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

10. 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.

9. 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.

8. 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.

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