The 10 Best “Hidden Gem” Art Schools in the US

Attending college for art is one of the most significant decisions a student can make when in high school. Pursuing an art degree is a clear declaration of passion, eschewing a “stable” and conventional career in favor of chasing a dream.

And why not? While most people may shrug off an art degree, it is, perhaps surprisingly, a potentially lucrative career option. Dozens of careers with high-paying salaries are, believe it or not, available to students who graduate from art school with an art degree.

Many people know the most renowned names in collegiate art programs. These can include schools like RISD, Pratt, and the Parsons School of Design from the New School. While these are all tremendous programs, there are actually over a hundred art schools or departments in the US alone.

Today, we are examining some of the finest “hidden gem” art schools in the country. For this particular list, we are discussing schools with prestigious faculty, excellent institutional resources, and alumni who have impacted every aspect of the world of fine arts. These are schools with many of the country’s top programs, including those in illustration, animation, photography, filmmaking, and more.

Here are 10 of the best “hidden gem” art schools in the entire country.

Maine College of Art (Portland, ME)

Maine College of Art
Motionhero, MECA Front, CC BY-SA 3.0

The core mantra at Maine College of Art is just two words: “Be Seen.” When carefully examining what MECA means by this mantra, it becomes easy to see why this school is among the most special colleges to study art in the entire world.

MECA is perhaps unparalleled in its size and intimacy, ensuring that every art student’s work is indeed “seen” by the school’s professors. With its 10:1 student-to-teacher ratio, MECA ensures every student gains significant 1-on-1 attention with the faculty to foster their artistic potential.

What makes MECA special is how ingrained it is within the city of Portland, one of the most forward-thinking, progressive, and artistic cities in the country. Every year, MECA hosts dozens of student showcases, exhibitions, and conferences that are open to the greater Portland community. Through the school’s efforts, students’ works are seen not just by the MECA community, but also by residents and curators throughout Portland and beyond.

One exceptional facility at MECA is the Institute of Contemporary Art. This gallery operates as an experiential learning center for MECA students who interact with invited guest artists. The result is something of an extended learning platform, where students grow not just under the tutelage of faculty, but also through examining resident artists’ work at MECA’s ICA.

San Francisco Institute of Art (San Francisco, CA)

San Francisco Art Institute
FoxyOrange, San Francisco Art Institute atrium, CC BY-SA 3.0

Happy 150th birthday to SFAI! This private, contemporary art school was founded in 1871, making it among the oldest and most storied schools of art in the entire country. With just 600 students total, SFAI represents a real hidden gem nestled away in one of America’s greatest cities for the arts.

SFAI is widely associated with a specific contemporary art movement known as the Mission School, an art movement from the 1990s and 2000s centered around the Mission district in San Francisco, California. Several students from SFAI at the time, including prominent artists Barry McGee and Rigo 23, painted murals throughout San Francisco.

Today, SFAI is as focused as ever on continuing the tradition of pushing boundaries through contemporary art. Faculty at the program who are innovators in modern art include Tony Labat, a critically acclaimed multimedia and installation artist, Brett Reichman, a critically acclaimed painter, and James Claussen, a lithography specialist.

In 2016, the San Francisco Institute of Art was recognized for its artistic contribution to America through a special designation, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kendall College of Art and Design (Grand Rapids, MI)

Kendall College of Art
KatieZychowski, Photo Courtesy- Matt Gubancsik Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, CC BY-SA 4.0

Not only is Kendall College of Art and Design among the best “hidden gem” art schools in the country, it is also located in one of the best “hidden gem” cities in America, the very beautiful Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A constituent college of Ferris State University, Kendall benefits from its close proximity to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), an important institution with a visitorship of over a quarter-million people per year. Students at Kendall College have the opportunity to regularly see GRAM’s 5,000+ work collection, which includes numerous contemporary works.

One of Kendall College’s most successful programs is in graphic design. Students in the graphic design major are provided access to significant creative facilities at Kendall, including the school’s Dow Center FlexLab. In the FlexLab, students work with 3D printers, lasers for etching, and 3D scanners. 

Because of their students’ extensive experience with advanced technology, Kendall College graphic design students have found work in significant design, advertising, and branding agencies.

Some of Kendall’s most notable alumni include Maynard James Keenan, famed singer for the rock band Tool, Steven Kolb, the CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Keith Parkinson, who illustrated the covers of Magic: The Gathering and EverQuest.

