Art Directors Look at Portfolios, Not Diplomas

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Baltimore Academy of Illustration Classroom
A classroom at Baltimore Academy of Illustration located at 5710 Bellona Ave.

Art school is expensive but the education is priceless. So what does an artist who’s interested in a career in the professional arts do when he or she has the talent and drive, but not the money or time to invest in that education? For a long time the answer was pretty simple — take on a ton of student loan debt or get a “real” job and create your artwork in your spare time. But thanks to three local illustrators and former MICA professors, there’s another option for aspiring artists in the area — The Baltimore Academy of Illustration.

Founded fours years ago by Alex Fine, Scott Fuqua, and Greg Houston, BAI has offered college level illustration instruction to more than 200 students at a fraction of what it would cost to take comparable classes at a top school. They’ve seen their enrollment grow and watched as some of their students have gone on to jobs at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Bethesda Games while others have gotten their work published for the first time in Newsweek, AdWeek, The Washington Post, The Baltimore City Paper, and The Atlantic. So how are they pulling this off?

For Houston, it’s about creating a new vehicle to deliver a quality product, “we believe in a strong art education for illustrators. I went to Pratt (Institute). It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. But, look, college is expensive and a career in art, no matter how talented you are, is dicey. That’s a big investment to make — I know, I did it myself! But college is just so much more expensive now. We just thought, why not offer the same education but without the huge price tag? A student can come to BAI and take classes — a la carte — and get, we believe — the same education or better than at an art school. In fact, we see ourselves as a college level Illustration Department sans the college.”

Adds partner, Edward Kane, “Our school’s motto is ‘Art directors look at portfolios, not diplomas’. And that’s true. Diplomas are great, we’re not suggesting you shouldn’t get one. But not everyone has that opportunity. What about those folks?”

“We’ve had students at BAI who couldn’t go to college, or went already but wanted more, or who are currently in other programs while also taking our classes. We think of ourselves as a bridge for those students thinking of an illustration education or career, a companion for those already taking courses elsewhere, and an alternative for those who just can’t afford college. As Baltimoreans, we want to see all our institutions do well and we want to see all the talented people in our area wells served.”

“That’s right”, says Fuqua. “To that end, we’ve begun reaching out to other area schools to make our curriculum available to their students. We already had a very successful experience teaching BAI classes to students at UB”.

Baltimore Academy of Illustration Art
Illustration created by co-founder and instructor at BAI, Scott Fuqua

Another aspect of the school that the BAI guys believe serve them well is that their instructors teach what they know. While that sounds like an obvious statement, not everyone teaching a college class is an expert in that field. “Don’t get me started”, says Fuqua. “Too many classes at colleges are taught by people who have little or no experience in that area. We’re all illustrators — Greg and I have 30 years each invested in the industry and another dozen or so each teaching. We try and hire instructors who know what they’re doing. It’s important to us that we maintain that level of quality”.

Fuqua also believes that a big part of BAI’s appeal is that, apart from the education, the students are part of a community. “Oh, yeah, that’s a big thing for us. Illustration can be a lonely job. And there’s a lot of competition, too. People can be pretty cutthroat. We don’t think it needs to be that way. We try and foster a fun, friendly environment at BAI where students can lean on each other. We even started a BAI community website for our students to share their work with each other and potential employers. It’s all about treating each other right.”

“Exactly”, says Houston. “We’re all illustrators! Who loves us if not us? Answer: nobody!”.

Baltimore Museum of Industry Flyer
Poster designed by Greg Houston

So, is BAI the right choice for you? Check their website for Fall courses to find out. They’re featuring everything from Foundation Drawing and Painting (for beginners) to Fundamental Illustration, Watercolor for Illustrators, a Sequential Studio (for lovers of comics and graphic novels), Editorial Illustration, Digital Illustration Techniques, Illustrating Stories (for those people who want to finally do that book they’ve been dreaming about), and more. The classes are open to anyone from high school seniors to senior citizens.

Says Fine,” all of my expectations since BAI’S formation have been exceeded. Watching my students reach their personal goals and in some cases, have their work published nationally is a great joy and makes me happy that a school like ours exists.” Now, that’s an experience worth its weight in gold.


About Baltimore Academy of Illustration: The Baltimore Academy of Illustration offers students of all economic levels the opportunity to receive high-quality, college-level instruction in illustration. BAI welcomes adult continuing education students, high school students who want to sample college-level illustration courses, and traditional college-age students.

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