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Standards & Guidelines » CAA Guidelines

Standards for the Practice of Art History

“Code of Ethics for Art Historians and Guidelines for the Professional Practice of Art History,” adopted by the CAA Board of Directors on November 3, 1973; revised on January 23, 1974; and June 24, 1995.  Revised, retitled “Standards for the Practice of Art History” and adopted by the Board of Directors on October 26, 2014.


It is the responsibility of the CAA Professional Practices Committee (the “Committee”) to draft, amend, and revise, as appropriate, a Code of Ethics for the Practice of Art History (the “Code”).  In 1995, the CAA Board of Directors adopted a revised version of the Code developed by the Committee.  The Code is now replaced with these Standards for the Practice of Art History (the “Standards”).  The Committee is entrusted by the Board with the task of codifying the common understanding in art-history professions of ethical behavior for scholars, teachers, and curators of art-historical materials (“art historians”). These Standards provide a broad framework of principles of professional conduct and states general ethical values. These Standards do not at the present time include provisions for their enforcement.

The Committee is not empowered to investigate or adjudicate infractions of these canons of professional conduct in individual disputes or to censure infractions by reprimand, sanctions, or expulsion. Nevertheless, the Board of Directors, by its own initiative or on the recommendation of the Committee, may study and make recommendations on ethical concerns of importance to the profession, may act as an advocate and publicize with a view toward education on ethical issues, may make referrals as and when appropriate, and may undertake various initiatives designed to ensure compliance with these Standards. The Committee can recommend that the Board of Directors issue a “Statement of Concern” regarding a situation that it feels is not in the best interests of the profession or violates proper professional conduct.

The Committee also recognizes that although CAA cannot directly regulate ethical behavior, it can encourage its individual members through education to adopt these rules and principles and can encourage its institutional members to adopt codes of ethics that implement the rules and principles herein.

These Standards link to specific CAA guidelines when appropriate in order to avoid redundancies and discrepancies as other standards and guidelines are revised over time.

I. Becoming an Art Historian: Best Practices in Recruitment and Hiring

Several CAA standards and guidelines offer guidance for best practices in the recruitment and hiring of art-history academic faculty.

A. The Curriculum Vitae

The following document provides information for candidates on how to present their accomplishments within appropriate parameters:

Curriculum Vitae for Art Historians (rev. 2003)

B. Hiring Art-History Faculty

Hiring committees may consult the following document for preferred professional practices for both preliminary interviews at the CAA Annual Conference and for subsequent on-campus interviews. These suggestions should be implemented in combination with an institution's anti-discrimination and human resources guidelines:

Guidelines for CAA Interviews (rev. 2013)

This document presents an overview for best practices in recruiting:

Standards for Professional Placement (rev. 2013)

C. Retention and Tenure

1. The following document covers a range of topics, including criteria that should be addressed in an individual institution’s promotion and tenure guidelines for the discipline, teaching load recommendations based on institution type, the importance of mentoring, and guidelines for evaluating academic publications in a world in which art-history monograph publishing opportunities are diminished:

Standards for Retention and Tenure of Art Historians (rev. 2010)

2. CAA supports the AAUP Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. A copy of CAA’s Standards for the Practice of Art History is to be kept on file with AAUP.

3. Hiring and retention of art historians must also proceed with an awareness of best practices in retaining and supporting a diverse faculty and student body:

Resource Directory for Diversity Practices

4. Adjunct Faculty

The following document details guidelines for various aspects of part-time and non-tenure-track employment, including recommended elements for inclusion in contracts:

Guidelines for Part-Time Professional Employment (rev. 2015)

II. Research and Publishing

One of the primary interests of CAA as a scholarly organization is the advancement of knowledge. Art historians must be competent researchers; they must also be fully aware of professional conduct and employ ethical practices. Scholarly integrity demands an awareness of personal and cultural bias and openness to issues of difference as these may inflect methodology and analysis. Art historians are responsible for carefully documenting their findings and then making available to others their sources, evidence, and data. They must guard against misrepresenting evidence and against plagiarism. They should fully acknowledge the receipt of financial support and institutional sponsorship, or privileged access to research material and/or original works of art, and credit those in the field who give interviews and/or provide access to materials and works. It is equally important that assistance from colleagues, students, and others be fully acknowledged. The following sections of these Standards outline the responsibilities of art historians in specific areas of professional practice.

