The 10 Best Art Schools in California

The West Coast provides a wealth of choices for studying art in its many forms. Students can opt for beach settings or vibrant downtown spaces in major cities or quaint towns. 

Majors from arts education to automobile design offer endless career paths. School facilities can have students smithing precious metals, 3D printing shoes, or exploring velocity in a wind tunnel.

Many factors separate each of the excellent schools in this list. Some institutions enroll fewer than 500 students at one time, while others are part of a campus of over 30,000.

Many campuses here focus on art or are solely arts schools, with liberal arts and science requirements represented in arts-related forms. 

Other programs fit within a broader university context, offering interdisciplinary degrees and requiring admission first to the parent university.

Depending on a student’s needs and circumstances, the perfect fit can be found among the diverse ten represented here. 

From corporate internships to semesters painting in Florence, these programs offer many student experiences.

Mixed media, fashion, book arts, furniture design, curation, experimental animation, toy design—these schools cover the spectrum of arts careers.

Here are 10 of the best art schools in California.

San Francisco Art Institute (San Francisco, CA)

San Francisco Art Institute
Pax Ahimsa Gethen, San Francisco Art Institute, CC BY-SA 4.0

With its location in one of the country’s most arts-oriented cities, San Francisco Art Institute offers an ideal metropolitan context along with an innovative curriculum that fosters experimentation and critical thought.

The school dates back to 1871; the school hosted the first showing of a moving picture in 1880 and the first reading of Ginsberg’s Howl in 1955. 

Ansel Adams founded the photography department in 1945, with faculty including Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston. Annie Leibovitz shot for Rolling Stone while still a student at SFAI; other alumni made history by winning the first directorial Oscar awarded to a woman (Kathryn Bigelow) and painting Barack Obama’s official Presidential portrait (Kehinde Wiley).

SFAI conducts BA and BFA programs in genres like painting, sculpture, photography, and art history, but it also offers less common paths of study, such as a BA in Art, Place, and Public Studies and BFAs in Art and Technology and in New Genres, an interdisciplinary major where students can access the latest in studio equipment to realize boundary-crossing artistic visions.

Core curriculum integrates the study of art with other disciplines from the first year, so that students don’t have to complete requirements before getting to their major area. 

Liberal Arts requirements in science, global studies, English, critical theory and art history invite students to understand their artistic practice in a larger context.

Partnering with the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, SFAI monitors longitudinal data about its graduates’ career progress. 

Recent reporting showed that 82% of responding SFAI graduates currently were employed or had been employed as artists.

Although SFAI accepts 90% of applicants, competition for merit-based scholarships makes a strong portfolio and good GPA useful assets in the application process. Admissions can start in January or August.

Laguna College of Art and Design (Laguna Beach, CA)

Besides its drawing and painting program, Laguna College of Art and Design provides a strongly practical, technology-focused array of majors, including animation, entertainment design, experimental animation, game art, graphic design & digital media, and illustration.

The main campus in idyllic Laguna Beach is supplemented by a modern facility in Big Bend, where computer labs, a recording studio, and animation studios are available for students. The BFA Visual Communications programs take place on the Big Bend campus.

Faculty include industry professionals, from animators and film model makers to partners in the gaming industry. An especially strong graphic design program garners a 98% employment rate for graduates.

LCAD’s Professional Mentoring program involves member galleries of Laguna’s First Thursdays Art Walk as advisors for fine arts majors at LCAD, giving students the opportunity to learn about how to exhibit their own work and other aspects of gallery management. 

The school’s career service office helps place students in internships with companies like Pixar, Cartoon Network, Vans, and Nike.

Alumni can continue to take a free class each semester at LCAD. Graduates also retain access to the career service job board and the school’s annual Industry Open House event. applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and admission is essay- and portfolio-based

CSULB School of Art (Long Beach, CA)

The School of Art at California State University Long Beach offers BAs in studio art, art history, and art education, along with a certificate program in museum studies, making this school a strong choice for a student interested in a career in teaching or curating art.

