Resources and reputation open doors for art history grad students

Almost everyone who knows about Williams College knows that its reputation for excellence stems in part from its superior art history program. This small college boasts renowned professors, a diverse course offering and access to a slew of museums, including the Clark Art Institute, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) and MASS MoCA. Williams even has a graduate program in art history, one of the two graduate programs run by this undergraduate institution. As a part of the Williams College art history department, the graduate program is extremely reputable. What many people do not know, however, is that this program, located at a small college in the Berkshires, has something of a monopoly on the art world at large, with its graduates moving on to numerous other programs and earning positions at a plethora of highly regarded museums.

This year, 25 students are graduating from the program with a Master of Arts in art history. Most of them are going on to other programs to earn higher degrees in a specific genre of art. The programs they go on to are both renowned and diverse. Ben Tilghman, for example, plans to earn his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in early medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Another student, Esther Bell, is continuing on to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, earning a Ph.D. in 18th century art history. Before she enters this program, though, Bell is spending a year in Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship, developing the thesis she worked on here at Williams into an article for publication.

Graduates of Williams’ graduate program in art history have a long history of such success. In the past, graduates have pursued Ph.D.s at many renowned institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, NYU and the University of Chicago. Graduates have also received internships at such well-known museums as the Getty, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Walker Art Center. Curators and administrators at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Clark Art Institute, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are all graduates of the College’s program.

The program itself lasts two years and requires 11 classes, which include seven graduate seminars, a European study trip and a qualifying paper. The program also offers a work/study program in which every student is given the opportunity to work either at one of the nearby museums or as a teaching assistant or research assistant to one of the art history professors. It is this work/study program that sets apart the Williams program, students said, making it truly unique and excellent.

“The Williams graduate program provides a lot of opportunities to work with original objects in the collections of the Clark, WCMA and Chapin, and even to curate exhibitions at those places and at Mass MOCA. It’s a real treat as a student to have access to the artworks themselves and to do significant research on them,” Tilghman said.

Bell described her experience working with curator Dr. Jim Ganz in the Clark’s department of prints, drawings and photographs: “This experience really enriched my classroom education. I was given the opportunity to organize an installation, I have given talks to various school groups about the collection and I have had the opportunity to learn from real objects.”

Students of the program are also impressed by the connections available in Williamstown. “The overabundance of professional art historians in this town – faculty, museum professionals and visiting scholars at the Clark – exposes the students to a variety of scholarly styles and opinions,” Tilghman said.

“[The graduate program offers] students the chance to live and work in a community of art historians. For such a small town, the contacts with art historians that I have made here have been unbelievable,” Bell added. “The professors and administrators of the Williams graduate program are extremely supportive. . . I don’t think I would have been able to take these next steps [in my career] if I had not had such a strong educational experience here.”