State of the art
Christie’s Education, the postgraduate and continuing education arm of the Christie’s art business, has relocated its London campus to Portland Place. Its international managing director Jane Hay talks about the importance of seeing and touching art, the “magical” skill of valuation, and the need for the art world to become more diverse
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili
The classrooms seem like ordinary classrooms. Jane Hay seems like an archetypal director of an educational establishment. Indeed, on the surface, Christie’s Education seems an ordinary—if breathtakingly beautiful—school. The walls of its new Portland Place campus are white, the floors wooden and bare, and the only colour to be seen comes from Jane’s dazzling yellow jacket. Yet within this snowy, faultless example of Robert Adam’s era-defining Georgian architecture, exists a rich, historical museum.
“You’re standing in it now,” smiles Jane. “This is the museum room.” She opens a series of white cabinet doors to reveal a kaleidoscope of artwork: ceramics, small sculptures, glassware and prints in varying conditions, jostling for space along the shelves. They’re there for the handling. Students at Christie’s Education don’t come just to study the theoretical underpinning of the art business, they come for the interaction with art only a school owned by the world’s leading auction house can afford them. “Connoisseurship starts here,” says Jane, unrolling one of the fine calligraphic prints. “You learn best by touching things: the difference in materials, techniques, types of paint, whether it has been repaired—whether it is even real,” she adds. Christie’s Education has only recently moved to Marylebone, and the new building has some of the finest technical facilities available—but it’s this remarkable collection, together with all Christie’s has to offer in terms of access and experience, that makes the school truly, and in the most literal sense, state of the art.
What brought you to Marylebone?
Initially the plan was to move to South Kensington, where Christie’s Education had originated. The lease on the Great Titchfield Street location was about to expire, and the building in South Ken was undergoing refurbishment. Then, Christie’s—our parent company—decided they didn’t want to hold on to that building, so our plans had to rapidly change. As it happens, I had met Simon Baynham of The Howard de Walden Estate at an event six years previously, when I took responsibility for Christie’s Education on a global basis—and I’d mentioned that at some point our lease would expire, and that a move to Marylebone would be very nice. I got in touch and reminded him of this conversation—and it was the right decision. Portland Place is perfect for us. It really fits our needs.
Well firstly, it is a beautiful historical building. Christie’s started in 1766, and our founder James Christie was a direct contemporary of the Adam brothers, who built Portland Place. It was Christie’s, in fact, that sold the Adam brothers’ personal effects. Then there’s The Howard de Walden Estate, another historic institution, which is a great synergy for us—they are far more interested in culture in general than a lot of London landowners. In terms of accessibility, this is a very easy place to get to, and to get from to all the museums, galleries and, of course, Frieze Art Fair.
What programmes does Christie’s Education offer currently?
The art world is very fast-paced. The categories of art, the demographics of the customers and the employment opportunities are all constantly changing. We have a unique offering here at Christie’s, but we need to remain relevant and align our student opportunities with the changing market and changing world. Recently, we have streamlined our programmes, so we have two postgraduate degrees: art, law and business, and art history and art world practice. The first is primarily designed for students who aspire to take up commercial position in the art market. The second is for students who want to pursue a specialist career, working directly with works of art. They are slightly different paths, but they are two sides of the same coin, and there is quite a lot of crossover.
How much of a gap is there between an art history course at BA level, and the skills and knowledge afforded by a master’s degree at Christie’s Education?
Undergraduate degrees are, in general, very important in providing the basic set of disciplines that students need in order to progress. The challenge for BA art history students is that while they are learning the history and critical theories of art, they may not be getting much opportunity to handle the art itself or see the history in application. So, what we focus on is the hands-on experience: because we are wholly owned by Christie’s, our students have direct access to the specialists, archives, sales and all the ancillary functions which go toward making up the world’s leading art business. We can develop their connoisseur skills, offer a more targeted study of art history and how it permeates into law and business, provide a unique insight into the art world ecosystem and educate them on the history of the art market, collecting and interiors.
Do many of your students end up employed at Christie’s?
One of our aims is to function as a pipeline for entry-level graduates into the business—and indeed, we usually have between 100 and 150 alumni working in the organisation at any one time. Given that Christie’s employee population is actually quite modest—around 2,000 to 2,500—that’s pretty good. But not all students can work at Christie’s, and not all of them want to. It wouldn’t be healthy, either. We want our students to go all over the art world, and we hope that by imparting the core values of the business, they will become part of the Christie’s global network. The art world is such an interesting place, and there is a lot of movement. Often, we find that our alumni go out into the wider world, follow their career choices and then years later circle back round.
Where do your students come from?
Most come from a liberal arts background—the majority will have studied history of art, though there will be a fair number of history or classics graduates. That said, over the past five years we have made a determined effort to encourage students from other disciplines, and we’ve seen a definite shift. We do welcome students from STEM degrees [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], provided they can demonstrate a deep interest in art. Equally, we are interested in economics and law degrees. Like any economic centre, the art world needs numerate people with strong critical thinking skills, and while in the past expertise in art history and art would have been required, today you need many other skills in your toolbox.
