Art Market

A Guide to 15 Leading Art History and Curatorial Master’s Programs in the U.S.

Artsy Editors
Oct 2, 2017 10:56PM

If you have your sights set on a curatorial career in the arts, you’ll almost invariably need a master’s degree (at minimum), or be in the process of getting one. For other art-world roles, in galleries, arts administration, or magazines, for instance, an MA is always helpful, but not essential.

If you do decide to apply for an MA, though, how to choose from the various options across the United States? What follows is a guide to some of the leading Art History and Curatorial MA programs across the country. It’s not comprehensive—there are strong programs at the University of Washington and Virginia Commonwealth University, among many others not included here—but it gives an overview of some of the best.

What this article doesn’t include: information on grants, awards, and doctoral programs. It’s no secret that undertaking a graduate degree can lead to considerable student debt. Many of the below schools offer something in the way of funding, so be sure to do your homework before you apply. And depending on your career path, if you do need a Ph.D., we suggest starting your search by looking to the University of Southern California, CUNY’s Graduate Center, Stanford, Berkeley, and the Ivies, though there are many more great programs across the country.

Art History, Savannah College of Art and Design  

Location: Savannah, Georgia

Annual Tuition: $36,765

Courtesy of SCAD.

SCAD claims to have the largest Art History faculty in American higher education; that’s hard to prove definitively, but we can attest that it is indeed extensive. Professors have come from positions at the Met and the National Gallery of Art, and from schools across the country, and include beloved professor and program coordinator Arthur J. DiFuria, and Petra Richterova, known for her class on Art and Spirituality, and classes on the arts of African countries and cultures. The college has a robust program of symposia and visiting lecturers, and students benefit from access to the highly regarded SCAD Museum of Art, as well as to the diverse ecosystem of artistic and design-based expertise represented at SCAD’s art school. But it’s not only Savannah (with its southern charm and disproportionate population of ghosts) that you’ll have access to; SCAD also has locations in Atlanta, Hong Kong, and the tiny French town of Lacoste, venues that are open to all students, providing there are relevant classes on offer at that time. Alumni from the Art History program have gone on to positions at the Smithsonian, Art Papers, and the Corcoran Gallery, among other art venues, publications, and schools.

Curatorial Studies, Bard College

Location: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

Annual Tuition: $39,748

Opening reception of We are the Center for Curatorial Studies, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. October 15 - December 16, 2016. Photo: Lisa Quinones


On the banks of New York’s Hudson River, about two hours north of Manhattan, Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies is one of the oldest focused curatorial research centers. The graduate program is now led by Lauren Cornell, an established and celebrated curator who for over a decade has been a key voice in digital and new media arts, having helmed the New Museum’s Rhizome for seven years and curated the 2015 New Museum Triennial along with artist Ryan Trecartin. What distinguishes the program, in addition to the college’s excellent faculty and strong job network, is its 25,000 square-foot, on-campus museum, the Hessel (which Cornell now also programs). There, you’ll find a collection of over 3,000 contemporary works and the possibility of hands-on experience with artworks, artists, and curators working in the field. You’d be hard-pressed to find better on-campus resources for curatorial training and research: Bard also comes with an extensive library and archives, which contain a comprehensive cache of exhibition catalogues and art magazines from around the world.  

Art History, University of Pennsylvania

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania  

Annual Tuition: $52,208

Grad students at the opening reception for a student-curated exhibition, “Expanding the Audience for Art in the Nineteenth Century,” held at the Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of  the University of Pennsylvania.

UPenn stands out for initiatives like its Incubation Series, founded in 2015, which enables Art History students to curate the work of UPenn MFAs in several student-produced exhibitions that take place in spaces throughout Philadelphia each year. It’s opportunities such as these that give students vital exposure to the local art scene and experience in applying their growing knowledge and expertise to the pragmatics of organizing exhibitions. The university’s Art History department also has relationships with the city’s cultural institutions—including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ICA Philadelphia, and the Barnes Foundation. UPenn alums of the MA program have held curatorial positions or organized exhibitions at LACMA, the Dia Art Foundation, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other institutions.

