Demystifying Art History Academia | Cultural Insights with Charlotte Ashby

Professional Art Historian Charlotte Ashby shares her inspirations, motivations, and the enduring appeal that led her to a career in the world of Art.



What drew you to art, to begin with?

Charlotte AshbyI always loved making art as a child and enjoyed it at school up to A Level.  Part of art teaching at school included elements of Art History, which I also really enjoyed.  Living in London, I was able to see a lot of art, visiting the National Gallery, Tate etc.

I went to university to read history, but as I was studying in Scotland, where your sub-honours years involve working across a range of subjects, I was able to continue with Art History and ended up switching to it at an honours level.



What’s the biggest misconception about the world of art?

I think it is the idea that you have to know something before you can start enjoying art and that there is some sort of invisible barriers of taste and knowledge that you need to be able to pass through before you are allowed in.

Most art world professionals are relatively poorly paid and work in this sector because they love it.  We want more people coming in to engage with the work we do, regardless of what they know or like in advance.  If they come open-minded and ready to expand what they know and like, so much the better.  But we aren’t interested in acting as gatekeepers.


Could you tell our readers what they should look for when considering attending an art gallery for the first time?

All galleries have websites now, so you can check practical information, like whether there is an admissions charge or free entry. Most UK galleries offer free entry to see their permanent collection (their artworks that are taken from the collection the museum holds) but there is usually a charge for special exhibitions (exhibitions up for a few months that use material from other collections and often travel from gallery to gallery).

Going to explore permanent collections is a free and relaxed experience, you can just wander in and look around for as little or as long as you like. Going to see a temporary exhibition is more of an event.  You may need to buy tickets in advance and they may even be timed to a particular entry time.  The exhibition will be set up to tell a particular story about an artist, theme or group of artists.  In both cases though, curators will have decided how to arrange the artworks in each room to create connections between them, so you might like to think about this arrangement and what effect you think it has.


What do you think the future of art in the UK looks like?

The UK holds some magnificent collections of art and some of the world’s best art schools and institutions for art research. So it is one of the best places to live in or visit if you are interested in art.  We are going through lean times, in terms of public funding for education and the arts, so there is not as much going on as there used to be.  But the more people who engage in art, in whatever way they enjoy, the stronger the case can be made to the government that art is for everyone and should be supported.


What made you choose a career in art academia?

I wanted to work somewhere I would never be bored.  Working in art history means I work every day in a field I love and find endlessly interesting. Working with adult learners in institutions that focus on continuing education throughout life means that my teaching each year is never dull. Every year I meet new people who are coming to learn about art for all sorts of different reasons and who bring their hugely varied life experiences to bear on the material we look at together. It is inspiring.


Useful links

Charlotte Ashby Profile (Birkbeck College)


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