Meet Jonathan Clancy, Program Director for the Master's degree in Fine and Decorative Art and Design at Sotheby’s Institute of Art – New York. We spoke to Jonathan about his career, what students can expect when taking the program, and what advice he has for those starting out in their careers in the international art world.
Where did it all begin for you? How did you develop a passion for art?
I can’t say for certain, except to note that I have always liked things, always liked learning, and always felt at home in libraries and museums. I suppose too that while I have an aesthetic response to art, it has always been the desire to know more about objects that has defined my passions. I think everything in fine and decorative arts is a document of sorts, to be read, debated, discovered, and ultimately appreciated. The historian ultimately has great freedom, but an enormous responsibility too because the duty to connect audiences with objects is a sacred trust. It is only through that connection that histories come alive, the past is truly valued, and as societies we feel the need to preserve, learn, and hopefully grow.
Tell us about your career trajectory and how you came to work at the Institute in New York.
It would be an understatement to say that my career path has been unconventional: I dropped out of college and became a pastry and catering chef before admitting that my real passion was teaching and returning to school in my late twenties. After completing an undergraduate degree as a double major in History and Art History I applied and was accepted to a number of PhD programs. While completing this degree, I was asked by a former professor if I would give a lecture on Frank Lloyd Wright at Sotheby’s Institute in New York. The following year I gave a few more lectures, and soon was employed by the Institute half-time. When the previous Program Director left, she recommended me to the position because of my knowledge in both Fine and Decorative Arts and my commitment to the students. I was at the right place at the right time and—most importantly—had the right skills.
"By constantly pushing for new knowledge you teach students not to be complacent, to question what we know and how we know it."
Alongside your role as Program Director for the MA Fine and Decorative Art and Design, you are also an author of several books and a curator. How does being an active professional in the art world benefit those who come to study on the MA?
It’s simple really: you can either work with someone who synthesizes existing knowledge and distills it to you, or you work with someone who engages the field, contributes to the body of knowledge, and intellectually is pushing his or her self and others. In terms of student benefit, part of it is networking because if you engage a field you will be known in that field and this provides numerous opportunities to introduce students to professionals that can assist them. I also think that by constantly pushing for new knowledge you teach students not to be complacent, to question what we know and how we know it, and to embrace what I think of as a restless intellect that wants more answers, more questions, and a deeper understanding of the past and present.
In your opinion, what advantages are there to studying fine and decorative art and design in New York?
Quite simply, New York remains the center of the art world: not only in terms of sales, but also in the diversity of museums that have world-class collections. To be able to experience artworks personally, you need to get out of the classroom, stop looking at slides and stand in front of them. In so doing, you understand the work on a deeper level, you connect with it emotionally, and then are able to step back and analyze why that happened, what elements of the experience—the painting, the frame, the lighting, the positioning—made that happen. The numerous sales and fairs throughout the year compliment this learning because you can experience the works viscerally, hold them, feel the weight of them, and thus begin to build a toolbox that allows you to understand them both in an aesthetic manner, and in terms of media and materials.
"To be able to experience artworks personally, you need to get out of the classroom, stop looking at slides and stand in front of them."
What can students who take your Master’s course expect?
Students can expect three main things. First, they will learn about fine arts, decorative arts, and design from the seventeenth century through the twentieth century. Second, they will understand these works not simply as images—slides on a screen—but as objects that bear witness to the eras they have passed through. Lastly, and of equal importance, they will—through lecturers, travel, and study—begin to build their professional networks.
How would you capture the Sotheby’s Institute of Art – New York MA Fine and Decorative Art and Design experience into three words?
Discover your excellence.
What advice would you have for someone starting out in their career in the international art world?
Open yourself up to the experience of learning and find what is useful in whatever you do. You will not start out as a Museum Director, you will probably not make exceptional amounts of money to begin with, and you certainly will not like everything you are tasked with. Until you understand that your position not only benefits the organization that you work for, but is providing you with essential skills necessary for your success, it is easy to be discontent. Nobody likes a discontent person or employee. Show up on time, put all of your efforts into every task (no matter how mundane), and set yourself up to be lucky.