National Portfolio Day

4:30 a.m. comes early.  It’s a necessary evil, though, if you need to leave school by 5:30 to drive 3 ½ hours to National Portfolio Day.  

For those who don’t know, National Portfolio Day is a huge event with dozens of college representatives there to look at students’ artwork–they talk about their programs, answer questions and discuss careers, and most importantly, review artwork. Students have a chance to learn more about art schools and universities, the specific programs and majors they offer, and what opportunities are waiting for them.  The part I really love, though–and the part kids really appreciate–is the chance to discuss their artwork with upwards of 10 different college representatives.  Ten critiques from professionals in one day is something you’re not going to find often.

The main reason I take my kids is because it’s the best way to provide them the opportunity to check out a variety of schools. Omaha is a great place, but it’s in the middle of a lot of nothing; the only art school within 6 hours is Kansas City Art Institute.  This limits my students’ options when looking for postsecondary opportunities, and the logistics of campus visits are difficult.  Portfolio Day pales in comparison to an actual visit, but the one-stop shopping with 20-30 different schools is very beneficial.

My first two Portfolio Day visits were to Kansas City–meet the kids at school, toss the portfolios in the back of a school van, make an early morning drive, and spend the first part of the day waiting in lines and talking about work.  After a quick lunch, back to campus to wait in more lines and talk about more work.  I wish there were fewer people and shorter lines, but the fact we had fewer critiques is offset by a couple spectacular museum visits.  We hit up the Kemper Museum and Nelson-Atkins in the late afternoon and early evening. After a stop for some dinner on the way home, we get back in town by about 11:00 p.m.  It’s a long day, but totally worth it.

Two other years, it’s been a single student headed down to Kansas City.  Each of those gentlemen were supremely talented, both in terms of technical skill and originality, and it was a great experience for them.  One, Josef Lang, knew he was going into architecture but used the experience to get as many critiques of his work as possible.  It really helped him reconsider some of his work and his ideas, and the remainder of the year saw him develop things that were hashed out during some of those discussions with admissions reps.  He really began to push boundaries, conventions, and materials, and it paid off.  His portfolio received perfect scores from every judge at our state art competition–here are just a couple of things that he experimented with after his visit:

A couple of years earlier, it was a similar situation with Nathan Miller, who was putting out paintings of this size and quality every couple weeks:

Nathan Miller, 2007

The interest and scholarship offers that came his way during Portfolio Day really opened his eyes to what was out there for him.  He ended up at MICA, and is now having solo shows as an undergraduate at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.  Had he not gone to Portfolio Day, I’m not sure he ever would have ended up on the East Coast; the idea of getting out there was not really on his radar.  But when multiple schools all over the country were recruiting him hard to come to their school, it confirmed what I had been saying for a couple of years–he had the talent to go anywhere.  And he did just that.

Our most recent trip was to Des Moines, and it was the year we had 9 students eventually headed to art schools–by far the most talent we’ve had, and probably the most we ever will have at one time. We started with a visit to the Des Moines Art Center, then made our way to Portfoilo Day.

Being familiar with a certain type of experience at KCAI, it’s odd to be removed from a campus and be at a hotel instead; there’s a ballroom full of tables and representatives and posters and portfolios, but oddly, not that many students. This allows everyone there to see multiple schools, which leads to a great amount of feedback.  We prioritized and jumped in the long lines for SAIC, KCAI, and MCAD–these are the highest quality schools that are most interesting to both my kids and everyone else.

After visiting the “big 3”, there is a lot of time to get additional critiques of students’ work.  I just tell my kids: even if you’re not interested in Ferris State University or Ringling College or some random school in Delaware, the representative at the table is interested in you.  They will be happy to discuss your work and tell you what you need to do to get better.  Do that another half-dozen times with random schools, and you have a good idea of where your work stands and what you need to improve.

All in all, I really can’t recommend National Portfolio Day highly enough.  If your kids are ready–by that I mean they are able to speak clearly about their interests, influences, plans, and processes that go into their work–the experience is spectacular.

Top-level kids are able to see what opportunities are out there and which schools may be interested in them.  Middle-of-the-road kids are able to get honest, fair critiques about their work and what needs to be improved by the end of the year.  In every case, however, my students have markedly improved after attending–the feedback they receive focuses their ideas, and the bonus of knowing what opportunities await you seems to provide a good amount of motivation.

Non-Midwest people–Portfolio Day experiences in other parts of the country?
Neighbors to the North–Are Canadian National Portfolio Days a similar experience?

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