We are delighted to publish this interview with Jonathan Woolfson, Director at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, UK. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the world’s two most important auction houses, were both started in this capital city. For over 50 years Sotheby’s Institute of Art – an independent institute of higher education, has been devoted to the study of art and its markets with programs in London, New York City, and online.

Can you describe Sotheby’s Institute of Art?
Sotheby’s auction house was founded in 1744 when Samuel Baker, an entrepreneur, occasional publisher, and successful businessman held his first auction. Today at Sotheby’s Institute, we emphasize a keen understanding of an object’s value and history, a spirit of inquiry and scholarship, business acumen, and innovation that build upon these foundational values. The Institute offers educational programs for professionals, pre-college audiences, and postgraduate students seeking expertise in art and art business and an understanding of the huge global art economy. Our course offerings cover everything from art history to business skills from our campuses located in the world’s art capitals of London and New York, as well as online. Courses at Sotheby’s Institute are structured with the guiding principle that education is gained in the classroom, but equally important is hands-on experience and situational context. Institute faculty are experts and leaders in their fields, bringing a wealth of practical knowledge from their professional experiences as well as a solid academic grounding to all students.

What is the relationship with Sotheby’s auction house?
We grew out of an in-house training programme, which was established by the auction house in 1969. The programme was intended for new recruits so that they could learn about the particular approach of the auction house to art. This involves an appreciation of works of art as unique objects with specific histories and qualities, but also as commodities that have commercial as well as cultural value. Sotheby’s Institute now runs as a separate entity and is open to students from all over the world, but we retain very close relations with the auction house. Our students visit there, interact with the staff and get to know the way it all works. The guest speaker at our last Graduation Ceremony in London was Lord Dalmeny, Senior Director and UK Chairman of Sotheby’s.

How long have you been Director of Sotheby’s Institute?
I’ve been director since late 2019 but my time working at the Institute goes back to 2010.

What do you do and what changes have you made?
Well, within a few months of becoming director I closed the building down due to Covid! In all seriousness, the period of the pandemic has been a time of immense challenge and change as we rethought not only our teaching, rapidly adapting to online delivery, but also our very ways of communicating with our students and with each other. In this period we have naturally placed a great focus on studentwellbeing, mental health and the physical safety of our community. Now that the pandemic is receding, we have rethought many of the ways we do things, in response to the fundamental changes that are happening in education, in the art world and in society more generally. This has been a period of rapid movement and we have sought not only to keep up but to lead the way. Our curricula have adapted to intensifying social trends, with a new emphasis on decolonisation, diversity, sustainability and, perhaps above all, technology, which will continue to have a key impact on how the art world works. We have rethought our Careers Services, are thinking hard about entrepreneurship in the art world, and are in the process of reconfiguring our relations with our alumni. We have launched many new programmes and initiatives and have even gone beyond our art world remit with a new Masters degree in Luxury Business. So it’s been a time of great change and, for me personally, a crash course in leadership – it’s an exciting time to be working in this sector.

Is it difficult to become a student at Sotheby’s?
We offer a wide range of different kinds of programmes to different demographics and individual needs – so if you are interested in studying with us, we invite you to explore our website and get in touch with our Admissions team.

How many students do you have and where are they from?
At any one time we have hundreds of students across our campuses and online, as well as a global alumni network of many thousands. Our students come from all over the world and one of the most exciting dimensions of studying and working at the Institute is the international and intercultural flavour, which keeps life interesting! It’s also so important that our students encounter people from different backgrounds and cultural perspectives – peer learning in an international context is hugely important today.

Have you developed any partnerships with universities in Asia, Europe, US …?
We are partnered with many universities across the globe including, in China, Tsinghua University; in Europe, Audencia Business School, France; and in the United States, Georgetown University and the University of California. In the UK the prestigious University of Manchester validates our Masters degree programmes.

Jonathan Woolfson is a distinguished scholar and academic administrator. He studied at Oxford and at the Warburg Institute where his PhD dealt with the cultural history of England, Italy and Europe in the sixteenth century. He has taught at a wide variety of institutions including the University of Kent, the Victoria and Albert Museum, New York University, Loyola University of Chicago and the University of Oxford, where he was Stipendiary Lecturer in History at Hertford College. He served as Academic Director of the Lorenzo de’Medici Institute in Florence before joining Sotheby’s Institute in 2010 as Director of Semester and Summer Programmes.
Jonathan has pioneered new educational offerings at the Institute built around art finance, art crime, art museums and the art and luxury dyad and he was instrumental in establishing partnerships with prestigious US universities including Cornell, the University of California and the University of Southern California.


Following promotion to Deputy Director in 2014, and appointment as Director in 2019, he has led the Institute’s relationships with the University of Manchester, the Quality Assurance Agency and the Office for Students. He is a Founder and Board Member of TIAMSA, The International Art Market Studies Association, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow. He has published books and numerous articles in the field of Renaissance cultural history.