A student reads her thesis at a podium.

MAVisual + Critical Studies

Think and write critically about the arts to illuminate the interplay between social and visual systems.


Make art theory accessible

Investigate visual culture across a range of fields

Our two-year Visual and Critical Studies graduate program trains artists, critics, and scholars to write professionally about today’s intricate visual landscape. Our rigorous curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study, historical grounding, social and political analysis, and the craft of critical writing. You’ll learn to investigate a broad range of media and present criticism in straightforward language, so art theory can be accessible to everyone.

Study in the culturally diverse Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area is a hub for emerging artists, entrepreneurs, innovators, and social activists. We draw inspiration from the area’s intellectual and creative activity as we explore and develop crucial skills in visual analysis. You’ll also benefit from studying in an art school environment, where you can easily exchange ideas with architects, curatorial practitioners, designers, fine artists, and writers.

Studios + Shops

Build critical skills in four key areas

Compared to similar MA programs at other schools, Visual and Critical Studies at CCA offers a unique practice-driven curriculum that supports our commitment to social justice, interdisciplinary collaboration, and hands-on professional experience. Core courses, electives, and workshops help you build critical skills in four interrelated areas:

  • Attentive visual analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Eloquent, persuasive writing
  • Visually enhanced public speaking

We’re also one of the few programs to offer three distinct dual-degree options in curatorial practice, fine arts, or writing. The skills students build during a dual degree give them a competitive edge, enabling them to discuss and write about creative work more powerfully.

Broaden your artistic and professional networks

Graduate students sharpen their critical thinking and presentation skills by learning from the brightest minds in the field. We have two unique programs that foster open dialogue:

The VCS Forum, which convenes throughout the semester, gives students the opportunity to engage with leaders across a range of creative and scholarly fields, including visual studies, literary criticism, cultural studies, film, curatorial practice, and design.

Queer Conversations in Culture and the Arts, an ongoing collaboration between our program, the Queer Cultural Center, and UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, brings locally and nationally renowned figures to campus for a series of conversations around LGBTQI topics.

Produce content for Art Practical

The Visual and Critical Studies program partners with Art Practical, an arts publishing and media organization, to explore how contemporary art journals create and shape their audiences. Our Publishing as Practice course, led by interdisciplinary writer Frances Richard, teaches you how to assess art criticism and think expansively about where this practice can “live,” such as graphic novels, poetry, and zines.

As you examine how art writing can, and should, make dynamic shifts when new artistic practices emerge, you’ll also hone the many practical aspects of a writing profession:

  • Conduct artist interviews and studio visits
  • Craft story pitches and style guides
  • Create clip packs
  • Cultivate an audience
  • Edit critical writing

You’ll have the opportunity to publish a piece of writing in Art Practical’s online journal, which features interviews, reviews, columns on emerging artists, and more.

A group of graduate students pose next to a sign that says, "2019 VCS Spring Symposium."

Write and present your thesis

In addition to taking part in public talks and symposia and contributing to Art Practical, you’ll research a topic of your choosing for your final thesis and presentation. Work closely with faculty on an 8,000-word thesis, a 10-minute presentation for the program’s annual Spring Symposium, and a short essay that can serve as a suitable writing sample when you're applying for artist residencies, PhD programs, jobs and other professional opportunities.


Scholars, artists, and activists

Our distinguished faculty are scholars in the fields of anthropology, cultural studies, philosophy, gender studies, and literature, as well as the histories of art, popular media, and design. Like our graduate students, faculty come from diverse cultural backgrounds and are committed to exploring innovative forms and arenas of critical expression.

Jacqueline Francis, Chair of MA in Visual and Critical Studies

Jacqueline Francis, Chair of MA in Visual and Critical Studies

Chair Jacqueline Francis is a PhD, scholar, historian, and writer. She teaches U.S. art history and researches critical questions about minority identities and identifications in visual culture. Widely published, she is the author of Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America and the co-editor of Romare Bearden: American Modernist. Dr. Francis has delivered lectures at many esteemed universities around the world, including King’s College London; Harvard University; Yale University; Okayama University, Japan; and Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier III.


Two years for pursuing artistic ambitions

The Visual and Critical Studies core courses provide you with scholarly methodologies and critical theories while nurturing your research and writing skills. We also offer select electives that let you tailor coursework to best reflect your areas of interest.

MA Visual + Critical Studies

Year 1: Fall Semester

Methodologies 1
3 units
Strategies for Visual and Critical Studies
3 units
VCS Topics
3 units

Year 1: Spring Semester

Methodologies 1
3 units
Identity, Difference, and Power
3 units
VCS Topics
3 units
3 units

Year 2: Fall Semester

Methodologies 2
3 units
Master’s Project 1
3 units
Elective (any Grad-wide elective)
3 units

Year 2: Spring Semester

Methodologies 2
3 units
Master’s Project 2
3 units

Total 36 units


Creative and scholarly practitioners

Visual and Critical Studies graduates excel in a wide range of visual professions. They are cultural journalists, critics, editors, curators, community activists, and educators, and they hold various positions at museums, galleries, and alternative art spaces. Many continue their studies at the PhD level in anthropology, art history, cultural studies, performance studies, and visual studies.

Potential career paths

  • Educator (university, college, or art school)
  • Arts administrator
  • Gallery director
  • Art writer/critic/journalist
  • Interdisciplinary artist
  • Publisher
  • Curator
  • Grant writer
  • Editor
  • Technical writer
  • Design executive
  • Marketing professional

News + Events

What’s happening for VCS students?

How to Apply

Gather your best writing for your application

Our two-year program is designated for those with a bachelor’s degree in art history, fine art, or a related humanities and sciences field. Most of our applicants are ambitious writers who want to strengthen their research, writing, and presentation skills.

Placement in our program is largely based on the strength of portfolio work and transcripts. After you submit all materials, you’ll be contacted for an online or on-campus interview with the Visual and Critical Studies admissions committee.

Application fundamentals

You’ll need to submit three components that are common to all CCA graduate applications:

  • Resume/curriculum vitae
  • Two recommendation letters from individuals who can speak to your scholastic achievements and communication skills, as well as indicate your potential for success in graduate school. We recommend asking former professors, internship supervisors, and others who are familiar with your intellectual abilities to write your recommendation letters.
  • Unofficial college transcripts

Additionally, you’ll submit a portfolio and personal essay that are tailored to your specific master’s program.

Portfolio requirements

Your portfolio must include two writing samples that demonstrate your interest in the field of visual and critical studies and your potential to develop as a researcher, writer, and critical thinker.

Each sample, in PDF format, should be a maximum of 5,000 words. Once your writing portfolio has been submitted via SlideRoom, no further changes can be made.

Personal essay requirements

In a personal essay of 500 to 1,000 words, clearly state how the program fits into your writing and career goals and why you want to explore visual and critical studies at the master’s level. While personal statements can vary, it’s generally good to focus on what influences your writing about visual culture, including particular theories and texts.

Like the portfolio submission, your personal essay must be in PDF format.

Contact our program chair with questions

Jacqueline Francis

Chair of MA in Visual and Critical Studies

+1 415-551-9250

[email protected]

Investigate today’s intricate visual landscape

Apply now