Cornish—Seattle's Preeminent Art School—Risks It All

Can They Pull It Off?

Cornish—Seattle's Preeminent Art School—Risks It All

Malcolm Smith

IMMEDIATE CHALLENGE Decreased enrollment, a budget in need of slashing, and institutional turmoil have Cornish in pieces.

Cornish College of the Arts is where musician John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham first laid eyes on each other in 1938, falling into a love and collaboration that would explode conventional Western divisions between dance, music, and sculpture. Dance and art legends Martha Graham and Mark Tobey taught at Cornish. Mary Lambert, who sings "Same Love" with Macklemore and performed at the Grammys this year, graduated from Cornish. Jerick Hoffer, better known as Jinkx Monsoon, winner of RuPaul's Drag Race last season, graduated from Cornish. Several artists who've won Stranger Genius Awards went to Cornish, and Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney, who won the 2013 Genius Award in music, teach at Cornish. It is the only school in Seattle that does nothing but pump artists of all disciplines into the world.

But distressingly, enrollment at the school is down, and three months ago, Cornish president Nancy Uscher called an all-community meeting that turned out to be highly contentious. Afterward, she circulated a memo to faculty and staff that made its way to me. The memo describes the "immediate challenge" of having to cut $2 million from the 2014–2015 operating budget: "We recognize that this will require systemic change; we cannot only 'cut' our way out of this situation." The memo asserts that under the new provost of Cornish, Moira Scott Payne, the school is "embarking on academic change that will ensure an education from Cornish remains a compelling choice for students and relevant to the arts in the 21st century." And it implicitly acknowledges a tension that seems to be tearing at Cornish from the inside: "We acknowledge that the need to invest resources while holding down costs creates a cognitive dissonance. However... we must honestly and fearlessly examine our assumptions and existing structures."

The "academic change" Uscher refers to in her memo will begin with the art department, which has struggled to keep up with the successes of other departments and with the art world itself. Payne, who arrived from the UK last summer, is the first artist to hold the title of provost in Cornish's history. Nothing has been the same since her appointment. She started right in with an announcement to her new faculty: We're remaking Cornish. Now.

To which the faculty responded, Who does she think she is?

The other day, I called Cornish alum Sarah Bergmann, a Seattle artist celebrated around the nation for bringing together ecology, social practice, urban design, installation art, and drawing and painting in her project Pollinator Pathway, a garden that stretches down the spine of Seattle. Her art is more than the way she makes her living; it's a way she hopes to change the world just a little for the better. (She won a Stranger Genius Award in 2012.) I asked her, "Did you get what you needed from Cornish?"

"No," she blurted, then laughed. "Did I even let you finish your question?"

She had "a few standout teachers," Bergmann explained. "Cornish prides itself on its working artists, but so many of the teachers there are not active working artists. That's not a problem in my book if they are excellent teachers—which a handful are—but Cornish has/had a large number of teachers who aren't participating in the field, and who are also uninspired teachers."

That critique does not apply to the new provost. Payne's bio includes collaborations with jazz pianists, sound-installation artists, and filmmakers around the world. A native of the far-flung Hebrides, she started out making landscape paintings at the Glasgow School of Art, which she left in 1982 with a postgraduate degree. Payne's earliest experience of Seattle was passing through it to go to Alaska to make paintings of the pristine frozen north; now, she says, knowing what she does about the rapid destruction of arctic ice by human carelessness, she's not sure that making paintings is what she'd choose to do if she went back to that place. When she had the chance to revisit the theme of seaside art in 2005, rather than setting up an easel and committing waves to canvas, she commissioned 100 women in a traditional fishing town on the east coast of Scotland to make paintings and tell their own stories about the collapse of their traditional industry and identities. Payne herself had transitioned—from being a traditional, inward-looking artist to an outward-looking "research" artist. Her philosophy about educating artists, too, is that they should be driven by research that extends into the field of art but also beyond it.

"This place should be jumping," Payne told me during an interview on campus. "And it's not."

So if the art and design departments feel her breathing down their necks, it's that special brand of neck-breathing brought on by someone who does the same general thing you do, but does it very differently, and is now your boss.

Payne's got a relatively formidable academic résumé, too, if you're into that sort of thing. She swears she was popular with the unionized faculty at the art college of the University of Dundee, which is rated among the best art schools in the UK and number one in Scotland. She was Programme Director of Art and Media, which has "three program pathways": "Art, Philosophy, Contemporary Practices," "Fine Art," and "Time Based Art & Digital Film." The master's degrees are in "Art, Society & Publics" and "Art & Humanities."

