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Since the inception of the MA in 1998, Sotheby's Institute has pioneered the study of art business and is the leader in research, scholarship and teaching of the subject. We spoke to David Bellingham, MA Art Business Program Director at Sotheby's Institute of Art - London, about his background in classics, why London is an 'art world nirvana', and what students who take the MA can expect.

Where did it all begin for you? How did you develop a passion for art?

My favorite subject at school was Latin, and I remember from an early age connecting verbal language with visual culture. As a boy I had no interest in Old Masters, and very little exposure to modern art. Everything was about ancient visual culture. At about the age of 5 at my primary school in Kent we visited Lullingstone Roman Villa, and I became obsessed with the fantastic mosaic decorations on the floors, especially one depicting Europa Seduced by Jupiter disguised as a Bull which includes a Latin verse text as a key to the image. This story was also a favorite of Renaissance patrons and artists, and my classical background has been a great stimulus to my appreciation of later art. My father took me to Rome and the Bay of Naples when I was 12, and I was absolutely bowled over by the Pompeii experience: this was to re-emerge in my doctoral thesis which is a study of the contextual relevance of Pompeian wall-painting.

Tell us about your career trajectory and how you came to work at the Institute in London.

During my research years, I had several diverse roles. I worked as a part-time librarian in the Institute of Classical Studies Library, I conducted freelance art tours to classical Mediterranean sites, and undertook further and higher educational consultant teaching on Art and Mythology, culminating in a couple of books on Celtic and Greek Mythology for art historians. Subsequently I took a fractional post in the Classical Studies department of St Mary’s University College, and continued my freelance archaeological tours and classical art lecturing in other London colleges.

In 1997, I remember meeting the great art historian Ernst Gombrich at a Goldsmiths Hall silver exhibition, and Warren Hearnden, joined us in conversation. Warren was the Program Director of the famous ‘Styles in Art’ course (now Foundations of Western Art) at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and he invited me to deliver the first three weeks of the program, covering Classical antiquity. A couple of years later when his successor, Alison Smith, left the role for a curatorship at Tate Britain I jumped at the opportunity and began the new millennium as Program Director of ‘Styles in Art’. Sotheby’s Institute began to grow more and more successful, eventually moving to its Bedford Square premises and in 2002-2003, I was asked to lead the MA Art Business program. Within two years, the program grew from 18 to 40 to 80 students, and as all tutors and alumni of the MA Art Business during the new millennium will attest, these were highly exciting and giddying years with the art market growing into a global business, and contemporary art becoming highly fashionable and collectable with the early years of Tate Modern and the international fame of the Young British Artists.

"All academic colleagues are actively involved in art business research, and this encourages the students to themselves aspire to cutting edge research in their Master’s dissertations."

Alongside your role as Program Director for the MA Art Business, you are also an art historian and author. How does being an active professional in the art world benefit those who come to study on the MA?

The MA in Art Business is a unique and unorthodox academic subject, and therefore very few academics are trained in both art and business. My background as a classicist seems a misfit considering we deal with business and contemporary culture. However, the interdisciplinary nature of classics (embracing art, literature, history and philosophy) has enabled me to embrace the equally interdisciplinary nature of Art Business (with its law and ethics, as well as its statistics and management theory). Classical culture is a universal and eternal language and thus continues to run through every aspect of contemporary visual culture – think of Damien Hirst’s and Chris Ofili’s mythological subjects – and this facilitates an understanding of art as a synchronic, nomadic activity with no temporal or geographical boundaries. Hopefully, this syncretic vision rubs off on some of our MA Art Business students, and this facilitates their networking with art market acquaintances in antiquities and Old Masters, as well as modern and contemporary.
We are also exceptionally blessed in having an academic faculty with complementary knowledge, skills and experience. Iain Robertson is sharp and perceptive in his knowledge and understanding of the global art market, as well as witty and eloquent in his lectures and publications. Our more recent colleagues include Yasmin Railton and Gareth Fletcher, both alumni of the MA Art Business, who thus bring their own enthusiasms for contemporary art and ethics to the program, whilst at the same time understanding what the students are experiencing as they were once there themselves. Marios Samdanis is the perfect person to lecture in Business and Management, with his PHD in the marketing of the Young British Artists, and his marvelous ability to apply established and emerging business theory and methodologies to art world scenarios. All academic colleagues are actively involved in art business research, and this encourages the students to themselves aspire to cutting edge research in their Master’s dissertations. Likewise, our visiting lecturers and consultants are all actively involved in the art world, and this develops a tremendous confidence in our students as they progress through the year.

In your opinion, what advantages are there to studying the business of art in London?

I have visited many global cities, but none of them come anywhere near London in terms of multiculturalism and sheer public enthusiasm for culture. London’s street artists come from all over the world, and many of them are taken into emerging city commercial galleries, simply because a dealer has spotted their work on a car park wall and fallen in love with it. Every art market sector is vibrant in London. You can visit Victoria Miro’s warehouse gallery in the edgy street art world of Shoreditch, or if you prefer in her refined Mayfair premises. The same goes for White Cube, with its designer gallery in St James’s, surrounded by old master dealers, as well as its massive warehouse space in Bermondsey. This wealth of art galleries at all levels and across all sectors provides a never-ending source of inspiration as well as networking opportunities for our London students. Add to that the variety of world-class public museums from the British Museum to Tate Modern, the Courtauld and Warburg to the Serpentine and Whitechapel, and you have art world nirvana!

"The wealth of art galleries at all levels and across all sectors provides a never-ending source of inspiration as well as networking opportunities for our London students."

What can students who take your Master’s course expect?

To be challenged every day with lectures on subjects they never thought existed; to realize that studying art business and management is as exciting as studying the art because it assists the understanding of the commercial aspects of artistic production and consumption; to visit many different galleries and other art business locations throughout the program, often as extra-curricular early morning or late afternoon activities; to develop their own artistic interests by selecting research projects and elective modules which fit their own career aspirations; and last but not least, to be dynamically involved with fellow students and tutors who have the same passion for art and creativity, in both cultural and economic terms.

How would you capture the Sotheby’s Institute of Art – London MA Art Business experience into three words?


What advice would you have for someone starting out in their career in the international art world?

Choose two art market sectors, one which you already familiar with and one which you know nothing about, and follow them by attending relevant auctions, commercial and public gallery events, and developing a knowledge of “what’s hot, what’s not” in the art world. Follow online art news sites on a daily basis, follow art world twitter and Instagram players. But above all, follow your personal instincts and have faith in your own responses to visual culture.

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MA Art Business at Sotheby's Institute - London David Bellingham Faculty Profile Sotheby's Institute of Art - London Request Information