Moore College of Art and Design (Philadelphia, PA)

Moore College of Art and Design
Jvatza, Moore College of Art & Design, CC BY-SA 3.0

The essence of the Moore experience is choosing a highly personalized atmosphere. Every student walks a unique path through their choice of major, collaboration with visiting artists, education under award-winning faculty, and pursuing unique experiences. While these descriptions may seem like generic art school lingo, it does feel more true at Moore College than at any other school. Novel, recent experiences hosted at Moore include an edible book party, an art project about pets, and even virtual art events throughout the last year.

One of Moore’s more unique programs is called Socially Engaged Art. Through this MFA program, students engage in critical thinking and practice when it comes to ethics in the arts. Graduates of this program gain a unique perspective when it comes to teaching art in schools and communities worldwide.

Graduates of the Moore program have been innovators in every field of art. Some of these graduates include Naomieh Jovin, a young award-winning photographer, Janet Biggs, a video artist who is also a Guggenheim recipient, and Kathy Butterly, a New York-based sculpture artist. Perhaps Moore’s most famous alumna is the musician and songwriter Pink, who attended Moore for a short period.

Moore College’s undergraduate program is entirely female, while its graduate program is coeducational. Established in 1848, Moore is among the oldest art schools in the entire nation. 

Interestingly, a recent Netflix short film features animation by Moore faculty, students, and alumni

Cleveland Institute of Art (Cleveland, OH)

Cleveland Institute of Art
Warren LeMay, Cleveland Institute of Art, CC0 1.0

In 2015, the Princeton Review ranked the Cleveland Institute of Art a “Best Midwestern College,” making it the only independent art school designated in this ranking. Additionally, in 2018, Money Magazine ranked the Cleveland Institute of Art among the country’s best colleges of art

Cleveland Institute of Art is home to myriads of art specialties. Among the most cutting-edge majors at the Cleveland Institute of Art is the Game Design major, a program where students learn how to create art for video games and related media. In this unique degree, students learn about 3D modeling, augmented reality, animation, and programming. Graduates of this program have become successful game designers, animators, visual effects supervisors, and more.

Film is another cornerstone of the student experience, as this school is home to the Cleveland Cinematheque, a film theater existing for over 35 years known for screening artistic, foreign, and classic films alike.

In 2015, the Cleveland Institute of Art completed the construction of an incredible 248,000(!) square foot facility known as the George Gund Building. This remarkable complex includes numerous galleries, a theater, an atrium, a cafe, a library, and ample study spaces for students.

Graduates of the Cleveland Institute of Art have influenced every significant field of art. They include Brian Michael Bendis, a Marvel & DC Comics artist, Dana Schutz, a noted Brooklyn-based painter, and Jenny Scobel, a remarkable painter whose works have been auctioned at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Ringling College of Art and Design (Sarasota, FL)

Ringling is quickly rising the ranks, becoming more and more recognized for its outstanding arts education. Recent rankings include the #1 spot on Animation Career Review’s list of best Colleges for Animation. Additionally, Ringling was also ranked #2 nationally by the Art Career Project for their premiere Illustration major. 

Experiential learning is at the heart of the Ringling College experience, with students gaining tremendous pre-professional experience at the school before graduating into the real world. Some of Ringling’s best experiential learning programs include the Collaboratory, an initiative combining arts education with business. Through the Collaboratory, students learn about the fundamentals of arts as it applies to branding, product design, and addressing the artistic needs of a 21st-century business.

However, Ringling is not only about preparing students for career success; rather, Ringling focuses on fostering outstanding creative expression. This is evident in what the school dubs the “Ringling Effect,” a term describing the amalgamation of faculty, facility, and opportunity to help their students reach their highest artistic potential.

Ringling is home to one of the nation’s most impressive collections of art education texts, the Alfred R. Goldstein Library. This 46,000(!) square foot facility is home to nearly 100,000 texts and periodicals, as well as a 24-hour lab, café, study areas, and even four terraces with a view of the Whitaker Bayou. 

Pacific Northwest College of Art (Portland, OR)

Pacific Northwest College of Art
Lradon, Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), CC BY-SA 4.0

A fine arts school located in one of the country’s most socially and artistically progressive cities, the Pacific Northwest College of Art is central to Portland’s intellectual life, frequently hosting cutting-edge exhibitions, shows, installations, and acclaimed guest artists from around the world.

One of PNCA’s special offerings is the Global Studios initiative, a special practicum where students can experience programs and internships internationally. Through the Global Studios Initiative, students from PNCA have participated in semester exchange programs in countries as varied as Japan, France, Australia, and Senegal.

