of people who visit art galleries every year only a small percentage of those will go on to study art history. It is essential that art is no longer pushed aside in favour of subjects seen as having a higher employability rating. Art provides the imaginative and creative tools necessary to connect the world and promotes the development and understanding of one’s identity. It invites us to consider what it means to be human and visualises how we process and experience life. Ultimately, art teaches us how to think.

In the words of Professor Keating from the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society

“…medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”



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  1. I can’t argue with that. You make your points succinctly and compellingly. Brava. Cool ‘British Baroque’ exhibition at Tate Britain currently, by the way. Went last night with Martin Barden. Tried on all the wigs (virtually). Ate all the olives (literally). Took photos (naturally).

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  2. Tate Modern is perhaps my favorite art gallery in the whole world. I was extremely excited to visit it back in 2018 when I came to London. It’s true; many students are choosing STEM subjects over art history. I did the same, I chose to study something that would make me more employable, but I did enjoy study art history back in architecture school. I’m glad I’ll be able to take classes in again even though its not a core subject in my degree.

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