University Review: Academy of Art University in San Francisco

Academy of Art University

Academy of Art University in San Francisco began as a small college and has grown into a top rated arts university since its inception in 1929. Academy of Art University provides educational courses for aspiring professionals in the areas of art, design, and communications, with undergraduate and graduate degree programs as well as certificate and portfolio development programs for non-degree seeking students and professionals.

In this review, we will explore Academy of Art University’s history, areas of study the school provides among other factors in order to provide an accurate rating for the comment prospective art student.

The History of San Francisco’s Prestigious Academy of Art University

Richard S. Stephens, Art Director for Sunset Magazine, originally founded the Academy of Art University in 1929 along with his wife Clara, as the Académie of Advertising Art. Its first location was a rented loft, and its student body consisted of a mere 45 students. By 1946 the Academy had expanded its enrollment to 250 students, and had also expanded its offerings to include courses in Advertising and Cartooning, Commercial Art, Fashion Illustration, and Lettering & Layout.

Leadership of the Academy was passed on to Richard A. Stephens, son of the Academy’s original founders, in 1951, and the school expanded its enrollment to 5,000 students. It was during this time that the Academy added its renowned Transportation Design department along with its classic car collection, which is one of the largest in the country. In the mid-1960s the Academy began to offer a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art (BFA) and was quickly building its reputation as one of the most prestigious art and design schools in the country. By the late 1970’s The University also began to offer Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees, further cementing its national reputation, and in the mid-80s gained accreditation from NASAD (National Association of Schools of Art and Design).

Today, the institution is one of the country’s most prestigious art schools and is headed by Elisa Stephens, granddaughter of the original founders, who has further expanded the University’s curriculum, degree programs, and accreditation. Academy of Art University now has en enrollment of about 13,000 students that include graduates, undergraduates, and accreditation students. The university has also taken significant measures to reduce its carbon imprint by implementing such environmentally-conscious policies as converting its entire fleet of shuttle buses to bio-diesel fuel, installing less wasteful LED lighting across campuses, and implementing a campus-wide composting and recycling program.

Academy of Art University Academic Offerings

Academy of Art University is a natural outgrowth of the eclectic and iconoclastic city that is San Francisco, California. Embodying the bold, non-conformist spirit of San Francisco, the Academy of Art University has always been proud to represent the vanguard of forward-thinking innovation and out-of-the-box creativity that characterizes this very special and unique city. Back in the 1940’s this innovative spirit expressed itself through the teaching of bold, new disciplines such as Cartooning, Lettering & Layout, Fashion Illustration, and Advertising & Commercial Art, all of which nurtured and helped shape the newly emerging, exciting creative careers of the day. By the early 1950’s that same innovative spirit launched the development of the Transportation Design Department, through which students focused on design concepts for the automotive, rail, bus, and airline industry. The Academy continues to fuel its lifelong passion for creative innovation in today’s curriculum and course offerings, with departments and specialized degree programs that combine art and technology to prepare and groom specialized creative professionals armed with mastery of today’s most cutting edge technology.

Students at Academy of Art University may choose from such disciplinary specialties as Acting, Architecture, Fashion, Game Development, Graphic Design, Photography, or Motion Pictures and Television, as well as a slew of other creative concentrations as their primary area of study. Among the assortment of undergraduate and graduate degree programs offered at Academy of Art University, some examples of today’s most innovative course offerings and popular degree programs include the following:

The Academy of Art University’s Animation and Visual Effects Department offers one of the most exciting and comprehensive programs in the country. Students in the Animation & Visual Effects BFA program learn to master the digital technology skills as well as the creative vision required to drive today’s many market applications. Students may choose one major area of concentration, be it storyboarding, visual effects, 3D modeling, 3D animation, or 2D animation and stop motion. If your dream is to work as a storyboard or visual effects artist, or a 2D or 3D animator, the school offers you the opportunity to study with some of today’s most renowned professionals in the visual effects and animation industry.

Visual development is a growing and lucrative creative field that is highly prized in today’s increasingly visual culture. Visual development artists are those that conceive and design elaborate scenes and characters for movies, apps, and video games. Students in the BFA program at the Academy’s School of Visual Development receive a dynamic education taught by the industry’s top professionals in the art of scene and set design, with a focus on composition, perspective, setting and environment design, as well as figure drawing and character design. Other core elements of this major include photography, figure modeling, concept paintings, form analysis, narrative principles, as well as visual development for animation, perspectives for video game design, and other essential design courses.

