The 15 Top Art Schools in the United States
The art world has become increasingly professionalized, which means a Master of Fine Arts degree is now often a necessary step on the road to gallery representation and critical acclaim. We tallied some of the best programs in the United States—taking into account tuition fees, admission rates, and first-hand feedback from faculty and alumni—in order to spotlight 15 programs that are worth your time (and money).
Location: New Haven, Connecticut
Annual Tuition: $36,359
Programs of Note: Painting and Printmaking, Photography, Sculpture
For years, Yale has topped nearly every annual survey of the best MFA programs in the nation because, well, it’s Yale—one of the oldest and most prestigious academic institutions in America. Don’t let its 300-plus-year history and Hogwarts-like campus fool you, though; Yale’s school of art is hip to the times, as evidenced by its post-internet, irony-saturated website populated with random GIFs. Like any Ivy League school, the competition is as high as the annual tuition, but perhaps worth it. While the school offers numerous specializations, painting and photography stand out. Students may also work with the likes of Roni Horn, Richard Prince, Shirin Neshat, and Brent Howard; upon graduation they’ll join the alumni ranks of Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Wangechi Mutu, and Dawoud Bey.
Location: New Brunswick, New Jersey
Annual Tuition: $18,216 (resident), $28,800 (non-resident)
(with full fellowships for all admitted MFA students)
Programs of Note: Painting and Drawing
The various visual and performing arts programs of Rutgers consolidated and took on the name Mason Gross School of the Arts in the 1970s, but the visual art legacy of the institution extends further back than that. In the early 1950s, Allan Kaprow began teaching at this historic state university; there, he helped start the Fluxus group alongside professors like Robert Watts, Geoffrey Hendricks, and Roy Lichtenstein; artists George Brecht and George Segal; and undergrads Lucas Samaras and Robert Whitman. The program’s excellence continues today, with the likes of Kara Walker currently serving as Endowed Chair, and alums like Joan Snyder, Clifford Owens, and Pope.L. Students also enjoy the added benefit of having a thesis exhibition held in New York City each year, in addition to a show in New Jersey (plus the fact that the galleries of Manhattan are less than an hour away via the lovely NJ Transit).
Location: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Annual Tuition: $21,919
Programs of Note: Painting, Sculpture; Film and Video
Situated on over 500 acres of land along the Hudson, on the grounds of two historic riverside estates, Bard’s idyllic campus in upstate New York is the stuff of an Edith Wharton-inspired fantasy. The school is credited with starting the first low-residency MFA program, with students gathering for eight-week summer sessions that split up their independent study, in total lasting under three years. The flexible schedule makes it easy for influential artists like Adam Pendleton, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, and Emily Jacir to lend their time as professors. Sadie Benning and Paul Chan are both part of the “Bard Mafia,” the nickname for the school’s influential alumni network. And you’re likely to run into other art-world heavy hitters on campus, as Bard continues to enrich its larger program, appointing former New Museum curator Lauren Cornell as director of its Curatorial Studies graduate program and chief curator of its Hessel Museum of Art this year.
Maryland Institute College of Art
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Annual Tuition: $45,290
Programs of Note: Painting, Sculpture, Photographic and Electronic Media
Founded in 1826, MICA is the oldest continuously degree-granting college of art in the U.S. That’s no simple feat given that the school has burned down twice since then, the first time on February 7, 1835, and again (weirdly enough, also on February 7th) during the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. The Chronicle of Higher Education listed MICA as one of the nation’s top producers of Fulbright Fellows among specialty schools and the institution counts artists like Jeff Koons, Elaine Hamilton, Lesley Dill, and Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson among its former students. Courses of study include Community Arts—focused on “art practice as a means of civic empowerment, community organizing and development, activism, education and more”—as well as filmmaking, graphic design, and a low-residency summer program for Studio Art.
Virginia Commonwealth University
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Annual Tuition: $15,483 (resident), $28,164 (non-resident)
Programs of Note: Sculpture, Glass, Graphic Design
US News & World Report named VCU among the the top two public university art schools (tied with UCLA, also on our list), helped in part by its robust Sculpture and Extended Media program, currently helmed by Matt King. Its foundry and metal fabrication shop are state-of-the-art, which is perfect if you’re looking to work with stone, metals, or other heavy-duty industrial materials (much like alumni, and MacArthur “genius” grant winners, Tara Donovan and Teresita Fernández have in the past). The school prides itself on inviting established talent to campus as visiting faculty or visiting artists; past participants include Matthew Day Jackson, Spencer Finch, and Fawn Krieger.