What was your own route into the art world?
My father was an art teacher and antiques dealer, so I spent the whole of my childhood looking at objects every day. Early in the morning, late at night, every weekend, I was helping my father to restore them, taking them to pieces and putting them back together again. By the time I was 18, I was fully resolved that the last thing I was going to do was go into the art world. I studied history and economics, then did my master’s in African studies and African art. Upon graduating, I helped man a stall at Portobello Market to earn some money. One day I found myself in Christie’s South Kensington after work with a friend, and he said, “You should come here.” Another friend said the same to me not long after—so I wrote them a letter and went along for an interview. I got the job and the rest is history. I was in the auction house for 25 years, and my job today is uniting the three divisions of Christie’s Education—in New York, Hong Kong and London—into a seamless machine that benefits all students, and to act as a bridge between them and the parent company. I am a great advocate for the organisation. I can genuinely say to the students, “If you are a lucky enough to get a position in this company, you can have a truly amazing career.”
How has the art world changed during your time working within it?
When I started 30-odd years ago, the art world was a collection of individual hubs, which weren’t nearly as interconnected as they are now: if you were a museum curator, you never wanted to become an art dealer, for example, and if you were an art dealer, you did not necessarily want to work in an auction house. Even among all the businesses in the art world, the auction house was for the cognoscenti. It had a very clubby atmosphere. That said, if you had aspiration and wished to apply yourself to learning the knowledge—which makes me sound like a taxi driver—it was very democratic. The barriers for entry into the arts were lower because the value of art was generally lower. Today, the role of the international art fair has transformed the art world in so many ways, while digital technology and the web have transformed people’s access to both art knowledge and objects. The taste of the collective population has changed dramatically, too: there is a much greater interest in contemporary art—art of the now—than when I started, and interesting developments in the consumption of art being as much about the process of assembly as the intrinsic value.
Will you have any courses available for the amateur?
We are a postgraduate institution first and foremost, but we run continuing education programmes throughout the year with a number of short and longer-term courses for adults. We also offer online programmes and will be developing a programme of talks and lectures for the evenings, some of which will be free. We want to get to know our neighbours better. There are lots of schools and higher education institutions we want to build relationships with. We have a commitment to Marylebone, and we want to build on the resources and community on our doorstep.
You mentioned the importance of touch and feel not only in identifying an art work but in deciding whether it is real. How has forgery developed with the advent of technology—is it harder or easier to detect than it once was?
Unlike copies or editions, forgeries exist to deceive. My experience is that there have always been fantastic forgeries, and that they are hard to spot. Forgeries are not new, certainly—and I don’t even think they are better. I don’t know that industrialisation or the digital world necessarily produces a better forgery. Their success lies in the forger making an informed judgment on what people already know in order to hoodwink them, and if they are very determined they can get far not because the object itself is convincing, but because they wrap it up with a provenance that misleads you into not being as vigilant as you should be. It is a very fascinating subject, the history of fakes.
How do you begin determining the value of a work of art?
It is a hard art to acquire. Part of it is knowledge, part of it is critical thinking. You need knowledge of the objects, knowledge of the market, knowledge of collecting—and yet, I still think there is a certain magical quality to it. It doesn’t matter how much you know—in the end, you are making a judgment of value. You are deciding its price.
So, are you looking for students with a certain level of instinct, as well as knowledge and skill?
Some students have no idea that they have that ability. It is not something that when you study history of art at undergraduate level would become apparent to you. That said, while the ability to spot something amazing is a unique quality, that ‘magic eye’, as it were, has to be refined and corroborated—just as if you were naturally musical, you wouldn’t make any progress without the application.
Christie’s Education has declared itself committed to opening up opportunities for students from all walks of life. How do you put that into practice?
There are two ways we do this. The first is through the Harris Federation ‘gifted and talented’ programme. The Harris Academy schools really are incredible: they are totally focused on supporting students from all backgrounds to maximise their potential, with the goal of getting them into Oxbridge, Russell Group universities or equivalent. The gifted and talented programme focuses on giving these schoolchildren access to high culture across London: theatre, ballet, opera and, of course, art. Participating with them on the art component is one of the best things I have ever done. They come here for a lecture on how to look at art; they go to major galleries, then come back to Christie’s in little groups. They get to meet specialists, handle works of art and then, inspired by the catalogue collection, they create their own works of art, to ‘sell’. Then they have a day at Christie’s auction house, being a Christie’s ‘person’. They are art handlers, auctioneers, spotters and bidders. It’s hugely exciting.
We have also launched two full tuition and living expenses scholarships for students from an ethnic minority background applying to master’s programmes here in London. We are very fortunate that a donor came forward and made a donation to the Christie’s Education trust to make this happen. Now we can offer two full-fee scholarships here in London. Diversity is something that the art world needs to seriously reflect upon—we need it to strengthen our DNA. It’s all too narrow at the moment. We love this pocket of London very much, but we need to look beyond its confines to wider London and the wider UK.