BFAs in specialized fields like printmaking, illustration and animation, photography, and a certificate program in biomedical illustration make up just a few of this school’s offerings. 

BFA programs require portfolios for application while BA programs only require application through the university’s general admissions department.

CSULB was the first California system institution to offer an MFA degree. Among the largest art programs in the country operated with public funding, CSULB has over forty full-time faculty in the School of Art, with nearly 2,000 students majoring in its programs.

The School of Art joins the Conservatory of Music and the departments of dance, design, film, electronic arts, and theater arts to form the College of the Arts (COTA) at CSULB. 

With its own advisory program for students, COTA mentors and guides art students through course selection and campus and community resources in order to help them reach their academic goals. COTA’s SOAR program brings in new students with a summer orientation to help them acclimate to campus.

With a 39% acceptance rate, CSULB is moderately selective.

Otis College of Art and Design (Los Angeles, CA)

Whether students plan to pursue fine arts programs or search for the specific tools available in degree programs like toy design or environmental design, Otis College of the Arts has a full complement of majors and minors in visual and applied arts.

Extensive labs, workshops, and facilities accommodate student projects from book arts to goldsmithing. Galleries on campus and in the community host student exhibitions; fashion students participate in an annual benefit fashion show.

A metropolitan campus located in the center of Los Angeles, the school offers limited on-campus housing, mostly for first-year students, but the program helps connect students with appropriate off-campus housing as well.

One of the most diverse student populations in the country, Otis offers advice and support to first-generation applicants. Their Black Creatives program connects students with faculty and industry mentors while fostering a supportive campus community. The school extends admission advice and services to veterans and undocumented students as well.

Graduate surveys indicate a 94% employment rate for graduates within art and design fields. Alumni hold a wide range of positions in the arts, including design, entertainment, educational, and managerial roles.

When The Economist proposed new ways of evaluating the worth of college educations, Otis made headlines by cracking the top ten U.S. colleges in their first list. When actual median wages of graduates became part of the assessment, Otis College of Art outperformed many more famous schools, sparking a larger conversation about the state of college education in America.

ArtCenter College of Design (Pasadena, CA)

ArtCenter College of Design
Jchobanana, ArtCenter College of Design, South Campus, CC BY-SA 4.0

ArtCenter College of Design features a faculty of practicing artists helping students acquire the skills and experience necessary to reach their career goals. 

Eleven undergraduate degrees—including programs in spatial experience design, interaction design, and transportation design—give art students both the flexibility and specificity needed in order to find their paths in an art world where technology makes new forms available in all fields.

Located near Los Angeles in the architecturally-significant community of Pasadena, ArtCenter is big enough to be diverse and small enough to maintain an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. 

Graduates report 69% job placement within a year of their Bachelor’s degree; 94% within the field related to their program of study.

Campuses in downtown LA and at the Petersen Automotive Museum provide studio and public space for various degree programs. A satellite studio in Berlin and an expanding presence in China provide ArtCenter students international access.

Partnering with industry, ArtCenter pairs students with alumni or other professionals for 10-week mentorship programs, allowing students a glimpse of career possibilities and making valuable professional connections for all participants. 

Each year, new organizations choose to join; students have had the opportunity to work with companies like Google, Activision, Nissan, and Disney TV.

The school’s professional development services offer students career counseling, workshops on job search skills, on-campus recruiting events, and studio tours. 

Alumni include movie director Michael Bay, painters Mark Ryden and Charles Wysocki, automotive designers Frank Stephenson and Larry Shinoda, as well as design chiefs and vice-presidents from Ford, Acura, Ducati, General Motors, Harley Davidson, and American Motors.

Stanford University (Stanford, CA)

Stanford University
Jawed, Stanford University, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Department of Art and Art History at Stanford offers four undergraduate major options, including art history, art practice, and film & media, all of which can be pursued as minors. One joint major, art practice plus computer science, allows art students working in technology-focused media to acquire the necessary context and skills to expand the scope of their work.

Students wishing to study art at Stanford must be admitted to the university through the general undergraduate admissions process. 

Before declaring an art major, the department recommends taking art history preparatory coursework during freshman or sophomore years.