History of Art, Williams College

Location: Williamstown, Massachusetts

Annual Tuition: $53,240

Clark Art Institute © Jeff Goldberg/Esto. Courtesy of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art.

Located in the lush Berkshires of rural Massachusetts, and housed in the gorgeous, Tadao Ando-renovated Clark Art Institute, Williams’s graduate program in Art History is considered to be something of a pipeline school for curatorial positions at New York institutions like MoMA and the Whitney. (Alumni have also gone on to posts at LACMA, MFA Boston, and Gagosian, among other arts venues.) It’s another program with an astronomical price tag, but included in that cost is a compulsory, three-week international study trip that students embark on, with faculty, during their first year. Past trips have taken students to China and across Europe, and future trips are planned to Australia and Japan, among other destinations. Students also benefit from a close relationship with the Clark—working alongside the institution’s research and curatorial staff—as well as nearby MASS MoCA. Each student is guaranteed a paid, eight hours-per-week internship in one of the program’s partner museums or the Chapin Rare Book Library.

History and Theory of Contemporary Art & Exhibition and Museum Studies, San Francisco Art Institute

Location: San Francisco, California

Annual Tuition: $46,010

Diego Rivera mural at San Francisco Art Institute. Photo by Joaquín Martínez via Flickr.

With roots in San Francisco’s radical, countercultural artist community, SFAI is anything but conventional. Reflective of art’s increasing cross-disciplinarity, those inclined toward both artmaking and scholarship can take a dual MFA-MA—that means access to the first-ever fine arts photography department (founded by Ansel Adams in 1945), and to the school’s experimental “New Genres” program, in addition to art history and theory classes. The school offers two focused MA programs for a small selection of individuals—History and Theory of Contemporary Art and Exhibition and Museum Studies—both of which have provided the basis for students to go on to found publications in the Bay Area and beyond, and take up curatorial posts both on the West Coast and elsewhere in the world. (SFAI alum Patricia Maloney founded the online magazine Art Practical and is currently director of the arts space Southern Exposure; another alum is working as former Venice Biennale chief curator Okwui Enwezor’s assistant curator at Haus der Kunst in Munich.) An additional perk: Students get to enjoy the fabulous Diego Rivera mural that adorns the gallery of its beautiful campus, perched in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco.

Curatorial Practice, California College of the Arts

Location: San Francisco, California  

Annual Tuition: $39,384

Martin Wong: Painting is Forbidden, opening night, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco. Curated by CCA's Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice Class of 2015. Photo by Frank Carrino. Courtesy of California College of the Arts.

This two-year intensive curatorial training—the first of its kind on the West Coast—will take you through the history and methodology of exhibitions, as well as contemporary and global art history, theory, and criticism, before you embark on a second year in which you’ll undertake individual projects and organize a group-curated exhibition. Among its alumni are Jessica Silverman, who has developed an international reputation for her San Francisco-based gallery, which shows artists from California and elsewhere in the world; Dina Pugh, who oversees Facebook’s Artist-in-Residence program; and Chris Fitzpatrick, the director of Kunstverein Munich, an influential exhibition space in Munich. You’ll also benefit from a close relationship with CCA’s gallery space, the Wattis Institute, which is widely recognized for its strong, often conceptually driven exhibition program.

History of Art and Archeology, Institute of Fine Arts at New York University  

Location: New York, New York

Annual Tuition: $44,540

Excavation in Abydos, Egypt. Photo by Greg Maka. Courtesy of the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

The prestigious program, housed in heiress and art collector Doris Duke’s former mansion on New York’s museum mile (across from the Met), is particularly strong for those looking to study the ancient and pre-modern worlds, especially ancient Greece and the Mediterranean. Budding classicists and antiquity aficionados can also apply to join archeological digs in Italy and Turkey during summer breaks. The rigorous institute comes with both professors at the tops of the fields and impressive alumni: Esteemed scholar Linda Nochlin studied there (and taught there), as did former Met director Philippe de Montebello (currently on staff) and the late art critic Robert Goldwater. No less than 35 of its alumni are currently museum directors around the world. There are plenty of opportunities to travel to see art overseas—all students receive travel grants after their first year of study—and you’ll also get free entry to most New York museums. You can also enroll part-time if you work in a related profession. A foreign language (currently only French, German, and Italian are offered) is required.

