The rise of art business courses is a mixed blessing for the art business


Any understanding of the art business must begin with an understanding of business education and scholarship in general. Business studies – in their many forms and guises – are one of the great success stories of the 20th century. In the United States, the birthplace of the MBA, business education for graduates has grown from virtually non-existent in the 1950s, with 3,200 MBAs awarded in 1955-1956, to over 100,000 per year in the mid-1990s. many people ask the question: how many graduates is too many? And what is the real value of this degree? But students continue to vote with their feet: they flock to business subjects, and in many cases business schools and departments fund their home universities.

The development of the relatively young field of business education has involved a struggle to legitimize it as a credible discipline. Originally focused on teaching practical skills such as finance, accounting, operations and distribution, it has its roots in the business schools coinciding with the industrial revolution of the end of the 19th century. In the United States, a number of private universities pioneered business courses as early as the turn of the 20th century. Wharton was founded in 1881 to train business leaders, Dartmouth offered the first Masters in 1900, and Harvard offered the first MBA in 1908. Much of this first phase was about how to optimize worker productivity and how to standardize and increase efficiency, inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly lines. and mass production. This rather mechanistic approach drew sharp criticism from an emerging generation of organizational theorists like Herbert Simon, the later Nobel Prize winner, who described it as a “wasteland of professionalism” and 1950s as a “business school” for business education.

From the start, top business schools were absorbed by the twin challenges of how to establish a credible academic field and at the same time certify management as a legitimate profession. In the 1960s, business schools around the world began to stress the need for original and primary research, knowledge creation, research-oriented teaching, and a strong focus on doctoral training. .

The growth of the “art trade” as a field reflects to some extent the early stages of the growth of business education. Commercial art studies have also emerged as a response to practical needs and specialized training in the craft. Of the first two options, Sotheby’s Institute was designed in 1969 as a training program for employees of the auction house; Christie’s Education, founded in 1978, was also based next to Christie’s auction houses in South Kensington. Although both organizations are now partnering with universities to enable them to offer master’s-level degrees, their links to the art trade and the overt emphasis on professional skills suggest that they remain rooted in the legacy of a trades school.

More recently, universities have joined the fray. According to the Association of Arts Administration Educators, there are currently 85 postgraduate arts administration programs (with management and commerce) in the United States alone. Including postgraduate programs (MBA, MSc and MA) in visual arts with a focus on administration, management and business, there are 77 more internationally with 30 in the UK. Most of them are based in universities traditionally concerned with theoretical and applied research.

The growth of business studies and art education is a mixed blessing for business. On the positive side, business training, including arts business, could offer an attractive mix of theory, analytical approach, and practical perspective. An education anchored in a contemporary but forward-looking context is attractive to students seeking employment and sensitive to the needs of an industry by providing training relevant to local and global business ecologies. The best of these trainings has strong ties to its business communities, which both support and directly benefit from a constant pool of trained graduates.

However, a number of criticisms leveled at business research and education in recent years apply equally or more in the context of art and culture. The series of corporate scandals of the early 2000s and the generalized global economic crisis from 2008 onwards sparked growing concern among academics about the role of management training. Leading voices joined the chorus calling on business schools to take responsibility for creating a corporate culture that encouraged the behaviors and beliefs that enabled the crisis.

Although the art world has seen its fair share of scandals (from insider trading and market manipulation to fraud, theft and counterfeiting), these tend to affect a relatively small elite and the public outcry is therefore mitigated. However, the broader criticisms leveled at business education are no less applicable to the art trade. The first of these is the criticism that methods and theories borrowed from other disciplines may not be relevant and (sometimes) have been applied inappropriately. For example, the assumptions borrowed from neoclassical economics that people behave rationally, independently, and maximizing utility are clumsy when applied to the world of art and aesthetics. In the context of cultural goods, it is widely recognized that people’s behavior is determined by subjective tastes, personal emotions, social norms and a web of relationships.

A second criticism is that the theories that guide our understanding of commerce and business can be inappropriate, even immoral, and lead to unethical behavior. For example, management theories rooted in a “dark view” of the human condition, which emphasize short-term gain, self-interest, and profit, cause managers to focus on the negative problem of limitation of costs arising from human shortages. Starting from such a worldview, managers become, in the words of the late business scholar Sumantra Ghoshal, “ruthless, descendant, commanding and controlling, winning at all costs” types. In the long run, it’s not good for business or for society. A growing literature on the price performance of art as a financial asset class often uses econometric techniques that are applied to sparse and biased data sets for which the methods were not really designed. The infiltration of natural science approaches into commercial research in general has led to accusations of a laughable ‘physics urge’, dominated by hypothesis testing, empirical models less suited to subjective art worlds. and culture.

Other critiques of business education are more practical. Many questions have been asked about the real value and relevance of business degrees, with doubts about whether there are direct effects on job prospects, careers or even the skills of graduates. Likewise, does an art business degree really help you find a job or run an art business? There is little data anyway.

The art business has been around for at least 3,000 years, but if the art business has any chance of establishing itself as a discipline at the level of traditional business studies, it must become much more self-critical, self-reflective, and mindful. self. . Rather than repeating the language of other fields, blindly adopting established paradigms, or reinforcing the status quo, it must rely on unique and innovative proposals both in theory and in practice. Unless they become more directly relevant as well as sharply analytical and rigorous, art business studies could do more harm than good to the art trade, by instilling inappropriate values, by perpetuating harmful practices. and by distorting the real state of the art world. Business research and education in all fields – including art – must take responsibility for instilling a constructive worldview, a set of underlying functional principles and values ​​that guide decision-making and establish acceptable standards of behavior. It must inform both the skills and the intuition that guide managers in the art world, helping them to respect that this world is not only navigated by them but shaped by their actions and decisions – thus creating no only better companies and managers, but cultural leaders for the future.

From the March issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.


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