James McMullan said the search for an illustration style is a very personal thing, like deciding if you prefer to wear silk or cotton. Same goes for picking an art school; you need to know yourself. “Art School,” or “University” with a good art program? It is a very personal thing.
A big city art school might not have a grassy campus, a rec center with a climbing wall, or varsity sports, but the city has its own rewards. Ben Shahn said ‘the greatest art school is one you walk through a great museum to reach.’ Cities have the advantage of high concentrations of cultural institutions. Some U.S. cities, notably Boston and Pittsburgh, with many colleges clustered together, work at being student-friendly. A Pitt student I.D. gets free entry to the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Mattress Factory. If you crave a high culture fix, consider a big city art school.
Speaking as the father of two recent college grads (one creative writer, one fine artist): Do not go deeply into debt to get a degree in the arts. If you are getting a degree in a high demand design area, like web design, maybe, loans are reasonable up to a point. I once toured RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, the luxury liner of art schools. The cafeteria was like a restaurant with vegetarian and vegan options. The studios were amazing, including a fully-equipped glassblowing facility. Tuition is now $38,000; with dorm and meals the bill nears $50,000 a year. Of course, many students get financial aid. I know a very talented young artist who was offered a $3,500 merit scholarship. At a state school $3,500 would be quite a scholarship; at RISD it was more like a discount. If you can afford a luxury class school, like RISD, or Cranbrook, or Pasedena’s Art Center College of Design you will be in good company. Go for it, if you and your parents can afford it. I must admit I get sticker shock even thinking about this sort of expenditure.
I once met a young man who was spending $250,000 at a four-year college to become a potter. I suggested an alternative education. Hire a master potter from Mexico for $50,000 a year, bring the artist to the U.S. and open a collaborative studio gallery. Apprentice to the master potter for three years and sell the pottery as you go. I’d wager the ceramics of that young potter with the three-year apprenticeship would far outshine a college grad’s. Of course, this is a pipe dream. The student loan industry, academic accrediting agencies, immigration laws, the higher education system, and the U.S. tax code, all favor the ‘college experience’ over such a ‘work experience.’
Reality Check: If you have a place to live in the city, and you can get some financial aid, do consider the big city art school. If not, read on.
Consider a State College. Your best value may be a state college. I know many young people want to relocate, but look into your home state first. I teach at Kutztown University of PA. Tuition and fees are a reasonable $7,732 a year for PA residents. The cost more than doubles to $16,557 for out-of-state students. Montclair State, in neighboring N.J., is a tad cheaper, $7,324 a year in-state, $15,654 out-of state. (Montclair has a dorm named for Frank Sinatra. How hip is that?) Be aware that university tuition pages are designed like car dealers’ ads. The tuition appears quite low at first glance, but it is usually quoted in semesters, or even quarters, and doesn’t include mandatory fees. I’m including all fees in my yearly tuition numbers here.
Of course, not every state school has an art program. How does one find the schools with art programs? Ask your art teacher, if you are lucky enough to have one. Or, start with a web guide like Peterson’s Guide to Colleges. I just did an informal test and found Peterson’s was not very useful. Starting with Search by Major “ART” gets 11,700 schools, “GRAPHIC DESIGN” brings it down to 507. Advanced Search of “Visual and Performing Arts” for “ILLUSTRATION” and “Bachelor’s Degree” gets 63 schools. Screening for PA narrows it down to 4 schools, all privates. Kutztown University, where I teach illustration is not even listed! Technically, illustration is a concentration here, not a separate major. Using the term “GRAPHIC DESIGN” got me a longer list, but still did not include Kutztown. My point is, Peterson’s program is not perfect.
There is another more useful tool at NASAD, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. This art college accreditation organization has a searchable list of their 312 members. (Update 2.12/2011: I went to the NASAD site from an off-campus computer and this list is very difficult to access. Sorry. One must become a “free subscriber” to reach the list. I don’t understand why NASAD makes this basic member information so difficult for prospective students to see.) A “Pennsylvania” search finds 24 schools (including KU), New York State – 25 , Ohio -17, North Carolina- 4. Now, there are certainly fine schools that are not accredited by NASAD. For many years Kutztown was not a part of NASAD and our program has not fundamentally changed since then, but NASAD might be a good place to start.
I would do a “web visit” to every NASAD school in my state and neighboring states. Search out the terms illustration, communication design, and graphic design. Get a sense of the number of faculty, and where they studied. If you can find individual faculty web pages, look for diversity of faculty backgrounds. If you can’t study at one of those luxury liner schools like RISD yourself, it might be nice to study with someone who did. Check out any school that has the word ‘state’ in it, like Kent State in OH, Montclair State in NJ, Buffalo State College in N Y . Why? State schools are subsidized by tax dollars. Even though this state subsidy shrinks every year, think of it as an invisible scholarship. Of course, sometimes a state school with a great art program, like Ohio University or Kutztown, doesn’t have the word state in it; maybe your guidance counselor can help weed down your list.
At Kutztown we have a good-sized program in Communication Design. “C.D.” is the most selective program here. We get 250 applicants for 60 freshman seats. We have 12 full-time faculty. The faculty to student ratio is low. Low is good. I teach a design history course of about 110 students, but my largest illustration studio classes has 23 students. For better or worse, Kutztown has the collegiate stuff you don’t find at ‘art schools,’ the rec center, climbing wall, clubs, frats and sororities. The other thing Kutztown has, not found in purest ‘art schools,’ is a general education requirement. Basically, you will need to take a little over a year’s worth of science and math and literature and things you might not have enjoyed in high school. I’m generalizing, but I’ve met many art students, and most find “gen ed” boring. Gen ed is part of the deal you are making with the taxpayers; you may not be working in the arts all your life. A well-rounded education is meant to prepare you for life in the broadest sense.
Last week the blog entry on picking an art college got nearly 500 visitors in three days. That’s not viral by dancing cat standards, but proves there is a lot of interest. I promised to reveal the name of the state college art program that I found most impressive. Kutztown University is wonderful and the CD program is the best thing here, but I must exclude my employer from this pool.
The most impressive state college art program I’ve ever seen is Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I believe MassArt is the only state college devoted exclusively to the visual arts. Fittingly, this profound respect for the arts took hold in Massachusetts. In 1780, President John Adams, of Massachusetts, envisioned a time when the U.S. would reach such a level of freedom and prosperity that his descendants might study fine art and applied arts.*
I spent a portfolio day at MassArt with a prospective student. The upper level undergraduate students had their own small studio spaces, a rare and wonderful thing. The arts curriculum was diverse yet deep, offering everything from illustration to “Dynamic Media.” MassArt faculty are practicing artists and the student work I saw was first-rate. On an historical note, one of my favorite illustrators, N.C. Wyeth, began his training there. I’d say MassArt is a wonderful choice for Mass. residents. (In-state tuition & fees: $9,000 a year.) Interestingly, MassArt offers a discounted rate for neighboring New England States of about $15,500 a year. Applicants from all other states, alas, pay a hefty $25,500.
I would be very interested to hear your opinion on where best to study art. Please post a comment if you have thoughts on the matter. Next week we will share some great news about KU grad Scotty Reifsnyder.
* Here is how John Adams put it in a letter to his wife, Abigail, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”