To help budding young artists, I’d like to share my experiences attending the California College of the Arts. If you’re thinking about applying to CCA, please feel free to read on. Don’t forget to contact the admissions office, tour the campus, and attend public events such as the Open Studios, MFA exhibitions and lectures.
I went to CCA straight out of high school in 1998—which worked because I was committed to being an artist. It was a wonderful experience. I did a lot of growing up really fast.
The good: Small size of classes, small student body, diverse age range (this is no longer true: CCA’s grown a lot and the median age has dropped due to a demographic bump in society at large). Great facilities. Majored in Printmaking, which allowed a very flexible, independent course of study. Dabbled in Illustration with Barron Storey, poetry with Michael McClure, and glassblowing — electives you might not get anywhere else. Lots of opportunities to exhibit art on campus, and high quality of production among my peers.
The bad: Expensive. Not very diverse. When I attended, there were few community programs or opportunities to teach (which has changed since then).
The scoop: You get in what you put in. The school emphasizes studio practice and experimentation—you can just do your assignments or you could self-motivate and develop a real studio practice. Remember that being a good student doesn’t make you a good artist. And, I took humanities classes at a JC. For the math and sciences requirements (fulfilled with a liberal arts math course and oceanography!), it seemed just as well, and a lot cheaper.
Thinking about it.
Knowing when it’s time. I was very satisfied with my undergrad education. What I missed—community engagement—I got through working with community organizations for several years. Though I stayed in the same region, I lost contact with my peers, and a support network and sense of connection to contemporary art. After 7 years of being out of school, I felt like my studio practice was not advancing. My undergrad education had taken me as far as it could go.
Applying. I should have researched the top schools, those that offer fellowships (like Stanford and UC Berkeley), identified the right fits for me, and build up a body of work for a killer application. Instead, I applied to grad school on a whim. CCA accepted me, and I was offered a scholarship I couldn’t refuse.
Craft. It’s a great program if you want to refine your conceptual approach and learn about contemporary practices. It’s not great if you want to gain lots of technical skills. Technical advancement is just not part of the curriculum structure; the short duration makes it even hard to fit time-consuming skills development in. Re: the CCA(C) debacle (the college, formerly known as California College of Arts and Crafts, dropped the “C” for Crafts a few years ago). It’s a passionately big deal for some, but not for me. The excellent textile, glass, printmaking and ceramics facilities remain.
Duration. CCA’s MFA program is two years—some programs are three. By the end of two years I was dying to get out; on the other hand, the four semesters flew by and I could easily used another year to incubate my ideas. Because of the short duration, I wanted a really intensive experience, and I believe that if you can avoid working while you’re in the graduate program, it’s worth it. For example, on-campus work-study jobs pay about $11/hour, but one session of one class costs around $200. It seems to me that making the most of the program is a better return on your time.
Size. The grad program is huge. My class had 50 students — compare this to Stanford or UC Berkeley, which admit 5-10 MFA students a year. The program continues to grow, and I can’t help but wonder if opportunities to build meaningful relationships with peers and faculty diminish.
Campuses. Two campuses: Oakland has mostly fine art facilities and undergrad classrooms. Grad studios and classes are located in SF. The commute is a daily reality to take into consideration. I think my colleagues who lived in the city didn’t take advantage of the Oakland campus’ facilities and library resources nearly enough.
Studio. You get a decent-sized studio. As mentioned, you get what you put in. Reviews, crits, open houses—your space is yours to re-arrange, so you might as well make the most out of it as both a work space and gallery space.
The good: The Studio Practice Unit format allows you to work with amazing faculty and guests from the public realm. Find allies like Ted Purves, who’s super smart and easy to talk to… knowledgeable about contemporary art yet it doesn’t limit his field of references. Be imaginative and self-directed. Work with professional gallerists and dealers—since they’re not a part of an academic system, they have no reason to mince their words. Try to balance your courseload with at least one instructor who supports you and one who terrifies you. I also enjoyed Writing electives with interesting thinkers like Kevin Killian. Aggressively take advantage of all the perks, like the media center, high-tech wood and design shops, print output services, etc. Go to as many lectures as you can (at CCA and SFAI, since they’re almost always free and open to the public), and to the Wattis shows. Get used to talking about your work. If you don’t like talking about your work, take grad school as an opportunity to learn to like it. There’s hardly any professional development in the curriculum, so getting comfortable presenting about your ideas is one of the most pragmatic skills you will leave with.
The bad: CCA’s grad program has a strange relationship with some of the departments, which might be characterized as inconsistent at best, antagonistic at worst. Not all grad schools operate this way (i.e., instead of a degree in Printmaking you’d get a degree in Studio Art), but CCA does, and what is expected of you can seem murky. Your receptivity is key to having a transformative grad experience, but the bottom line is that you define your practice at the end of the day.
The scoop: When it comes to Records and Accounts, the school can be bureaucratic in the worst way. Financial safety nets will come in handy. Participate in art-life on and off campus. Be aware that life in grad school is much different than life outside of grad school. This can take a surprising toll on your relationships.