Cranbrook Academy of Art
Location: Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Annual Tuition: $35,406
Programs of Note: Fiber, Ceramics, Print Media
Officially christened an art and design school in 1932, the Cranbrook Academy of Art was once known as the cradle of American modernism. Its campus, hidden away in an affluent Detroit suburb, is like The Fountainhead come to life: Its Arts and Crafts and Art Deco-style buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The school is unique in that it only offers graduate-level degrees; all students must enroll full-time and you need 60 total credit hours to graduate. But the curriculum is DIY and there are no mandatory classes, so students are free to build a schedule entirely suited to their individual interests under the tutelage of faculty like Liz Cohen, Ian McDonald, and Beverly Fishman. Donald Lipski, Nick Cave, and Charles and Ray Eames are among this institution’s noted alumni.
California Institute of the Arts
Location: Valencia, California
Annual Tuition: $46,830
Programs of Note: Film and Video; Photography and Media; Art; Art and Technology
Walt Disney founded this Tinsel Town establishment in 1961 by merging the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to make the first higher-education institution that combined both visual and performing arts. His idea for CalArts’s interdisciplinary approach came from 19th-century composer Richard Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning “total artwork.” The school hit its stride in the1970s when it brought on staff like Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, and Allan Kaprow. Baldessari instituted a “post-studio art” course, the crits for which infamously lasted 10 or more hours. Since then, the school has maintained (mercifully) less intense but still rigorous academics taught by the likes of Sam Durant, Sharon Lockhart, and Martine Syms. Its graduates include Ross Bleckner, Mark Bradford, and Mike Kelley, Eric Fischl, and Laura Owens, to name a very few.
Hunter College, City University of New York
Location: New York, New York
Annual Tuition: $6,556–$7,832 (resident), $11,882–$14,040 (non-resident)
Programs of Note: Studio Art (the sole official MFA offering includes concentrations in Painting, Photography, Clay and Casting, Printmaking, and other disciplines)
As a state school, Hunter offers a big bang for your buck. Students get all the cultural benefits of being located in central Manhattan but pay half the price of most other MFA programs in the city. Moreover, the average Hunter grad student takes only six to nine credit hours a semester, with the goal of finishing the program in under three years. This course structure allows many to hold part-time jobs for the duration of their degree program, and most students leave with little to no student debt—a rarity in today’s loan-laden education environment. (We’ve also heard rumors from certain alumni that the ample studio space is an added incentive to stretch out your time as as a student.) Hunter may offer a bargain, but its curriculum is still top-notch, and the school currently boasts faculty members such as Andrea Blum, Constance DeJong, Carrie Moyer, and Nari Ward.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Annual Tuition: $48,452
Programs of Note: Art, Culture and Technology
Created in 2009, MIT’s Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) is the newest on our list. (We’re cheating every so slightly here, as the program is technically a Master of Science, not an MFA). It’s the product of a merger between the school’s Visual Arts Program and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the latter of which was founded in 1967 by László Moholy-Nagy’s collaborator György Kepes and produced many successful interdisciplinary artists, such as Jill Magid and Michael Rakowitz. According to director Gediminas Urbonas, ACT “isn’t an art school in the traditional sense”—but of course, the boundaries between visual culture, research, and other fields are constantly eroding. ACT’s graduate program only admits six students per year and focuses on artistic practices that combine visual studies and experimentation, offering artists opportunities to work between other programs and labs at MIT. The faculty is small, but boasts the inimitable Joan Jonas as professor emerita.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Annual Tuition: $48,750
Programs of Note: Painting and Drawing; Film, Video, New Media, and Animation; Fiber and Material Studies
Save your pennies if you want to enroll here—SAIC was recently reported to have one one of the highest price tags of any private school in the nation after subtracting the average amount of government and institutional grants bestowed each year. That said, the institution is consistently ranked among the top three art schools in the U.S. thanks to an all-star faculty including artists Michelle Grabner, Nick Cave, and Eduardo Kac. SAIC has always been a museum school, which means students have ample access to the esteemed collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; in fact, artist studios and work facilities are located both within the institute and directly across the street. Notable alumni include a slew of Chicago Imagists (Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, and Ed Paschke); Georgia O’Keeffe; Nancy Spero; and Kanye West, if you count the honorary doctorate they gave him in 2015.