Each student maps coursework with their chosen departmental advisor. All programs seek to deepen each student artist’s engagement with their work by developing visual perception skills and practice of technical processes.

The McMurtry Building, Stanford’s dedicated space for its arts program, opened in 2015. The building includes studios, screening rooms, performance spaces, outdoor work areas, and digital media tools and workspace.

UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture (Los Angeles, CA)

Located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles, UCLA’s arts programs offer access to vibrant cultural communities.

Within its top-ranked studio art program, UCLA combines a rigorous combination of skills and studio training with critical theory and history coursework. The design media arts program provides training in contemporary practices for game design, printing, photography, 3D modeling, and virtual reality media.

The architecture and urban design program adopts an environmentally conscious, community approach to architecture and design to address social issues. 

UCLA’s Visual and Performing Arts Education Program gives student artists interested in arts education a chance to practice their teaching skills as they help provide services to K-12 students in underserved communities.

The direct-entry application process includes two steps: students must apply through the general admissions department and complete an additional arts supplement.

California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)

California Institute of the Arts
Bobak Ha’Eri, CalArts, CC BY 3.0

The California Institute of the Arts in Valencia represents six art schools under one banner: art, critical studies, dance, film, music, and theater. In a unique opportunity, students can choose a BFA program in general education that encompasses all areas.

The art program at CalArts offers BFA degrees in art, graphic design, photography and mixed media, and in art and technology. The schools encourage interdepartmental collaboration, the creation of hybrid forms, and broad critical understanding.

Associations with a number of international art schools provide foreign exchange opportunities for CalArts students in Paris, Glasgow, Hamburg, Berlin, and in Singapore. The school’s Center for Life and Work provides career advice and support for current students and CalArts graduates, hosting workshops and an internship program.

Admissions are portfolio/audition based, with an acceptance rate around 25%. CalArts ranks in the top 15 programs nationally for performing arts, film and photography, and for design.

Rooted in a vision of an arts community conceived by Walt Disney, CalArts grew to embrace even more diverse and groundbreaking artistic concepts.

University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design (Los Angeles, CA)

The Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California offers BFA programs in art and in design. Students can also earn a BA in art through the program, taking advantage of the wider course selections at USC outside the department.

In the BFA Art program, students balance studio courses with theory studies, culminating in a capstone course and thesis project. The BFA in Design provides training in technical skills for 2D and 3D media along with critical theory seminars and design internships.

Students interested in applying to the Roski School of Art and Design should apply to through the general USC admissions department, including the writing supplement. 

Portfolios must then be submitted through the Roski’s site, along with other materials specific to the program.

Students can study abroad for degree credit at partner institutions in Australia, Florence, Cape Town, and London. Internships with corporate and public partners like NBC, National Geographic, Lego, and MoMA offer students valuable real-world experiences.

Another excellent Los Angeles arts program, the Roski started offering classes in the late 19th century, making it one of the oldest programs on the list. Ranked as the top school for design and for film and photography, students at Roski can also enjoy being part of the larger USC family, ranked at the top spot for student life.

California College of the Arts (San Francisco, CA)

The Bay Area’s California College of the Arts offers a program to meet any aspiring artist’s ambitions.

Technology, guidance, and access are abundant: ample studio space and well-appointed shops give CCA students the tools they need for all projects. Galleries and venues like the Wattis Institute and the Hubbell Street Galleries host ongoing exhibits and events featuring current students and visiting artists from around the world.

California College of the Arts tops the list of art schools for return on investment. Small classes and an overall 8:1 student/faculty ratio help the school maintain graduation rate of 67% within a six year range. 83% of undergraduate alumni find work within a year of their degrees, and 78% of undergraduates are awarded financial aid.

Whether students come for the specificity of majors like the BFA in Comics or Furniture, for visionary programs like interaction design, for the vital Bay Area gallery exposure, or for the opportunity to incorporate creative writing or social practice into their curriculum, California College of the Arts provides the education, guidance, professional connections, and framework for exploring individual voice essential to an artist’s successful development.