Get Art Smart from Home

Wondering where to start? Here are a few ways to engage your brain with immersive learning experiences online.

If you’re looking to stay culturally fit in 2021, you’re in luck. Thanks to the boom in online learning, there’s now a treasure trove of good (and some free!) art-related resources. Here’s a run-down of the digital programs we’ve been enjoying lately.

No background required. Just curiosity and a connection.


Have you ever listened in on a museum guide telling a riveting story? But you also wanted to visit the galleries at your own pace?  With SmartHistory, the award-winning free resource for art history learning, you can eavesdrop to your heart’s (or ears’!) content, and at your own speed. 

All content, both video and text, is created by scholars. It’s the resource most history of art teachers respect and rely on to assign for their own college classes.  But it’s also designed to engage and respect adult learners.  

If you’re looking for a basic primer to help you begin, start with their Guided Learning section.  The ideas here inspired us to refresh our own teaching techniques.  Listening to the recorded conversations reminded us why art matters.

For another way to dive in, check out the 360 VR (Virtual Reality) tour of the famous Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua, Italy, entirely covered in frescos by the medieval master Giotto. Levitate like angels up to the high corners of the chapel for a close-up view of Giotto’s masterly strokes. Nothing beats seeing art in person, but this is a close second. 

Khamseen Islamic Art History

Khamseen Islamic Art History is a free, open-access platform of digital resources about Islamic art, architecture and visual culture, from a University of Michigan team.  Most of their content is short-form video. We liked a brief, but packed lecture on the modern Egyptian sculptor, Mahmoud Mukhtar. It transported us away from home in minutes, and reminded us that there’s more to Egyptian culture than ancient pyramids.

Another 15-minute talk with Emily Rauh about contemporary “eco-critical” art in the Middle East, A Hot Wind Blows, explores artists who are addressing climate change, in what was considered the original garden of Eden. 

Harvard Alumni Travels 

You don’t need to be a Harvard alum or pay an Ivy League tuition to enjoy free faculty talks. What are the big ideas shaping education today? How does the media confront the world’s most pressing problems? What’s the science behind the tastes and textures of the food we love? There’s something for everyone in this impressive collection of podcasts, lectures, and hot-off-the-press books. You can choose to live or recorded events. We enjoyed an hour-long talk with Professor Chaplin: Our Man in Paris: Benjamin Franklin. We heard how this Founding Father went from science to statesman to become the American envoy to France in 1776. He “snatched lightning from the heavens and the scepter from a tyrant.” His near-rock-star status helped to secure French support for the colonists’ bid for independence.  

And…when you come to Paris again (and you will!) take our Historic Heart walk, which features a stop at the iconic Café Procop. See where Franklin mixed with other Enlightenment thinkers to forge a lasting Franco-American diplomatic alliance.

Cocktails with a Curator

Hans Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More

What’s your poison? Shaken or stirred, straight up or on the rocks, Cocktails with a Curator is the perfect ABC combo: art, beverage and curator. The Frick Collection in New York invites you to prepare a drink,  sit back, and listen to a curator’s expert insights into historic works assembled by the industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

We especially enjoyed listening to the brilliant but accessible Xavier F. Salomon describe Hans Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More, one of the Frick’s most iconic portraits. More was High Chancellor to the British King Henri VIII. He was an all-around Renaissance man, a fact captured in Holbein’s stunningly realistic details.  

Solomon chose a Bloody Mary to go with his talk.  Appropriate, since More was beheaded for refusing to legitimize the king’s divorce. And if you opt for the mocktail version, your Virgin Mary will reflect More’s status as Catholic saint and martyr. 

Witty, fun, but also in-depth. Watch live every Friday at 5pm EST or listen to the recorded versions on Youtube. Recipes included. Cheers! 

The Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia offers a full array of live online classes in art history and art appreciation. New offerings are available monthly.  Classes are led by an expert team of curators, scholars and educators. Prices range from around $200 for 4 classes to $500 for 14.

Look out for an upcoming course offered by Paris Muse Founder and Director Ellen McBreen: When the Camera Was New: Nineteenth-Century Photography (June 2021).  If you can’t watch a class live, you can always stream later.

Not up to a full class? Barnes Takeout gives you a bite-sized free serving of art.  Museum staff introduce their favorite works from the Barnes world-famous collection of Impressionism and other modern masterpieces. 

Sotheby’s Institute

Sotheby’s Institute of Art has an impressive collection of online art history classes, ranging from one-hour live videos to full 12-week accredited courses. Prices run from $60 to $1,860.

Spend an hour learning about canonical artists in a single program like  Artists Who Changed the World: Pablo Picasso, or two weeks discovering how and why fakes and forgeries are made in Art Crime. If you like what you see, you can make a more serious commitment with a 6-week course focusing on what this international auction house knows best: Art as a Global Business, The Value of Art.

Get a sneak peek of one of their “Premier” (6-week) courses, including sample topics and a faculty-guided discussion board.  At the end, you’ll receive a Certificate of Completion from Sotheby’s as an added bonus.

The Artist Project


See the works of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through the eyes of some fascinating beholders: 120 contemporary artists.  This riveting series, called The Artist Project, reminds us of how relevant history is— and always has been—to contemporary creators.

See Kehinde Wiley, the artist famous for his 2018 portrait of Barack Obama, talk about the “guilty pleasures” he takes in sumptuous images of Empire and colonialism in John Singer Sargent.  The printmaker and installation artist Xu Bing relates his experiences in rural China to the autumn haystacks of  French painter Jean-Jacques Millet. The photographer Catherine Opie focuses on the opulent bedroom of Louis XIV and sees a version of the king’s portrait there. It’s just one of many virtual, and truly diverse, offerings highlighting how many different kinds of stories art can tell. For a full list of upcoming events (films, classes, tours)  visit the calendar and choose Virtual.  

The Artist Project series manages to capture the moment we’re in now. Like other thoughtful online programs out there, the Met’s remind us that while nothing can replace the thrill of seeing art in person, virtual experiences can inspire us to connect in ways we didn’t think possible.