Art Schools Offer High-School Students a Summer Preview

Christina Pettersson got a taste of art school from a summer program when she was in high school. (Photo courtesy of Petterson)

By Daniel Grant

For many high-school students, college is a given and the main question is what kind to attend—large, small, public, private, near, far. Teens with an aptitude for art, however, must first decide between liberal-arts college and art school. They have to figure out how committed they are to developing their skills, how ready they are to make a life decision at such a young age, and how good at art they really are in the first place.

To help them sort that out, some art schools, and a few liberal-arts colleges with strong fine-art programs, offer teens a summer taste of intensive classes, sometimes for college credit.

“It was my first time being away from home, and the first time that I was allowed to do just art,” says Christina Pettersson, a multimedia artist in Miami who attended the pre-college program at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1993, the summer before her senior year in high school.

Pre-college studio-art programs are mostly four- and five-week residential affairs taking place during the summer, although a few art schools also offer Saturday classes that last a full semester, and others provide art instruction abroad. (See the “Other Options” list below.)

What the summer programs definitely are not is camp.

“There is class from 9:00 to 12:15, then lunch, then class from 1:00 to 4:15, with homework in the evening,” says James Chansky, director of summer special programs at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., one of the few liberal-arts colleges to offer a pre-college studio-art summer program. “They have to be pretty serious about art to do this program, and they’ll know by the end if they are serious enough to want to concentrate in art in college.”

Skidmore’s program, which was started in 1968, is competitive, requiring interested teens in their sophomore, junior, or senior years to submit an application, school transcript, two letters of recommendation, and images of their artwork (on slides or CD-ROM’s). One hundred students (60 percent female on average) are selected for the five-week residential program that costs $6,000, with 40 percent of students on some form of financial aid.

Skidmore loses one or two students per summer to homesickness, actual sickness, or for some disciplinary reason. But the rest get to know something about art training, college life, and Skidmore in particular, and Skidmore learns about them. Usually, 10 or 12 pre-college students end up applying to Skidmore for college, looking to major in its bachelor of science studio-art program, “and half of them are accepted,” Chansky says. “We look at this program as a means of finding strong and interesting applicants.”

Skidmore students choose between taking classes for college credit and being graded or foregoing both credit and grades, “to take the pressure off,” says Chansky. The California College of the Arts, with campuses in San Francisco and Oakland, doesn’t require rising sophomores to submit either a transcript or portfolio with their applications to its four-week, 250-student, pre-college program, because that “adds to the pressure many of them feel already,” says Nina Sadek, dean of special programs. “Students here are pretty self-selecting.” However, applicants who seek financial aid—$2,750 in tuition and another $875 that covers dormitory room and board—are asked to send a transcript and images for need- and merit-based scholarships.

In addition to instruction by regular California College of the Arts faculty, tuition also covers all art materials and weekend field trips. “It occurred to us some years ago—duh!—that some of these kids are from the East Coast and have never seen the Pacific Ocean, so we scheduled trips to the ocean, to Muir Woods and some other landmarks, as well as to the city art museums,” Sadek says. Whether it is the ocean or the college, every year 15 percent of the pre-college participants like the experience enough to apply for the Bachelor of Fine Arts program, “and a high percentage of them are accepted.”

Between 10 and 20 percent of students at the six-week-long summer pre-college program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh apply and are accepted to the B.F.A. program in its school of art. While “our intention is not to have this be a pre-enrollment program,” says director Janice Hart, many of the students “come from quite a distance to see what this school is really like.”

Candidates are required to fill out a lengthy application form, submit a high-school transcript, PSAT board scores, and two letters of recommendation, but no portfolio. Like Sadek, Hart says that students are “self-selecting. Someone who isn’t interested in art, or who isn’t pretty good at it, wouldn’t bother to apply.” However, the focus on grades and board scores reflects the fact the university’s admissions department, which evaluates the applications, is looking at these students as potential college applicants and would not “want to take a student with C’s and D’s, because Carnegie Mellon would never take a student with those kinds of grades.”

