Conquering the Art History Stereotype

DSC_0161Article and photos by Mary Callie Gisler.

EUGENE, Ore. — At first glance, you might not notice the colorful art display peaking out from under college student Aryan Zanca’s dark jeans. The orange and pink jellyfish wrap themselves around the black canvas and trademark Converse All Star logo. The painted sneakers are Zanca’s own creation, but they are not the only way at she has incorporated art and creativity into her life.

The University of Oregon (UO) student has also dedicated her college career to art, currently three years into her undergraduate art history program. But unlike the upbeat responses that Zanca’s shoes earn, her art history major is often questioned.

“It can be frustrating when people don’t see the value in something you are putting so much time into,” Zanca says. “I feel like I am always having to justify what I am doing, what I am studying and what I really enjoy.”


According to Zanca, there is a certain stigma that comes with her area of study and the possible professional paths after it. Some assume that an art history degree is “useless,” with a limited selection of jobs and low salaries. She says that an education in art history could mean more than a career as a professor or museum curator.

“Those are two professions that do relate to art history, but there are more that just aren’t as visual,” Zanca says. Art history majors can be found running antique shops, conducting art appraisals, sitting in museum management and administration roles, and a variety of other high profile and well-paid positions.

While Zanca is still working to solidly her future career path, she has begun to formulate answers to the demanding questions of her future. After graduating from the UO, she has focused on the idea of graduate school. A Master’s or Doctorate degree is essential for work in a museum or art curating. For Zanca, the job title is not what matters. “As long as I am in the art world, I can be happy,” she says.

For the junior, the decision to pursue an art history degree was easy. Born and raised in Arlington, W. Va., she grew up in an environment that fostered her artistic passions early on. After moving to Eugene, Ore. for college in 2010, it was not long before she declared a major in art history.

Zanca grew up in Washington, D.C., visiting art galleries with her parents and sister on the weekends. The memories are an important piece of Zanca’s childhood, inspiring her love for the art world early in her life: “I have always been involved with and loved art. I grew up around art and wanted to be in that world.”

The art history program has helped Zanca develop abilities like critical thinking, analysis and stronger communication skills. UO’s upper-division art history courses introduce students to in-depth analytical essays, research projects and presentations to help hone these skills. Zanca believes that these skills have helped her to establish a strong foundation that will serve her in the professional world.

In addition, Zanca has discovered the idea some assume an art history major is a “fall back from not being able to do art.” When the art world places a large emphasis on the personal act of creation, studying the creation of others can be seen as a replacement for an individual’s own artistic abilities explains Zanca.

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Her own artistic talents are evidence that art history majors do not lack the ability to create. Zanca began her creative endeavors in 2011, when she began decorating and painting canvas shoes and sneakers. The medium serves as a creative outlet for her own drawing and panting skills. Family and friends have commissioned several projects from her and Zanca has created more than a dozen custom projects since she started. Zanca documents her creation though photos and shares them through her Facebook network.

“[Painting shoes] is something where I can make the art and enjoy doing that,” Zanca says. “Then I can put it on and take it with me.”

Kate Haley, a current UO junior and fellow art history major, agrees with the theory: “Most art history majors are artists themselves; studying [art history] is just a different way of look at the topic. I think Aryn is a good example of that mix.”

Away from the classroom, Zanca also makes time for extracurricular activities. The junior serves as co-director the UO student group Students For Choice. She is also a member of the Art History Student Association, an important pre-professional group that helps connect art history majors with opportunities after graduation though professional speakers, panels, and internship and career fairs.

But to those who still question the power of an art history degree, Zanca believes enrolling in an art history class might shed light on the negativity. “Everyone should have the experience to explore art… It would bring perspectives and create a little more understanding.”

For Zanca and her painted shoes, the negative stereotypes and stigma are not enough to discourage the motivated artist from an industry that she loves.

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