A. Rights of Access to Information and Responsibilities of Art Historians

CAA believes that, as much as possible, there should be full, free, equal, and nondiscriminatory access to research materials for all qualified art historians. All art-historical research materials, including, but not limited to, works of art, photographs, diaries, letters, and other documents in the possession of publicly supported or tax-exempt, nonprofit, educational institutions, whether in the United States or elsewhere, where not legally restricted as to use, shall be freely and fully accessible to art historians for research and publication.

1. An art historian has the moral obligation to share the discovery of primary source material with his or her colleagues and serious students. He or she is not obligated to share anything of an interpretive nature that has been done with the source material. The recipients of documents or any other form of information from an art historian should in turn give the finder a reasonable opportunity to be the first to publish the material in question. The finder should seek to publish research within three years, thereby showing respect and appreciation of art historians of the past and present who have contributed to the profession and from whom he or she has benefited.

2. The historian of contemporary art has a moral obligation to share primary documentation of the work of living artists, whose careers and livelihoods may depend upon the dissemination of knowledge about their work. The art historian is not obligated to share material of an interpretive nature that is a result of the examination of source material. Just as all art historians have the moral obligation to share the discovery of primary source material with their colleagues and serious students, historians of contemporary art should make every effort to share primary documents in their possession in a timely way and, when applicable, in consultation with the artist and other creators of the primary documents (such as an art dealer, museum professional, collector, etc.) and consistent with applicable laws regarding copyright, fair use, and the moral rights of artists. It is equally important that colleagues, students, and others with whom such materials are shared fully acknowledge their sources. Historians of contemporary art are encouraged to plan for the long-term preservation of primary documents gathered in the course of research, preferably under the auspices of publicly supported or tax-exempt, nonprofit, educational institutions. To expedite the sharing of primary documentation of contemporary art, art historians are encouraged to experiment with current digital technologies to make data easily available to a wide audience, including colleagues, serious students, and artists.

3. The building of an archive takes time, expense, and knowledge. When this work is the personal achievement of an individual art historian, fellow art historians who seek to use that material should be mindful of these facts; therefore it is appropriate to offer to share, within reasonable limits, some of the expense incurred in obtaining particular documents.

4. An art historian may feel that he or she is the only qualified person to write on a certain artist or subject, and therefore have influenced heirs or executors of estates not to permit others to use archival material in the artist’s trust. An art historian may also influence archival custodians to reserve material, even though it may be ten or more years before a book can be published. These practices are improper professional conduct.

With respect to all art-historical research material in private ownership, CAA recognizes the rights of the owner to decide upon its use, but urges heirs and executors of estates and artists themselves to provide equal access to their holdings for all art historians. Occasionally the aforementioned may decide to invite an art historian to be the first to publish material in their possession. CAA recognizes this right and hopes that it would be accorded or accepted only after careful deliberation of such matters as the qualifications of other art historians and the period of time before the privileged material will be published. CAA appeals to the honor of art historians in the profession to adhere to the following statement in its spirit as well as its letter:

It shall be an improper professional practice for an art historian to accept exclusive use and first rights of publication of art-historical research material held in private ownership unless he or she agrees to make a good faith effort to publish this research or otherwise make available such material within a period of no more than three years.

5. Excavations, whether at classical or at other sites, present a special case as regards the “rights of access” of researchers to the finds. Generally, the agency or institution that conducts the excavation through a permit granted by the host government retains the publication rights to all excavated materials, assigning the various categories to individual specialists. In practice, there are two hazards. One is that the publication may be delayed for an unreasonably long period of time, thus “freezing” the finds and making them inaccessible to other art historians. The opposite danger is that an art historian not associated with the excavation may make improper use of photographs or other documentation, to which he or she has somehow gained access, thus anticipating improperly the officially authorized publication. In view of the foregoing, excavators and their assignees have the duty to publish with reasonable promptness the materials in their charge and to make such materials freely accessible to other art historians for study, and after a reasonable length of time, (normally no longer than three to five years after the end of active fieldwork on the project) available for publication. During the period of preparation of the publication, a scholar who is not connected with the project, but has gained access to materials, shall only make use of these materials in such ways and to such an extent as permission has been granted by the excavators and their assignees.

Architecture by its nature presents a different situation. Although the publication of a building or parts of a building (including its unpublished archaeological content) uncovered by an excavation under permit may come under the restrictive rights of an excavation, subject to a three- to five-year project time limit as outlined above, architecture that is and historically has been visible and available to the public does not. The same is true for the study and assessment of a whole site as an urban entity. The rights of access to architecture and urbanism cannot be restricted. Still, informing the excavation (even, ideally, collaborating with it) about the scope and intentions of such a study and publication is desirable as a matter of courtesy.

