Master in Contemporary Art – Sotheby’s Institute of Art

Boris Cornelissen – Review Sotheby’s Institute of Art – Master in Contemporary Art

My teachers at Sotheby’s Institute of Art used to say that the name ‘Sotheby’s’ is both the best and the worst thing about the programme. The best because it has a strong reputation within the art world, and the worst because some people assume we are all market-savvy business students who are only interested in selling art. Fortunately, the second part is not really true. The strength of Sotheby’s Institute of Art is what it is known for in the art world: offering students a varied programme that not only gives them a thorough theoretical background in art history, but also introduces them to the more practical aspects of the art world. The Contemporary Art programme thus requires you to read a significant amount of critical texts, from Theodor Adorno to Jacques Rancière, but simultaneously stimulates its students to think about the context in which art circulates. Academic essays are therefore combined with more practical exercises, such as writing articles for museum or auction catalogues.

Since the contemporary art world is a rather complex and evolving network of artists, critics, commercial galleries, auction houses, museums, curators, collectors, biennials, art fairs et cetera that are all interconnected, it is absolutely necessary to understand the system in its entirety. In many ways, an undergraduate education from University College is perfect, since it prepares you to analyse things interdisciplinarily, and look beyond the art as object. The teachers at Sotheby’s Institute - many of whom are also teachers at Goldsmiths University and prominent writers - continuously challenge you to think critically about the curatorial remit of exhibitions, as well as the positioning of institutions themselves within the larger cultural landscape. Not to forget the art itself, which emerges from a specific socio-political condition as much as an aesthetic context. After the Master’s programme you can therefore be pretty confident both in your knowledge of contemporary art and the infrastructure that supports it. Moreover, you will have learned how to present and apply that knowledge in a very practical way - something not every MA programme offers.

In order to achieve this, however, the Institute has devised a rather intense programme. During the first two semesters you will have to attend lectures 3-4 days a week, together with weekly seminars in which the theoretical texts are discussed. Besides that, there are also a number of guest lectures and excursions - both to galleries and museums in London, and elsewhere (we went to Liverpool, Cologne/Düsseldorf and Venice).

Although some people do go on to study for a PhD, most students chose the institute because this hands-on experience often proves to be an enormous advantage in finding work in the institutional or commercial art world. It certainly worked for me, as I landed a job at Sotheby’s auction house before even graduating from the programme. My overall experience was excellent, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of critical literature we had to read (particularly texts by Marxist philosophers, which one would perhaps not expect in an institution that bears the name of a major international business - but that’s the paradox of much of the contemporary art world in a nutshell).