Open Enrollment

Open Enrollment: The What? Ah Yes, The Courtauld.

Whenever I tell someone I am studying for my Master’s at The Courtauld, I get one of two reactions. “The what?” is the first, spoken by those who aren’t in the art loop. And the second is a response of excitement and praise, spoken by those working in the arts and knowing full well the caliber of the institution. Tucked into the north-west side of Somerset House and facing The Courtauld Gallery, The Courtauld Institute of Art finds itself at the epicenter of art historical education and conservation studies as well as in the heart of London, with a finger on the pulse of the art world.

An idyllic view of the courtyard of Somerset House, the location of The Courtauld. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

After realizing that art needed to be central in my life (and that an additional degree was necessary to do so), I asked around about potential programs. The refrain repeated again and again: The Courtauld. With a focused, one-year (well, more like 9-month) MA, The Courtauld seemed to be just the type of academic and artistic immersion I was looking for in taking the next step towards a career in the arts.

The inconspicuous entrance to The Courtauld Institute. Once the entrance for the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

Since I’ve started my program in London, I have to say that I’ve been supremely content and fulfilled. “It’s all art, all the time,” I’ve happily told friends and family inquiring into my progress at school. The immersion is total, all revolving around art: reading, viewing, writing, discussing. With The Courtauld Gallery right next door (and The National Gallery down the street), there is plenty of opportunity for direct engagement with art objects themselves. In fact, last November I gave a gallery talk at The Courtauld Gallery on the subject of Cezanne’s Card Players (a show that opens today at the Met). An education at The Courtauld is engaged, focused, and tremendously enriching.

As Students’ Union president Daisy Jones put it, “The Courtauld is the biggest art history faculty in the UK, giving plenty of choice to its students while keeping classrooms small.” In fact in my course, The Male Body in Nineteenth-Century European Art, I am one of only six students. While the first semester was spent largely focusing on theoretical approaches, this semester, condensed into just seven weeks, has been focused on applying those theories and engaging with issues of gender-definition and the idea of masculinity in 19th-century art.

Inside the classroom. The walls of seminar rooms act as a showcase for student-curatorship of contemporary art. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

Outside of classes, the immersion continues. The Research Forum at The Courtauld, which MA Director Sarah Wilson underlines as superb and unparalleled, stimulates the dynamic scholarly culture and dialogue at this small independent institution. Every week (and seemingly every day), there are lectures, conferences, seminars and/or workshops, bringing together international professors, curators, and conservators to discuss their current work. It is an incredible meeting of the minds, bringing art historical scholarship to life. Two weeks ago I heard from the MoMA’s Chief Conservator, Jim Coddington, last week David Hockney came to give an address, this past weekend (through the University College London) I attended a feminism conference in honour of Linda Nochlin (who was present), and this week I have the honor of listening to Joseph Kosuth give a talk. Sometimes, it just seems wonderfully unreal. Studying at The Courtauld brings the network of scholarship alive, encouraging an evolution of thought and dialogue.

Inside the lobby at The Courtauld. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

Other than programs in Art History, The Courtauld also offers a one-year MA in Curating, a three-year postgraduate certificate in Easel Conservation, as well as a three-year MA in Wall Conservation, all of which are well-respected and distinguished.

The study-packed, super-condensed MA program was the reason I had my heart set on The Courtauld. While I am still weighing the option of a PhD in the not-so-distant future, I would consider returning to The Courtauld to enroll in its streamlined 3-4-year PhD program. Regardless of the way my future plans unfold, The Courtauld has, time and time again, proved itself to be the perfect place for me at this moment in time. MA Director Sarah Wilson spoke of The Courtauld’s Master’s program best: “With the professional world changing so fast, the Courtauld MA is the speediest and most focused academic way to emerge into the real [art] world.”

Undoubtedly intense, incredibly immersive, The Courtauld has been (and will continue to be) a rigorous and demanding MA program. With the end of the semester a little over four weeks away, a dissertation looming and a degree scheduled for July conferral, the speed of the program definitely feels unreal. The whole experience has felt unreal, to be honest. I feel incredibly lucky to be amidst this high-caliber academic community. For all the talk I heard about the school from those in the know, I can definitely say that The Courtauld is living up to its praise.

Inside the library. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

Alright, back to the books…

  1. Ben Street says:

    Stefan: I’m interested in why you think postgraduate study is necessary for art being in the centre of your life. (Seriously: I’ve often thought the opposite, but am prepared to be persuaded).


  2. Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin says:

    Hi Ben
    All the jobs I was seeking in the arts seemed to require an MA at very least. While I know I could have also gone about the pursuit of the arts without the additional degree, I think the job landscape has changed in such a way that MAs and (in the case of curator jobs) PhDs have become the norm. Degree inflation.

    Of course there isn’t any one way to go about life and the path to the future. Going back to school just seemed like a sensible and logical (albeit not always financially practical) next step…


  3. Ben Street says:

    If you look at the educational backgrounds of most of the major museum directors in the UK, you’ll see that there is, in fact, “one way to go about it”: almost all of them went to the Courtauld. As an insider, what’s your take on that? (It’s controversial in the UK to say the least)

  4. Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin says:

    While there are a good number of Courtauld alum in high-ranking positions, it may just be a mark of the caliber of specialization of the school.

    Currently, Neil MacGregor heads the British Museum (after directing the National Gallery, 1987–2002), Sir Nicholas Serota heads the Tate, Sir Mark Jones directs the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Nicholas Penny leads the National Gallery. It does seem that The Courtauld has some sort of monopoly.

    In the US, Courtauld alums also occupy directorships: Kaywin Feldman at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, David Franklin at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Thomas P. Campbell at The Met. Former Courtauld Director James Cuno now heads The Art Institute of Chicago.

    I think it unfair to say that there is “one way to go about it”. But there is indeed word of “The Courtauld Mafia” floating around, I believe it is common parlance. (

    The full story and full biography I believe is always more complex.

  5. Ben Street says:

    A little troubling, that, in our wonderful meritocratic art world…

  6. Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin says:

    I consider myself incredibly lucky. This place is much more of a resource than I ever imagined possible.

    While there are people at the top, keep in mind that 140 students breeze through the MA program every year… what happens to everyone else? Not all students become museum directors.

    It is a pricey place. Without my scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to be here so easily…

    That said, I am proud to be here (not smug, as some may think). I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

  7. Adrienne says:

    I just got accepted into one of the medieval courses at the Courtauld for the coming year. This article was a great resource for an “insider” perspective and has me so excited for the coming year. Thank you!

  8. Jennifer says:

    Hi, I am wondering what your weekly schedule/timetable is while doing an MA at the Courtauld? Is it really full-time? How often do classes meet?

  9. Stefan says:

    I’m glad you found this worthwhile Adrienne! And congrats!

    And Jennifer, I really only had 4-6 hours of class per week, meeting once or twice, but of course there was all the reading and preparation that was easily 10-12 hours of work per week.

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