Interview with an Art Historian


I contacted a really cool woman, who also happens to be an American in London. Her name is Stephanie Cotela Tanner and she is an Art Historian who loves to write. I thought it would be interesting to have kind of a guest post and to find out how one can get a foot in the door, so to speak in the arts since I’m trying to and I know lots of people who are. Anyway, I’ll let her speak for herself now.

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Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m an art historian specializing in post-WW II Italian film and painting and American and British contemporary art. I received my BA from San Diego State University and my MA from Birkbeck College, University of London. At the moment, I’m working as a freelancer, writing for arts publications both online and in print and supplementing my income with a bit of sub-editing. I think overall, given the pretentious nature of the art world – I prefer the more academic side of things as far as working within the art industry.

Prior to becoming an art historian I was a travel agent for 8 years, which was a lot of fun – now If I can just combine those two interests – and win the lottery – I could just travel around the planet looking at art and taking in the sights – that would be brilliant!

How did you end up in London? Why London?

I ask myself that question every day! The truth is – my husband is British, so I moved here to be with him. Otherwise, I would surely be back in Southern California by now!

You’re an Arts journalist? What does that include?

Hmm, I suppose I’m an arts journalist, but I prefer the title, Art Historian, because in my opinion, most arts journalists are more interested in getting their opinions in print than they are with supplying balanced critical support for their arguments. Which is a nice way of saying that most arts journos are up their own arse!

For me it includes writing about art – exhibition reviews, features, interviews for glossy art mags, online websites and academic journals. It also means that I’ve got to do something else to pay the bills!

Maybe someday it might mean that I’m the author of my own book!

Why arts journalism? What made you chose it rather than an academic career, one in a museum etc. ?

Well, actually it chose me, it’s not easy trying to find a job in the arts so I was really open to all sectors. When I moved to London it was really hard to find a job, which is why I started freelancing – I wanted to keep my foot in the door so to speak in the art world and stay on top of what was going on. So, in the beginning I did a lot of writing for free in Art Rabbit, The Art Book, Dazed Digital, etc., just to gain some experience.

I’ve worked in a few museums, most memorably was the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Museum work is fun and can be rewarding but unless you are the Director, the pay is really low and the climb up the ladder is not a fast one.

I still aspire to get more involved in the academic side of things – if someone would care to fund my PhD – I’m all for it! If not, I’m quite interested in teaching adult education art history courses in the near future. And I do prefer writing for academic journals rather than glossy arts mags.

What’s your favorite period in art? (I know better than asking favorite artist. There are too many!)

That’s a really hard question to answer – As far as writing, contemporary art is a good target because it hasn’t been theorized to death like the Renaissance or something. As far as personal taste – I ‘m not a huge fan of conceptual art or trash that portrays itself as art, so I do often have a hard time with contemporary art – for instance, Damian Hirst’s shark in a tank – what’s that all about? I’m a huge fan of very tactile art – painting, sculpture, architecture, more than digital, conceptual, etc. I’m kind of old fashioned that way. I like to see that some effort (and passion) has gone into it.

What makes you like contemporary art enough to write about it?
I’m actually very hot and cold with contemporary art – there is a lot of it that I don’t like – I don’t have much time for the YBA’s, for instance. But it’s easy to write about – it’s current, it’s always changing, it hasn’t made it to the history books yet.

What are your favorite things to write about? (Exhibitions? Art criticism? etc.)

Exhibitions reviews can be fun, but I prefer feature articles because there is more involved. Interviews are great to conduct but transcribing them afterwards is my least favourite part of the job!

What’s the most annoying part about writing about art?

Coming up with new ideas can be a challenge – and sometime even when you have your topic you can’t just tell yourself to sit down and write, you are either in the mood to write or you’re not – I get writer’s block a lot!

You have a blog too, right? What’s it about? How long have you been posting?

I do have a blog called VisualBites – it’s mostly about contemporary art, but not exclusively, it’s basically my way of keeping up with the art market and what’s going on in the art world and it’s a space where I can share my own opinion in a casual way. I guess I’ve been posting for over 2 years now. Please check it out for yourself: http://visualbites.blogspot.com

What role has your blog played professionally or personally?

I keep a list (including links) of my published works on my blog – so it’s sort of like an online CV and I often direct prospective employers to it to see samples of my work. I’d like to think that it’s helped me get commissions, a few people have contacted me via my blog – and it is good practice, I suppose.

What’s your favorite, current exhibition in London?

Currently, there’s nothing that’s really hit home with me – the last really great exhibition that I saw was Raqib Shaw — Absence of God at the White Cube, Hoxton Square in July, really amazing work!

Anything else?

I guess just some advice to emerging art professionals — it’s unlikely that you will get rich from a job in the arts unless you have some really good connections or you get that lucky break – so, my best advice is to do what you love doing and don’t take any shit from anyone – get your experience and then do what you want!

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