PACIFIC NORTHWEST COLLEGE OF ART'S mission statement is "to prepare students for a life of creative practice." That's admirably vague, and applicable to all sorts of post-college situations. Think about what you did this morning—could you have done it more creatively? Could you have programmed your phone to wake you up to a more creative alarm sound, like a recording of braying donkeys, or of Barbara Bush's 1990 Wellesley College commencement address, or the dulcet sounds of Kevin Costner's country band? In the shower, could you have done a handstand to properly rinse those nethers? Could you have spread Pastorelli pizza sauce on your breakfast toast instead of boring old marmalade? If you had attended PNCA and gotten a proper education for those creative muscles, your morning could have been a bonanza of excitement.
Still, questionable breakfast choices aside, most of PNCA's students traffic in the medium of visual art, from printmaking to painting to graphic design to ceramics. It's where artist types go to become professional artist types, and hone those scrapbooking and collage skills. It helps for potential students to have wealthy, supportive parents; PNCA's hefty annual $29,442 tuition fee should ease them into getting used to supporting you even after you get your degree.
Located in the Pearl District, PNCA's main campus building is well situated among the neighborhood's countless art galleries and well-heeled boutiques, emphasizing that well-funded patrons are necessary to any functioning art career. Swigert Commons is the fancy-pants name for the large room in the center of the main campus building, where students work, eat, and hang out, surrounded by art projects by their fellow students. Indeed, student art covers every wall in the building, in the winding hallways that connect classrooms and instructor offices to the Commons. The building has a high-school feel and an art-class smell of ink and crayon.
On my visit, the college was in a state of suspended animation, quietly resting in between its summer and fall terms. The near-silent building felt almost abandoned, although a couple of industrious teachers and one or two ink-stained printmakers darted furtively though the back halls. Across the street, the Stagecraft Building felt a bit more industrious, as people tinkered in the facilities amid the classrooms and offices—including a wood shop, a welding lab, and sculpture garden. A nearby studio annex is a couple of blocks over, nearly underneath the I-405 overpass.
While the upscale neighborhood is undeniably pleasant, it's also quiet and not particularly full of cool student hangouts. The nearest watering hole is the grotesque On Deck Sports Bar—students typically walk the few extra blocks to get to the Low Brow Lounge. Coffee shops and eateries like Urban Grind and the Daily Café provide some other off-campus sites to work, and students who don't bring their lunch to school can make do at the nearby Safeway.
But PNCA's future looks bright; the campus is in the middle of a $15 million expansion and makeover. In a few years, the old US Post Office at the north end of the North Park Blocks—where the Department of Homeland Security is currently located—will be transformed into the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design (as if the Schnitzers didn't have enough named after them). It will join the future campus housing located over the old location of Powell's Technical Books and the already established Museum of Contemporary Craft to provide the anchor of PNCA's new North Park Blocks campus.
The school also has a muted, gentle rivalry with the nearby Art Institute of Portland, also located in the Pearl District a couple blocks away. Boasting a higher enrollment and focusing more on trade skills than fine art, one former Art Institute student tells me, "We always made fun of PNCA students for being weirdos, but the truth is that we envy them for being cool artist types, and they envy us for being employable after we finish school."