B. Acknowledgement of Sources and Assistance

1. An art historian must properly acknowledge assistance provided by other scholars, teachers, students, or anyone else who assists in such matters as calling attention to works of art or archival material previously unknown by the art historian.

It is a maxim of scholarship that authors should be scrupulous in crediting sources, not only of ideas and textual material but also of photographs, and to supply suggestions as to the location of documentation. Comments made by other art historians on the mounts of drawings, on the backs of photographs, recorded in museum dossiers, or reported orally should be cited when relevant to one’s research. The contributions of students to a teacher who publishes must also be acknowledged.

2. Art-historical research relating to living art traditions often takes the form of observing and recording (through photographs, films, and tapes) objects in use, techniques of manufacture, and oral traditions about the history and meaning of the objects and their practical or ritual use, as well as materials in local or national archives and museums. This field data often constitutes unique and irreplaceable documents that should be preserved, along with originals or copies maintained in the community. The researcher and the host community should jointly address concerns of preservation and publication.  Scholars have responsibilities to owners, patrons, and artists in situations in which such individuals have proprietary rights. The generosity of individual informants, as well as host governments, indigenous groups, universities, archives, and museums is essential to the success of research. All too often, art historians fail to consider the host community, provide the published results of their research or archive field data with the host community or elsewhere.

It is, however, the responsibility of art historians working in the living art traditions to deposit original or copies of all field data related to said publications—documented photographs, films, video and audio tapes, and the like—in appropriate institutions in the host community in which they have worked. Should no library or museum want the material, other public institutions should be encouraged to house it. The art historian is responsible for depositing some form of any published material within the community.

C. The Illegal Traffic in Works of Art and Responsibilities of Art Historians to Discourage Illegal Traffic in Works of Art

This topic is addressed in the following CAA standards and guidelines:                  

1. The following statement specifically gives guidance for CAA publications and the ethics of determining what objects can appropriately be published in those works:

Statement on the Importance of Documenting the Historical Context of Objects and Sites (rev. 2004)

The statement listed above relates substantially to CAA’s statement of support in 1973 of the UNESCO Convention:

Resolution concerning the Acquisition of Cultural Properties Originating in Foreign Countries (2016)

D. Authentication

The ethical dimensions of authentication are explored in the following CAA document:

Authentications and Attributions (2009)

E. Intellectual Property

Another aspect of the ethical practices within the profession of art history concerns intellectual property, copyright, and permissions. Especially in digital media, the understanding of fair use and intellectual property is rapidly evolving, so it is particularly important to seek the most current resources possible.

The following standard by CAA provides guidance in this area:

The “Intellectual Property and the Arts” page of the CAA website contains germane advice in this area, as well as references to pertinent documents and resources that define United States copyright law.

Other academic professional organizations have produced guides on this topic, as well:

Visual Resources Association: Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study (2011)

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries, Association of Research Libraries (2012)

F. Contracts for Publication

1. The Publication Review Process:

Publishers should acknowledge promptly the receipt of book proposals and manuscripts and notify the author when a decision is made whether the submission is to be considered further; if a publisher decides to consider the proposed publication, the author should be apprised of the status, outcome of the review, and approval process in a timely manner.

There is nothing professionally unethical about an author submitting a manuscript to more than one publisher simultaneously as long as the author notifies the publishers that he or she has made multiple submissions. Such a practice is particularly advantageous to textbook writers, who may have much to bargain for, including, for example, which party is responsible for paying fees and royalties owed for photographs. This practice also reduces delays in decision making by publishers on whether or not to offer a contract.

2. Textbook Contracts and Rights of Review by Estate

CAA recommends that authors consult a lawyer when negotiating a publication contract.

III. Teaching

A. Responsibilities and Right to Free Speech

The “Teaching” section of the American Historical Association’s Statement of Standards of Professional Conduct delineates core principles shared within the teaching profession, in particular the public role and responsibilities of educators, as well as the respect for the principles of the right to mutually respectful free speech on the part of both faculty and students.