Art History, City College of New York

Location: New York, New York

Annual Tuition: $7,800 (resident); $13,425 (non-resident)

Shepard Hall at the City College of New York. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

CCNY’s MA Art History programs—of which there are three, respectively concentrating on Art History, Art Museum Education, and Art Museum Studies—are mercifully affordable and flexible, allowing students to complete the degree while working full-time, though some required classes take place during the work day to allow for site visits. The programs avoid being too Western-centric, providing access to faculty members with expertise in Asian, African, and Latin American art, as well as the European tradition. The department’s alumni include the director of New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and the esteemed scholar Deborah Willis, among other curators, professors, and art-world professionals.

Art History, University of Texas, Austin  

Location: Austin, Texas

Annual Tuition: Approx. $9,962 (in-state); $18,466 (out-of-state)

Art History Professor Eddie Chambers in conversation with a student. Courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.

UT Austin’s MA allows students to choose between several tracks in order to tailor-make the program to their particular interests, homing in on a specific period. In other words, students interested in focusing on the ancient world need not take classes in modern and contemporary art, and vice versa. The school has a robust roster of faculty members representing the non-Western world, including three professors covering arts of Africa and the African Diaspora. What’s more, remarkable for an Art History MA, the program’s language requirement is not limited to a European language; the language must simply relate to a student’s chosen area of study (and be approved by a thesis or graduate advisor). UT Austin grads have found their way to Tate Modern, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Royal College of Art in London, among other venues and schools.

Art History, University of Iowa

Location: Iowa City, Iowa

Annual Tuition: $10,000 (in-state); $27,000 (out-of-state)

University of Iowa Art Building West, designed by NYC architect Steven Holl. Courtesy of the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History.

In the flat plains of eastern Iowa sits Iowa City, a cultural hub with a population of less than 80,000, a city that has consistently been voted one of the best places to live in the United States. Home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which is arguably the most celebrated writing program in the U.S., Iowa City is the only UNESCO City of Literature in the the country (and one of 11 in the world.) The University of Iowa’s MA program in Art History, which is closely affiliated with the school’s highly ranked art school, is intended to give students a broad, comprehensive grounding in the global history of art. Its students have gone on to posts at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, the Smithsonian, and the IFAN Museum of African Arts in Dakar, Senegal, among other institutions. If you don’t have a second language, prepare to bone up on either French or German to pass a test at the end of your third semester.

Art History, Stony Brook University

Location: Stony Brook, New York

Annual Tuition: $10,870 (in-state); $22,210 (out-of-state)

Chrissie Iles, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, lecturing in the seminar room, 2017. Courtesy of Stony Brook University.

Last year, Long Island’s Stony Brook University hired the internationally renowned scholar and curator Katy Siegel as its Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Endowed Chair in Modern Art, strengthening its position as a center for the study of post-war and contemporary art. In addition to curating the U.S. pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale (along with Christopher Bedford), Siegel has curated exhibitions and written several key books on Abstract Expressionism and post-war American art. Stony Brook also has a close relationship with the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center—the artist couple’s Eastern Long Island home, which was deeded to the Stony Brook Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the university, in 1987— where the pair created some of their key works. The program also comes with the legacy of esteemed and pioneering critic and early feminist Lawrence Alloway, who led the program for 13 years.

Art History & Art History and Museum Studies, Tufts University

Location: Medford, Massachusetts

Annual Tuition: $49,892 for first year; tuition exempt in second year

Courtesy of Tufts University.

While the tuition fee for Tufts may seem steep, that’s essentially a lump sum for two years—classes in your second year are free. Prospective students must have reading knowledge of a foreign language before entering, and though the school generally recommends the traditional, European art-historical languages, an Asian language test can also be arranged. Be prepared to take a comprehensive exam—for which you’ll have to memorize key artworks from the span of art history—at the beginning of your second year. The program is closely tied to the Tufts University Art Gallery, and each year one MA student is selected to work as a paid graduate curatorial assistant in the gallery. Others can learn to give guided tours through the gallery. Tufts is highly selective, and the intake is small, which means students will be given plenty of attention and individual guidance across the two-year program. Alums have gone on to curatorial positions at the Harvard Art Museums, the Peabody Historical Society, the Menil Collection, and the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, among other institutions.

