California Art Schools

By Cathy Sivak, Contributing Writer

What you can expect from an art education in the Golden State

The land of sun, surf and movie making, California has long been a destination for creative types. The emphasis on art in California is strong, with thriving film, TV and publishing businesses as well as support of fine artists. As a result, art education opportunities abound in The Golden State. California even offers a grant program to help residents achieve post-secondary schooling since higher education is a state-wide priority.

There are several main types of art schools in California: private schools attached to galleries, technical/trade schools, community colleges, state and private colleges and universities, and other specialized private educational institutions. Four-year programs typically offer various art concentrations under the BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) or BA (Bachelor’s of Arts) degree programs. Private and public technical or trade schools such as California Art Institute Schools also award a range of art certificates, associates degrees and bachelor’s degrees. College and university programs typically offer a broad liberal arts experience, while arts-related technical processes are more heavily explored at trade and specialty art schools.

Educators are quick to note that life as a practicing artist is often a struggle. Until recognition comes from a gallery representative, many artists fill non-art related jobs to earn a living. As a result, many artists are urged to earn a masters degree. “It gives them more training, more skills, more contracts, more time to develop both artistically, mentally and philosophically so that they can produce art that is more likely to be picked up by a gallery,” says Eric Chimenti, Assistant Professor of Art for Chapman University in Orange, California.

While sifting through the programs offered at various schools, make sure your specific interest in art is well-represented to avoid the need to transfer later and potentially lose credits. “Students need to make sure their courses supply what they need to land the job they want. Find the right school, find the right teachers, find the program that can challenge you and make you grow so that you are properly trained and equipped to do something that you love to do,” says Chimenti.

Chapman is a private institution with about 4,000 students; art department students can pursue a BA in either art or art history or BFAs in graphic design or studio art. A BFA in studio art at Chapman has an emphasis on contemporary theory and practice to prepare students for graduate study and for careers as practicing artists. Students create personalized studies by selecting courses from the areas of painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, photography and digital media.

Admission requirements vary, but are likely to require high school transcripts or a general equivalency degree, standardized test scores, and a portfolio review; the latter is a certainty as part of school-specific scholarship application. Schools typically look for a promise of talent in art students rather than technical proficiency. “High schools are so different now. Big private high schools sometimes have programs that vie with ours, so we make considerations for others that are not so well funded,” says Penelope Jones, the executive director of student affairs at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles School of Fine Arts. “We want to welcome students that have the potential.”

If art was a priority, but other high school grades were lackluster, there is still hope for admission to university and college programs; art programs are sometimes given latitude on university admissions policies for GPAs and test scores. For instance, USC-LA allows the School of Fine Arts to weigh talent over GPAs and SAT/ACT test scores; the average GPA for all incoming freshman at 3.91, with SATs at 350. “But that’s not the average for art students,” Jones notes. “They are pretty good with English, but math can be a killer.”

The creative atmosphere at an art school is best judged by a trip to the school, where potential students can view the classrooms, studio space, computer labs and art gallery. Many art programs stress knowledge of the fundamentals as well as a major or concentration in a specific area of art. Fine arts concentrations at USC-LA under the BA and BFA degrees include ceramics, digital design, drawing, film/video, graphic design, media arts, painting, photography and sculpture.

Art schools and university art programs both allow students to explore art. Both Chimenti and Jones contend artists armed with degrees and liberal arts education are more likely to succeed. “We believe that any artist, whether they are a fine artist or a designer, should be broadly educated, as opposed to a one-dimensional focus in a certain area,” Jones says.

Classmates at university and college programs are likely to include those in the same area of study, as well as those from other programs, such as communications students taking photography or graphic design classes. “We get a broader base because of that, and it helps simulate the real work world,” notes Haven Lin-Kirk, who heads up design for the USC-LA fine arts department. “Communicating in the virtual world, areas outside of design and art that a student can participate in is very important and relevant.”

The National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), Reston, Va., has responsibility for the accreditation of art and design curricula; it currently accredits 200-plus schools across the country. Its site serves as a resource to students, with in-depth information about schools as well as career options. NASAD is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

A degree in studio art can prepare students to become practicing artists in professions including painters, illustrators, photographers, multimedia, mixed media, video and performance artists. “These students do art for either themselves or as a social commentary,” Chimenti says.

Many art programs host portfolio days featuring student work, with art industry professionals on hand to speak with students and offer feedback and, potentially, employer interest.

West coast internships abound, with opportunities available to art and design students in Los Angeles including (but not limited) to design companies, advertising firms, film and publishing companies. For instance, Nickelodeon, Disney and Dreamworks film studios all offer student internships through USC-LA. “They are all very interested in getting fresh ideas from the graduating students,” Jones says. “When these big or small companies have positions that become available, they hire their interns.”

Animation and special effects are hot education areas in California, as the biggest animation studios in the world are based in L.A., Lin-Kirk notes. “If students are already thinking about a career -specific area, the (West Coast) internships are fantastic. It’s hard to predict what the future job market will be, but there is a high demand for anyone who is creative and talented and fairly professional in what they are doing, especially here on the West Coast.”