B. Teacher/Student Collaboration

1. Art historians occasionally invite a student to collaborate on the publication of a paper written primarily or wholly by the student. By itself and in principle this can be advantageous to all concerned, providing that the student is given full credit for what he or she has done. Unfortunately, there are cases in which teachers do not publish such papers for years because other projects take priority, resulting in a loss for the student. It is proper for a student to ask of his or her instructor when copublication will occur and where, and to arrange a reasonable time limit. If and when that time limit is not met, the student should be fully entitled to publish this work on his or her own, while crediting the teacher for his or her contribution.

IV. Museum and Other Art-Historical Consulting

 CAA, the American Alliance of Museums, the American Association of Art Museum Directors, and the Association of Art Museum Curators have developed a robust range of guidelines pertaining to best practices for art historians who are museum professionals and consultants, including:

Information about Museum Ethics and Professional Practices (rev. 2013)

Professional Practices for Art Museum Curators (2007)

Statement Concerning the Deaccession of Works of Art (rev. 2013)

The document above pertains to art historians mostly in its specific reference to the necessity of museums, when they have deaccessioned works, to retain files on the works in order to facilitate their ongoing research.

A. The Role of the Guest Curator

This topic is addressed in detail in the following guidelines:

Guidelines Adopted by CAA regarding the Hiring by Museums of Guest Curators, Exhibitors/Artists, and Catalogue Essayists as Outside Contractors (2002)

B. Remuneration for Scholarly Services

Art historians are often called upon to provide, at no charge, professional advice or services. This practice is particularly common when publishers are scouting for new manuscripts or deliberating the question of a new series. Many art historians may feel that to provide such information at no fee is a service to the field, but compensation for services is becoming more commonplace.

C. Commercial Services and Privileges

1. It is proper professional practice for an art historian to request or receive a fee for professional services rendered to individuals or organizations where such services are sought or rendered in connection with a commercial project, such as when advice is requested by publishers, representatives of internet, television, and film companies, or regarding the sale of works of art, provided that the regulations of the institution employing the art historian do not restrict him or her. In setting fees, art historians are urged to consult with others of similar rank and experience.

2. Acceptance of Gifts and Requesting of Commercial Privileges

a. An art historian’s sole professional debt to another person or organization is based on intellectual exchange. This indebtedness takes the obvious form of assistance given to the art historian in the performance of his or her research and preparation of publication.
b. A person who is grateful to the art historian for services rendered may offer, by way of recompense, to make a donation to the art historian’s institution. The art historian’s duty is first to consult with the administration about the institution’[s policy in these matters. If the policy permits the donation, the art historian should then consider whether the institution’s acceptance would compromise his or her self-respect, independence of action, and judgment with regard to the donor. If there seems any possibility of conflict of interest or compromise of one’s reputation, it would be wise for the institution to refuse the gift.
c. A potential conflict arises when an art historian is offered a gift of a work of art by an artist about whom he or she will be writing or has written. In many cases the art historian’s publication could result in an increase in the value of the artist’s work: the publication, therefore, could create an incentive to make gifts that might be perceived as having an influence on the art historian’s writing. The tactful but outright refusal of gifts from artists may be frustrating, but such practice insures integrity of the scholarly process. The gift of works of art given by artists to members of the art historian's family might similarly create a conflict of interest.
d. Generally, art historians should not accept gifts from art dealers, even if there is a long and personal friendship. However, money in remuneration for services rendered (rather than a gift) is customary and may be acceptable.  In practice, art historians receive payment for professional services, and the terms of their engagement, including with respect to payment and other matters, should be set out in an agreement. Even to accept price reductions as a “professional courtesy” from a dealer is, strictly speaking, unethical, as it places the art historian in the dealer’s debt. If an art dealer regularly permits installment buying by his or her customers, an art historian would not be risking his or her integrity if he or she asked for similar conditions. If this is not the case, however, the art historian is acting unethically; the art historian in such a case is, consciously or not, trading upon his or her influence and putting himself or herself in the dealer’s debt. Also, an art historian who asks an art dealer to reserve a work for him or her for an indefinite period, or for one longer than is the dealer’s custom, also raises problems of ethics.

Authors and Contributors

Submitted to the CAA Professional Practices Committee, Jim Hopfensberger (chair), by the Ad Hoc Committee for the Code of Ethics for the Practice of Art History: Anne McClanan (chair), Portland State University; Sally Block, Association of Art Museum Curators; John Bowles,  University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Jill Casid, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Thomas Cummins,  Harvard University; John Russell, Massachusetts College of Art; and Fikret Yegül,  University of California, Santa Barbara.