Introduction to Art Schools: Choosing an Art School

by Frederick H. Carlson
Choosing an Art School

What specific areas should you consider when choosing your art school?


The number of students at an art school or university campus has a big effect on the environment, but many factors will influence your decision.

A school with tens of thousands of students may have a greater variety of extracurricular activities available to accommodate a broader range of interests. A school with a smaller student body may be less socially distracting. On the other hand, small schools may have social circles that are more closely knit, or a particular club or residence at a larger school may provide this sort of connection.

In terms of your studies, the faculty-to-student ratio is an important factor in school size. Often these ratios are better at smaller schools. However, in a university setting the ratio tends to get better as your studies become more focused. In other words, while you are completing your general liberal arts coursework (history, sciences, etc.), which are required of all students in the university setting, you may be in classes where one professor is lecturing to more than 400 students. But your art focus is shared by a much smaller percentage of the student body, so there may be only 15 students in your painting studio class.

These variables will all shift from school to school, but having a general idea of the school size that appeals to you will help you narrow your search a bit, at which point you can inquire further from the schools that make it onto your "short list."


Climate, closeness to home, opportunity off-campus, and rural settings vs. urban settings are common variables for any student, not just those ready to move to an education in the arts.

Since the professional arts are so intimately involved with print markets, galleries, mass communication, business, continuous education, and technical skill enhancement, institutions stressing the professional arts are most often in urban areas. Large universities can have self-sustaining cultural and business opportunities for young students and professionals looking to get started.

The academic arts often have major cultural opportunities in university towns that can be in the rural areas of the country. Your particular goal is paramount in this key area of consideration.

Admission Qualifications/Criteria

Certain schools can place great value on college admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT, while other art-focused schools lean more toward the content of a prospective student's portfolio, or consider the portfolio almost exclusively. Certainly basic excellent overall academic and extracurricular performance in high school is a plus, especially in admission to highly competitive arts programs. Schools should be able to give you an idea of minimum requirements when asked or more importantly, have such information on the web or in catalogues.

Art Facilities

This is a key variable, especially in the area of emerging technologies.

Touring both individual art studio spaces and communal computer labs is a must for the discerning student. Good student art spaces show care for the student's progress once they are enrolled. You cannot create in a sardine-sized space. Especially in the traditional arts, specific equipment and facilities (presses, kilns, ovens, looms, chemical baths, good ventilation, well-lit drawing rooms) are a must, so be very inquisitive about art equipment that is required for what you want to study! I pity the fiber major I heard about who came to a university the year AFTER the entire set of looms was given away or trashed.

Hold the "truth in advertising" standard high for colleges you are considering. Sometimes a program with a reputation has invested more heavily in art faculty rather than art technology, or has sacrificed basic principles for the latest (often easily outdated) equipment. The right balance is not only an issue for the schools, but for the decisions of the incoming students.


Art programs and departments always have detailed resumes and vitae of their full and part-time faculty. This should be easily available on request to students interested in their program. Course descriptions, especially of all the studio art courses, and curriculum tracks for various art majors should also be easily available and understandable.

Researching both the art instructors' reputations in their field and the overall impression of the school within a particular art discipline that most interests you is well worth the trouble. And talk to a professional in the field who holds no bias. Some schools' programs and reputations are so strong that employers practically wait by the door for students to graduate. Of course, this reputation can mean higher tuition, reflecting a purposeful investment in faculty and facilities alike, but most likely it's the right investment for the career-driven art student.

  1. What Is Art?
  2. Professional Overview in the Arts
  3. Working as an Artist  
  4. The Challenges for the Artist
  5. What is a Portfolio?
  6. The Long View is Necessary
  7. Art Education
  8. Directions and Choices
  9. What Type of Art School Do You Want to Attend?
  10. When is the Art Major Important?
  11. Costs and Financial Aid >>
  12. Choosing an Art School
  13. Conclusion

About the Author

Frederick H. Carlson is one of the most well-known artist/illustrators in the mid-Atlantic region. No venue is too large or too small for his incisively drawn and lucidly painted pieces. He has executed everything from room-sized murals to LP covers. He drew over 150 portraits for National Review between 1990-1999.

Carlson is a 1977 Carnegie-Mellon University alumnus, and has been a freelancer for over 30 years. He has exhibited his art at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the New York Society of Illustrators Cegep-St. Foy (Quebec), Dubendorf (Switzerland), the Manchester Craftsmens Guild, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and at Daystar/One World Gallery.

Fred was the National President of the Graphic Artists Guild from 1991-1993, the first non-NYC based artist to be so elected. He served on the Guild's Executive Committee for 8 years. He has written extensively and has been published in national publications such as The Artist's Magazine, Communication Arts, GAG News, Artists Market, and his work was featured in ART DIRECTION. He was one of the speakers addressing the Illustration Conference (ICON3) in Philadelphia in June 2003, and he served as a juror the same month at the 44th annual Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, PA.

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