Rhode Island School of Design
Location: Providence, Rhode Island
Annual Tuition: $48,210
Programs of Note: Painting, Architecture
RISD is renowned for a technically driven curriculum, so if you prefer to spend more time getting dirty in the studio than reading critical theory, this is the place for you. Classes are generally pretty small, too, with a student-to-teacher ratio of 10 to one, so you’re guaranteed quality time with your peers and professors. Programs of study include painting, sculpture, and photography, as well as furniture design and glass. Roughly 90 percent of graduates from RISD find work within three years, with over 60 percent of those landing a job directly related to their field of study. Alums include Andrea Zittel, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, and Ryan Trecartin.
University of California, Los Angeles
Location: Los Angeles, California
Annual Tuition: $16,818 (resident), $31,920 (non-resident)
Programs of Note: Painting / Drawing, Time-Based and New Media; Photography, Sculpture
Known for its competitive “New Genres” program—spanning installation, video, film, audio, performance, and assorted digital mediums—this unique area of study questions “preconceived notions of the role of art in culture and its relationship to a specific form or medium,” according to the school’s literature. On the whole, UCLA offers Ivy League quality at state school prices. Students work under the sage tutelage of top faculty like Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger, and Andrea Fraser; notable alumni include John Divola and Elliott Hundley.
Location: New York, New York
Annual Tuition: $58,728
Programs of Note: Visual Arts (the sole official MFA offering is an umbrella category covering courses ranging from digital media to performance, painting, and sculpture)
As with most Ivies, Columbia’s exclusivity only increases its allure. The roughly two percent of applicants that get in not only enjoy the myriad art-related amenities of Manhattan, but also rigorous academics taught by the likes of Sanford Biggers, Sarah Sze, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. While you have to declare a field of study to apply—painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, or “new genres”—there’s a lot of interdisciplinary wiggle room once it comes time to select your courses. Derrick Adams, David Altmejd, Dineo Seshee Bopape, and Natalie Frank all have Columbia MFAs in common. “Looking back on my 2006 MFA from Columbia, I can’t believe I had the chance to sit around and talk about art and my own work with my heroines,” Frank says, citing the experience of working with artists like Coco Fusco and Kara Walker, among many others. (That said, don’t apply hoping to work with Walker in 2018: She’s since left the school.) “The rigor of the dialogue and the unexpected psychological intensity of the amount of studio visits could be overwhelming,” Frank continues. “But I really think this helped prepared me for what life afterwards could be like.”
Portland State University
Location: Portland, Oregon
Annual Tuition: $13,440 (resident), $19,740 (non-resident)
Programs of Note: Social Practice
PSU offers traditional studio-based MFA programs, but what sets it apart is its unique Art + Social Practice concentration, which socially engaged artist Harrell Fletcher instituted 10 years ago. “Social practice is a term that people now know, and there’s a kind of integration happening with studio-based practices,” he says. “Even in traditional MFA programs, you see more and more artists including participatory, collaborative, performative, site-specific elements into their work.” The three-year, flexible residency program combines individual research, group work, and experiential learning. Although small—admitting only a handful of students per year—major artists working in this increasingly popular field have featured as faculty there, from Jen Delos Reyes to Shannon Jackson, Pablo Helguera, and Tania Bruguera.
Savannah College of Art and Design
Location: Savannah, Georgia
Annual Tuition: $36,765
Programs of Note: Animation, Film & TV, Performing Arts, Graphic Design
Nestled in the picturesque antebellum town of Savannah, Georgia, SCAD was founded with one building and fewer than 80 students in 1978. It has grown aggressively ever since, and is now is a sprawling behemoth with satellite campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France. The school’s annual deFINE Art Festival is another perk, bringing a program of lectures and exhibitions to town; previous year’s iterations have introduced the student body to critics (Jerry Saltz) and artists like Xu Bing and Jack Whitten. SCAD is more commercially minded than others on our list, and is well-regarded for its animation and graphic design programs. It’s also always lauded itself for being digitally driven—according to co-founder Paula Wallace, SCAD was the first school to receive shipments of Commodore’s Amiga computers in the 1980s. Alumni include painter José Parlá, Academy Award-winning special effects artist Mir Zafar Ali, and M. Alice LeGrow, the cartoonist behind the successful new gothic graphic novel series, Bizenghast.
Tuition amounts are based on the 2017–18 school year.
Cover image: Savannah College of Art and Design’s Poetter Hall. Courtesy of SCAD.
A previous version of this article listed the tuition for Rutgers University as $18,216 for residents and $28,800 for non-residents. As of 2016, all admitted MFA students at Rutgers receive fellowships to cover the full cost of tuition, and the article has been updated to reflect this fact.
The article has also been updated to reflect that Rutgers students have thesis exhibitions in both New Jersey and New York City, rather than only in New York, and that Kara Walker is serving as Endowed Chair at Rutgers, rather than as a staff member.