Visiting California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts Valencia)

Visiting California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts Valencia)

The first stop of our west coast art school tour was California Institute of the Arts, or Cal Arts Valencia. It’s about a hour away from the LAX airport, give or take traffic. The good news is that you are generally going in the opposite direction of traffic, but take that lightly, because even “no traffic” does not mean that there are no slow spots.

We left from Torrance and it took an hour and half each way, and I would, having grown up in Southern California, consider the traffic to be light.

Visiting California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts Valencia)

Once you arrive at Cal Arts, you go through a guard stop into the parking lot. It’s set in suburban sprawl that feels recent and very much like Orange County tract houses and commercial developments. The school itself though, is an oasis of creativity.

My daughter, Grasshopper and Sensei, has mixed feelings about Cal Arts since she is looking for a very specific art school experience. She wants a foundation year; Cal Arts does not offer one. She wants to study Industrial Design. Cal Arts does not have this major. She’s interested in film; perhaps animation but not character animation necessarily. Cal Arts has the most competitive Character Animation program that is a feeder into Pixlar and other coveted animation studios.

Visiting California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts Valencia)

So why Cal Arts for her? It was the school tour that sold her. She loved the vibe of the school. She loved the Creative Animation program that is animation meets fine art. She also likes a school where kids are committed to their school experience and willing to collaborate. Cal Arts has that in spades!

For most the kids in the room, though, Character Animation is what drives this school. It’s not a surprise considering that Roy and Walt Disney founded this school as a collaborative space putting all the creative arts — dance, music, acting, fine art, film, animation — under one roof. But Character Animation is quite difficult to get into.

Applying to Cal Arts Character Animation

I liked how our tour guide — a rising senior — gave a pep talk to anyone considering applying to Character Animation. She herself is a costume designer, but she won a coveted spot as an intern for Disney Imagineering. It’s not hard to see her rocking a presentation of her ideas though!

Cal Arts Animation original drawings

Original drawings of the Beast and other Disney Characters

First the stats. 800 to 1000 students apply for 65 Character Animation spots. Note that 80% of those accepted are transferring from another art college or art program! That leaves only 20% of high school seniors. Also, transferring students do NOT get credit for their art classes though they can get credit for humanities and science classes, both APs and from college.

Since Cal Arts does not have a foundation year where all freshman take the same classes that include drawing fundamentals as well survey all the creative offerings of the school, Cal Arts expects Character Animation majors to come in with serious drawing skills. They recommend Life Drawing classes; lots and lots of practice drawing the human figure!

Visiting California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts Valencia)

Other majors at Cal Arts do not require that same high level of drawing skills. Also, the other majors are not as competitive to get into.

Cal Arts is one giant connected building. My daughter liked that. It’s heavily air conditioned against the heat of the Southern California desert which she also liked. All classes and performance spaces are connected on four floors which makes for a lot of interaction between students and faculty. Pets are also allowed though not in dorms, the library, or the cafeteria. Dorms are nearby but not connected to the teaching spaces.

Cal Arts gallery space and party spot

Cal Arts also offers performance and exhibit space outside of Valencia, in Los Angeles which is helpful for those seeking employment. They own a theater called Red Cat in Los Angeles which is mostly used for visitors but students can perform there as well. And there is always that connection to Disney, including the myriad of companies under that one brand including movies, animation, music, and publishing.

They also have the world’s only operational modular theater. It’s a space where 4 x 4 squares can be moved up to 10 feet high on hydraulic lifts making for ending permutations of the performance space. While it makes for creativity in the acting department, it can also be used for the arts.

Cal Arts modular theater

Cal Arts seems to have active alumni who take an interest in mentoring and helping students. This feels different from other art schools that we visited where the alumni vibe is that students need to “pay their dues.”

Cal Arts Bali dance

All in all, Cal Arts has an amazing Character Animation program that is nearly impossible to get into. Students applying here should have a very clear idea of what they want to do post college, and what they want to get out of the school. With that in mind, the sky is the limit. There are many, many opportunities for those willing to walk through open doors. A highly motivated, creative collaborator would be most at home here.

Room A113 at Cal Arts: the door and the significance

I had no idea of Room A113, but some of the kids on our tour did. It wasn’t a kind of test … it’s more of an inside animation joke. Some weep when seeing this seemingly bland door; others are in awe. Note that this door and the rooms behind it no longer house animators. That doesn’t seem to lessen the appeal though.

All in all, Cal Arts is a strong program for creatives of all types who know what they want. My guess is that the dance department is the weakest. Character animation is definitely the strongest. I’m not sure about how the other programs stack up against other schools but you can look that up.

Cal Arts Valencia

There were a few strong consistent messages that Cal Arts conveyed. One is: No Censorship. They are adamant about not censoring creativity. Their only rule seems to be that students can not paint on doors or door jams but that is only because clever arts in the past have hidden doors to classrooms in years past with optical illusions that caused freshman to miss their classes.

Cal Arts graffiti walls

There is also a message of Cutting Edge. This is not an art school fixated on traditional anything. They are all about breaking boundaries whether that is in acting, animation or dance. I think that might be a California thing; this idea of breaking free from tradition.

Cal Arts no censorship

I noticed a fair amount of nudity stemming from their cutting edge + no censorship policies. This is a very freeing place to be, but if total freedom scares you, this would not be the right fit for you. For example, my sister-in-law went here for one year but she transferred to UCLA’s graphic design program from Cal Arts Fine Art program. She’s a very talented artist, but a conservative and more traditional kind of person.

Cal Arts Film Library

They have the student films of director luminaries such as Tim Burton!

For my daughter, this is a good fit for her in terms of creativity and freedom. It’s not the perfect fit but it would be a good place for her. In any case, our relatives in California hope she will land here so they can see her more often!

p.s. More about Art Colleges from our college tours:

Visiting Pratt

Visiting California College of the Arts

Top Art and Design Colleges

Applying to Art School: School of Visual Arts

RISD Pre-College Program

Visiting West Coast Art Schools & Foodie Stops Nearby

Applying to RISD: Advice from Antonio Peters in Admissions

Tips for National Portfolio Day


and some fun stuff …

If you are visiting New York City, here are our cheap foodie finds.

Our NYC (Cheap) Foodie Finds

45 Art Gifts for Seriously Arty Kids (by my arty daughter)

Art Competitions for Kids and Teens

Our Art Gift Kits for Arty Kids

10 Inspirational Art Books for Arty Kids

Best Toys for Arty Kids

An Arts Studio of One’s Own

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Does your daughter have her top pics and will she be applying soon. You have visited so many schools in the last year. Hope she finds what she wants. Cal Arts sounds cutting edge.
    Patricia Tilton recently posted…Saying Good-bye to London by Julie BurtinshawMy Profile

  2. Are you looking at any schools up our way?

    I’ve heard great things about Cal Arts.
    maryanne recently posted…Life Skills Kids Gain by Playing Pretend TownMy Profile

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