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Our guide to art history & criticism courses

Do you picture yourself as the next Brian Sewell waxing lyrical in London's Evening Standard newspaper about the new controversial Banksy exhibition? And do you love the debate and banter between The Culture Show (BBC2's flagship arts programme) presenters and could really see yourself up there with the likes of Andrew Graham-Dixon discussing this year's Turner Prize? Have you, then, considered taking a course in art criticism to lead you into a career as an art critic? Choose from either a short course to give you a taster of the subject or a full-time course generally combined with an art history degree and let your written skills do their magic – or mayhem!


What is an art critic exactly?

Like the well-known, modern-day professionals mentioned above, an art critic is a person who specialises in evaluating art. Basically, they criticise art – from paintings to photography and sculpture and everything in between – and their written reviews or critiques are published in newspapers, magazines, books and the web. The art critic views art at exhibitions, galleries, museums or artists' studios and let their views be known through the written word - or sometimes via a television broadcast, either a news slot or a specialised art programme.

Professional art critics have a keen eye for art and a thorough knowledge of art history to ensure their opinion is as informed as possible. Today's critics can also hold a powerful position in the art world and their opinions and viewpoints have the ability to stir public debate and send ripples through the art and culture worlds. Some critics might use art blogs and websites to connect with an even wider audience.

Art critics have, historically, always been around to view the art of their generation. John Ruskin, for instance, was a leading art critic in the Victorian era and championed the work of JMW Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, but hated that of modern painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler and accused him of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face'.


Where to start?

A short course on art criticism will introduce you to the processes involved – from looking at art and putting your opinions into words, to marketing and promoting your features for possible publication. There will be opportunities to develop your own writing style and critical commentary, whether you are a complete beginner or a graduate wishing to improve your skills and boost your understanding of the art press. You might visit exhibitions, discuss ideas and get feedback on written work – all in all, a vital introduction to the relationship between art, galleries and the press.

Another option is to choose a full time, combined degree course to equip you with a really wide grasp of the art world and stand you in good stead for future job prospects.


Job prospects

Gaining a job as an art critic can be a tough one, so it is wise to gain as much experience as possible even if it's in an unpaid capacity. Perhaps you could offer your services reporting about local artists for a newspaper or blog or any other online platform? Visit as many museums, galleries and art exhibitions as possible and keep abreast of thought, debate and advances in the art world.

Art critics typically fall into two categories, that of the journalist art critic or the scholarly art critic. Either way, the majority of professionals are highly educated to degree level and beyond in art and art history; some may even have been art professors before becoming art critics while many will have solid journalism experience on their CV.

The Journalist Critic: such art critics contribute to newspapers or magazines and write news and reviews of current art exhibits, gallery openings or artists in their areas. Features must be readable, interesting and thought-provoking.

The Scholarly Critic: aimed at the professional art crowd and often preparing academic presentations for fine art professionals. The scholarly art critic may also teach at universities or work for art museums as curators and tend to concentrate on a specific style, artist, period of history or medium such as oils or watercolours.


Three top tips

EXPERT EYE – Become an expert in your field. If you want to become an art critic writing about still life then you must learn literally everything there is to know about still life, from its history to the main players and everything in between. You must become THE authority on still life.

CURIOSER AND CURIOSER – Keep open-minded and stay ahead of what's happening in the art pack. Discover and learn about up-and-coming talent and delve back through the archives and brush up on old masters. Research, research and research again!

GET OUT THERE – Visit art exhibitions, new shows, galleries and art fairs as frequently as possible. It is vital you see as much art as possible, up close and personal, to become a good art critic.


By Lara Sargent

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Exploring the National Gallery
Exploring the National Gallery
by michael - October 2014

This is a Friday night course at the National. Its late opening creates an excellent atmosphere as the gallery gradually empties. The choice of pictures for the night is based on a clear theme and the pictures are always well chosen. The tutor is highly knowledgeable and engaging and makes quite complex ideas accessible to the willing amateur like myself. I have learnt from this course how to really look at pictures and I have found it thrilling.

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