Not every institution with a pre-college studio-art program relies on its own art faculty to teach these teens. In many cases, there is a mix of regular faculty and others (community-center and high-school art teachers, for instance) who have an extensive background working with younger populations. In part, that is done to help lessen the pressure that teens may feel in a professional setting.

Similar to Skidmore College, the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore., also allows its 30 pre-college students to choose between credit and grades or no credit and grades, but it charges a higher tuition for credit ($3,237) than for noncredit ($1,295) and the residential and meal plan is the same for both ($1,295). The seriousness of purpose is reinforced for applicants directly through telephone conversations with the teens and/or their parents by members of Pacific Northwest College of Art’s department of continuing education, which runs the program.

In their own ways, each pre-college program looks to replicate art-school curricula. The first two weeks at Pacific Northwest College of Art, for instance, focus on traditional foundation courses, examining two- and three-dimensional design and concept, with the remaining two weeks concentrating on particular art media—specifically, painting and sculpture, design, or the graphic novel. Skidmore and the Maryland Institute College of Art approximate the art-school experience by having students take both studio-art and art-history courses—another, if related, area that is probably new and challenging to teens. At the Maryland Institute program, which has 250 students and started in 1993, grades and college credit are not optional, but Tracy Jacobs, director of special programs at the art school, noted that “students mostly get A’s and B’s. It’s challenging, but it’s really not scary.”

The culture of most high schools prizes athletic over artistic prowess, and these summer programs allow students with a strong interest in art to pursue it at a higher level. “You get that quirky kid who likes art, who’s really good at art and is an outcast at the high school he or she goes to,” Sadek says, “but they come here and their life is changed.”

But if the programs confirm many participants’ commitment to studying art full-time, they help others know that this may not be the right type of education for them.

“I was ambivalent about my choices,” says Rafael Kelman, who went to the pre-college program at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2005 but ultimately decided to attend a liberal-arts college. He double-majored in religion and the visual arts at Marlboro College in Vermont, from which he graduated in 2009. Through the art-school summer experience, Kelman found that he “didn’t want to study art a lot, even in a B.A. program,” he says. Still, it wasn’t a waste of time, “since I found out what I might be missing. It confirmed that a B.A. program was right for me.”

But for Christina Petterson, the artist in Miami, the summer RISD experience enabled her to answer some questions about art school. “I wondered, ‘Do I want to do this all the time? Do I want to be around just artists?’” The answers were yes, because that fall she applied to several art schools, as well as to “a couple of universities, because my parents wanted me to have a back-up plan, but I knew I just wanted to go to an art school.”

She was accepted into both RISD and the Maryland Institute College of Art, picking the latter because it offered a larger scholarship.

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SOME OTHER OPTIONS:

Parsons The New School of Design and Cooper Union School of Art, both in New York City, offer fall and spring semester-long Saturday-morning art courses for teens in a variety of disciplines. Those at Cooper Union are free and taught by undergraduates, while Parsons classes are led by regular instructors and cost $410 per semester. Both schools also have summer programs. Cooper Union offers a four-week drawing intensive course and a six-week two- and three-dimensional course (both free, noncredit, and non-residential). Parsons has two options: a two-week, full-day noncredit summer program ($1,025, nonresidential) and a four-week summer intensive in either New York City ($3,060 tuition plus $2,400 dormitory housing and meal plan) or in Paris ($6,235, which includes air fare). Both are for college credit. The Art Institute of Chicago has Saturday courses for teens that may be taken as an audit, or not for credit ($425), or for grades and credit ($1,231), as well as residential two-week ($2,995 for tuition and housing, no meals, some art supplies, two college credits) and three-week ($4,495 for tuition and housing, no meals, some art supplies, three college credits) pre-college programs in the summer.

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Daniel Grant is the author of several books on the arts, all published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist (4th edition, 2010), Selling Art Without Galleries (2006), and The Fine Artist’s Career Guide (2nd edition, 2004). He has been a features reporter at Newsday and The Commercial-Appeal, a contributing editor for American Artist magazine, and a regular contributor to ARTnews magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

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