The university’s Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Communications & Media Technologies program prepares aspiring creative professionals for careers in the expanding and exciting field of media and communications. Students in this BA program gain mastery of technology as well as advanced design skills to keep up with the ever-expanding global media environment, ranging from broadcast to streaming applications, mobile apps, and social media platforms. The program focuses on advanced education and mastery of essential global media skills, such as broadcasting, journalism, story development, and mobile applications. Working with seasoned industry experts, students get hands-on experience in media production, learning to write, shoot, edit, and transmit their own productions, taking advantage of today’s advanced technologies and platforms to stream and broadcast their work.

Students who are seeking careers in music and sound design can earn a BFA from the Academy of Art University in Music and Sound Design for Visual Media, which provides advanced studies in composition, music notation, film scoring, harmony, orchestration, and sound design, as well as recording, editing, and audio mixing technology. Working with leading industry professionals, students learn to apply these skills to industry applications such as movies, television, mobile apps, and video games.


The school’s BFA program in Web Design & New Media prepares students for lucrative and dynamic careers in digital media and experiential design. The program stresses an integrated approach anchored in four essential areas of study, which include design thinking, visual communication, technology, and user experience. The curriculum emphasizes courses in visual design, user experience, design strategies, web design, and motion graphics. This program develops mastery in strategic thinking, production, and contemporary technology, contributing to creative design and new media innovation at the global level. Taught by San Francisco Bay Area creative professionals successfully working in the field, students in this program enjoy a unique opportunity to work with instructors who are immersed and seasoned in the industry.

Admissions and Financial Aid

Academy of Art University provides degree programs for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as shorter-term certification programs for non-degree seeking students, and maintains a diverse admissions policy that welcomes students from around the world and all walks of life. Whether the goal is an Associate, Bachelors, or Masters Degree, an Online Award of Completion, or a Certificate program, students determine their own advancement goals and choose the number of classes they register for each semester. Applicants may also speak to a university admissions advisor to learn more about the graduation requirements for each program.

While an art portfolio is not a requirement for admission, a good portfolio will definitely give you an edge when it comes to the admissions process. As with any university, you will need official transcripts from any other educational institutions you’ve attended, as well as evidence of any prior diplomas or degrees received.

The Academy of Art University application fee will be waived for men and women serving in the US Armed Forces, whether through active duty or as a reservist. You must be actively serving during the semester for which you are applying in order to qualify for this fee waiver.

Academy of Art University offers an array of scholarships that have provided financial assistance for over 45,000 students over the university’s history to help them pursue their art and design education and develop lucrative creative careers. The university also provides a variety of inexpensive opportunities for high school students and teachers to prepare for art and design careers, as well as special assistance opportunities for first-year students at the Academy.

Location and Perks

Academy of Art University is an offshoot, as well as an essential component, of the creative landscape of San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area, while also playing a major role as a contributor of top art and design professionals for local creative industries.

Located in the vibrant and eclectic city of San Francisco, near its buzzing financial district, colorful Chinatown, and its many art galleries and museums, Academy of Art University is surrounded by the eccentricity and counterculture that has made San Francisco famous. Benefitting from excellent public transportation in the form of streetcars, electric buses, cable cars, and the subterranean Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, the university campus is easily accessible and surrounded by a landscape of contemporary innovation and creativity.

The culture of San Francisco is known for its cutting edge arts, music, museums, and cultural offerings, its diverse global cuisine, and its array of international festivals, cozy neighborhoods, and non-imposing architecture. One of the most diverse cities in the United States, San Francisco’s progressive and free-spirited urban culture has greatly impacted the culture of the United States as well as the world at large since the early days of the school.

Gaining notoriety in the 1950s as the hub of the famed Beat poets, by the mid-1960s San Francisco had developed a national and international reputation as a gathering place for the most beloved artists of the day. Figures such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix brought incomparable hipness to the Haight Asbury neighborhood, and hippies and flower children flocked to the city by the thousands to camp out in the breathtaking green spaces of Golden Gate Park during the still-talked-about ‘Summer of Love’ in 1968. Leading the way for innovation in political and social norms, health-conscious and environmentally-sound living, as well as creative thinking and innovative design, San Francisco came to be known as “The City that Knows How.”

Beloved for its winding hills and gorgeous hilltop views of the glimmering San Francisco Bay, and graced by colorful Victorian architecture, San Francisco has grown tremendously in population in recent years, thanks in large part to the presence of nearby Silicon Valley, the home of the United States’ tech revolution. This phenomenon has driven housing prices to new heights, and in fact the cost of living in the City by the Bay is among the most expensive in the entire United States.