The campus’s main building, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design, is home to state-of-the-art facilities for students to practice and create. After a $30 million renovation within the last decade, this facility is now complete with a glass-roofed atrium, art galleries, common spaces, and a flex space housing conferences and projects curated by students and faculty. 

In 2020, PNCA agreed to merge with Willamette University, a school ranked by US News among the top 75 liberal arts colleges in the entire country. This partnership will provide PNCA students an even wider assortment of academic classes and opportunities to supplement their fine arts education.

Massachusetts College of Art and Design (Boston, MA)

Massachusetts College of Art
User:Ɱ, Massartbuilding6, CC BY-SA 3.0

An exceptional college tucked away in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, MassArt is a premiere art school that is actually the only freestanding public art school in the entire country. Founded in 1873, this hidden gem of an institution is among the nation’s oldest art schools. In fact, it was the first college in the country to grant a degree in the visual arts.

MassArt is a college complete with exceptional facilities to meet the needs of a contemporary student artist. These facilities include at least seven outstanding art galleries as well as The Pozen Center, an entire floor dedicated to expansive live performances, installations, and exhibits.

While all of MassArt’s degrees are extensive in scope and curriculum, one particularly outstanding program is in photography. The photography department is home to many exceptional faculty members who are accomplished photographers themselves, including Laura McPhee, a Guggenheim fellow noted for her sweeping photographs of landscapes and their people. 

Other notable faculty of MassArt include Barbara Bosworth, a photographer whose work focuses on the relationship between humans and nature, and Taylor Davis, an innovative wood sculpture artist.

MassArt is not a school that rests on its laurels; recently, MassArt opened a brand new art museum, aptly called the MassArt Art Museum (MAAM). This unique museum opened under the auspices of MassArt’s “Unbound” fundraising campaign, which raised an impressive $12.5 million to fund the project.

Columbus College of Art and Design (Columbus, OH)

Columbus College of Art and Design
Wiki Historian N OH, Columbus College of Art and Design, CC BY-SA 3.0

Like the first two schools on the list, Columbus College is among the oldest colleges for art in the country, establishing itself as an institution in 1879. 

Every year, CCAD puts on a campus-wide, juried art show displaying exemplary works by student artists in every major. The show, titled Chroma: Best of CCAD, features over 1,000 works by student artists annually.

One of CCAD’s most impressive programs is in fashion design. Every year, students can participate in the CCAD Fashion Show, a highly anticipated event complete with runway models and original student fashion on full display. This event attracts hundreds of spectators every year, ranging from normal residents of Columbus to major fashion brands, designers, and directors. 

Due in part to the influence of CCAD’s fashion design program, Columbus, Ohio ranks third for most fashion designers in any city in the US.

Students at CCAD also have the opportunity to gain firsthand experience selling their own work. Through the twice-yearly CCAD art fair, students and alumni of CCAD have the chance to sell their own work. In some art fairs at CCAD, total sales have reached six figures.

CCAD holds a special partnership with an adjacent institution, the Columbus Museum of Art. For nearly 90 years, the two have maintained a unique relationship, with CCAD students and faculty routinely seeing new works by modern, cutting-edge artists featured at the CMA.

Kansas City Art Institute (Kansas City, MO)

Kansas City Art Institute
Architect unknown., Kansas City Art Institute lawn view, marked as public domain

The Kansas City Art Institute has every possible major an artist could want to study, ranging from filmmaking to fiber arts to animation and everything in between. KCAI has some of the smallest classroom sizes of any art school, with the student-to-teacher ratio being an exceptionally comfortable 9:1.

KCAI is home to a vibrant arts community both in and out of the classroom. Tucked away in Kansas City’s premier arts district, the Kansas City Art Institute finds itself adjacent to two seminal arts museums, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. These museums and KCAI have held an extraordinary partnership for several decades, providing students with some of the best opportunities to see contemporary art in practice.

One thing that stands out about KCAI is the exceptional quality of faculty. Faculty members are not only experienced teachers, they are outstanding artists and scholars themselves. One of KCAI’s most celebrated faculty members is photographer Cyan Meeks, a video artist & filmmaker whose works have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, Chicago Cultural Center, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

In 2015, KCAI received the single largest donation in its history, an anonymous $25 million gift. This outstanding contribution has been used towards facilities renovation as well as significantly increasing scholarships for incoming students.

For students interested in arts entrepreneurship, a unique program exists between KCAI and the nearby University of Missouri at Kansas City Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

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