Art History & Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies, Columbia University  

Location: New York, New York

Annual Tuition: $54,360

Installation view of Invisible Cities: The Still Life as Political Object, showing Latzhose1, "Rlaxed" and Latzhose 3, "Kicking Leg" by Annette Kelm, and an untitled work by Leslie Hewitt from her "Still Life" series. Exhibition organized by MODA student Taylor Fisch for MODA Curates. Courtesy the Wallach Art Gallery.

Columbia’s MAs in Art History and Modern Art: Critical & Curatorial Studies come with a particularly hefty fee, but that’s not to say you won’t get what you pay for. For those looking to fold a stint in Europe into the graduate experience, the school offers a dual MA with the prestigious Sorbonne, in Paris, allowing the opportunity to spend a semester in the French capital. And where some other schools have been slow to cast an eye East and South, and expand the canon beyond the West, Columbia has offered classes about the art histories of a diverse range of territories across the globe for several decades. This wide-angled view on human history and culture is in many ways the legacy of its most famous professor emeritus, Meyer Schapiro, the hugely influential art historian and critic who is often remembered for his interdisciplinarity. What’s more, you’ll have access to top professors like MacArthur “Genius” grant winner Kellie Jones, who has played a pivotal role in writing (and curating) the history of African-American art into the canon. MA students must demonstrate proficiency in a second language that relates to their studies.

Modern and Contemporary Art History, School of the Art Institute of Chicago  

Location: Chicago, Illinois

Annual Tuition: $29,250

David Getsy at the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

If you’re looking for a hands-on experience working closely with artists, SAIC’s Art History program may be for you. Located across the street from Chicago’s world-class Art Institute, the program offers MA students the chance to curate the MFA students’ graduating exhibitions alongside guest curators. For the 2017 class, that meant working alongside major curators like Valerie Cassel Oliver in order to create a floor plan and arrange and install the works. You’ll also benefit from exposure to Chicago’s grassroots art ecosystem and a diverse array of arts venues, many of which have a close relationship with the school. Prominent graduates of the program have gone on to take up curatorial posts and directorships at venues across the country, including the Haggerty Museum, Museum of Arts and Design, and SITE Santa Fe.

Art History, Hunter College, City University of New York  

Location: New York, New York

Annual Tuition: approx. $8,570 (in-state); approx. $17,150 (out-of-state)

Hunter MA Art History students Annie Wischmeyer and Jenn Bratovich installing "Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni" at Hunter's 205 Hudson Gallery. Courtesy of Hunter College, CUNY.  

One of the most affordable and respected Art History programs, Hunter College’s MA caters to part-time as well as full-time students by accommodating several evening classes each semester—allowing students to work full-time jobs. Plus, if you’re a resident of New York, the cost of tuition is cut in half. Simply put, Hunter can’t be beaten for its combination of flexibility, low cost, and rigor. You’ll have access to distinguished faculty members like Emily Braun, who recently curated the Guggenheim Museum’s Alberto Burri retrospective, and Thierry de Duve, who curated the Belgian pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale—as well as to Hunter’s four galleries, where MA students are often involved in curatorial projects.

It’s a relatively traditional program, requiring students to pass a comprehensive exam (that means learning the details and significance of 300+ works of art from around the world, still weighted towards major Western works of art from antiquity through the contemporary period) and passing a reading exam in a second language (German, Italian, Spanish, or French). The program recently introduced an advanced curatorial certificate that you can elect to take on top of your Art History MA, and numerous students have gone on to curatorial jobs in major institutions like MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum—or indeed have completed their MAs while in curatorial jobs—as well as other roles in arts organizations. MA students will also find themselves in class with students from the school’s celebrated MFA program, crucially bringing artists’ perspectives into the classroom.

Cover image: Aerial view of CSS Bard/ Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Photo by Lisa Quinones. Courtesy of Bard Center for Curatorial Studies.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the annual tuition at University of Texas, Austin, was $24,282 in-state and $35,010 out-of-state. It has been updated to reflect the correct tuition costs.

Artsy Editors