Still, despite its challenges as a rapidly growing urban hub, San Francisco remains a haven for artists and creatives in the contemporary U.S. In an international study published in 2015 by UNESCO ranking cities by concentration of creative professionals, San Francisco was ranked fourth in the entire world. The city takes great pride in its multicultural arts scene and boasts a higher concentration of artists and art organizations per capita than any other major city in the United States.

According to World Cities Forum, public and private funding at the local and State level for cultural organizations in San Francisco is also higher in comparison to most other U.S. cities, and San Francisco organizations and artists enjoy the highest rates of funding from the National Endowment for the arts. The San Francisco city government also invests more per capita on arts and culture than other comparable U.S. cities. The San Francisco Arts Commission has a commitment to achieving and maintaining cultural equity, supporting diverse cultural voices through its Cultural Equity Initiative program, which is funded by an endowment and disburses grants to underserved communities to support cultural projects.

San Francisco’s cultural richness contributes to its local economy by attracting national and international tourism. In fact, cultural tourism specifically generates $1.7 billion yearly in local revenues, providing economic benefits for city residents.

Academy of Art University sits in the midst of the city’s many cultural institutions, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), recently renovated in 2016 with a ten-story addition that tripled its gallery space and added 45,000 square feet, making SFMoMA the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S. Other cultural attractions in the city include the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), the Asian Art Museum, and the M.H. De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, a stunning architectural masterpiece by Herzog & De Meuron. The school also boats the Academy of Art University Automobile Museum, showing off decades of automotive design and concept.

Academy of Art University Alumni Success

One distinguished alumni of Academy of Art University is Jan Philip Cramer, the ead of the Animation Department at Digital Domain, where he has worked on such acclaimed feature films as Avatar, Deadpool and Avengers: Infinity War. A 2004 graduate of the School of Animation & Visual Effects, Cramer has accumulated an impressive list of film credits including some of the highest-grossing feature films of recent years, and left his mark on the industry by creating some of the most famous animation sequences in contemporary film history.

Stephanie Thomas, a 2013 graduate who earned an MA in Fashion Journalism from the Academy of Art University’s Fashion Department is a fashion stylist and creator of Cur8able, a website devoted to fashion design for the disabled community that empowers individuals with disabilities by providing truly worthy fashion options.

Jesse Witt, a Digital Artist with Cosa VFX and a 2015 graduate, has worked on such prominent projects as Person of Interest, Gotham, Agents of Shield, and Stranger Things. Kendall Long, Creative Director for WhoHaha has designed and built sets for MTV’s Ridiculousness, Escape the Living Dead, TLC’s Dare to Wear, and Food Network’s Mystery Diners after graduating in 2014 the School of Communications and Media Technologies.

Hollywood Film Composer Mark Cofer, a 2014 graduate, has composed music for such popular film trailers as Spiderman: Homecoming, The Magnificent Seven, and Independence Day: Resurgence.

Other notable alumni include Daniel Arriaga, Senior Director at Pixar Animation Studios whose latest credits include recent blockbuster Coco; and Vonti McRae, a 2006 graduate and HBO Project Manager who worked on the acclaimed Game of Thrones series.


Because the philosophy of Academy of Art University includes fostering ancillary experiences that enhance an artist’s creative potential, it is the only arts university in the U.S. to offer a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletics program. Athletes are on the field as the Urban Knights. The school offers Baseball, Basketball, Cross Country, Golf, Soccer, and Track & Field programs for men; and Basketball, Cross Country, Golf, Soccer, Softball, Tennis, Track & Field, and Volleyball for women. Academy of Art University believes that through its Intercollegiate Athletic program student-athletes are encouraged to excel academically and creatively by enjoying a fully-rounded university experience.

Review Conclusion

Academy of Art University is San Francisco’s most celebrated art school. The university has earned its reputation by effectively preparing students to become successful artists through mastery of the technology required to create innovative work, an understanding of the importance of effective collaboration, and exposure to the demands and nuances of the professional creative market. Given the school’s excellent track record, diverse offerings, and commitment to staying abreast of industry creative and technical standards, the university rates at 4.5 out of 5 stars. A major detracting factor is the higher than average cost of living of its home city, which may ultimately be well worth the excellent professional preparation that students receive at the Academy of Art University.

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