Cornish is a small school with only 700 to 800 students in dance, music, theater, art, and design combined. There is one fine-art degree; it's a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art. (There is also a completely separate design department and degree. At many schools the two are combined.) Cornish's full art professors—many of whom have been in their jobs for decades: 22 years on average—were hired in another time for their more traditional specialties, in painting, sculpture, photography, or printmaking. In other words, they had the sort of focus Payne once had, too. Art education changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Now Cornish is, too.

It will not be easy. In Winter Olympics terms, Cornish is an athlete about to do the routine of a lifetime—the routine that could make it legend, or the one that could result in a career-ending injury. Cornish could revolutionize into a destination school, or it could keep on the way it's been keeping on, responding to lower enrollment by continuing to make cuts, feeding a downward cycle. After 100 years, could Cornish shut down forever? It certainly does not appear to be sustainable the way it's going. Because Cornish has only a paltry endowment—$6.7 million—almost its entire annual operating budget of $26 million comes from tuition. Tuition is $33,550. Relying on enrollments is dangerous and unstable.

Bergmann, the Pollinator Pathway artist, told me a story about her time as a student at Cornish. "I was 'picked up' by a gallery while in my third year there. A professor took me aside to tell me how completely unfair it was that he was struggling to get exhibitions, and I—a student—had managed to get one. Doesn't that just describe a whole ecosystem? Certainly his generosity failed him, but it is also a reflection of his own lack of support and unmet ambitions, that rippled out into his complete lack of support for his student. So if I had any two cents for Cornish, it would be: support your teachers. Find funding for them to dream bigger, in class and out."

Can Payne and the administrative team do what they say they want to do? Do they even really want to do it, or is this marketing masked as pedagogy? Are they trying to rebrand Cornish chiefly because enrollment is dropping and the budgets won't pencil out anymore? Vitally: How will they treat people along the way? So far, Payne has been described as a "bad cop" to the "good cop" of President Nancy Uscher, the self-described "incorrigible optimist" who came to Cornish three years ago from CalArts in Los Angeles. A labor union furious after several years of rolling over on salary increases, the aftermath of a national economic collapse, dueling philosophies on the nature of art, and a thorough breakdown in communication are a few of the forces besetting the school. It can't be predicted how this is going to shake out. But it's clear that a royal legacy hangs in the balance inside Cornish's seven-story main building—a building that itself is caught between future and past, a 1928 art deco tower at Lenora and Terry, right next door to Amazon's world headquarters, a little chapter of the larger story of the metamorphosis of Seattle.

Layoffs are coming; the president has invoked the feared contract clause that signals them definitively. Because of the overhaul of the art and design curriculum—a whole new structure has to be ready for the students arriving this coming fall—job descriptions are being rewritten under the feet of existing job holders.

"The faculty" doesn't feel a single way. There's a range of opinions and responses among the group of professors responsible for educating Cornish's young artists. A few teachers seem electrified, excited, pumped. Some seem terrified. Others have already let the head of the art department know they're just plain not interested in teaching under the new world order. What those professors will do exactly is unknown. Union reps have requested that the college set aside a little of the windfall that's expected to come from a pending real-estate sale in South Lake Union for retirement buyouts. But the college has agreed to nothing, and the president would only say that the real-estate deal is not final until it closes in October, so any money cannot be spoken for until then.

The Cornish art department has had six different chairs in the last 15 years. Whether the faculty has been difficult to work with because professors failed to come to consensus under such turnover, or whether such turnover occurred because the faculty could not achieve consensus on how to update the dated curriculum—it's a chicken-or-egg question. The new chair of the art department is Christy Johnson, a native Californian who's spent most of her career in art schools in the UK. She and Payne are sometimes referred to as "The British Invasion." When the president mildly says, "There's a lot of new thinking in these corridors," as she did in an interview, Johnson's questions of the art faculty are part of what she's talking about.

"When I got here"—fall 2012—"I said to faculty, 'Where's the writing? Where's the criticality?'" Johnson said. "Tell me. Show me. Where's the digital literacy? There was no shared ethos about what we as a team believe students should be learning." Johnson, like Payne, believes that context is everything. Art isn't separate from history, philosophy, science, humanities. Skills matter, but they're meaningless in isolation. "We get them into these rooms with easels," Johnson said, "but we don't actually talk about what they're doing."

This matches some of what I observed while teaching art history at Cornish between 2008 and 2011. Some art faculty overtly ignored the larger art world. Not all of them, but an alarming number, and it was alarmingly normal. On one trip to Seattle Art Museum with a fellow teacher and a class of students, I saw a teacher point to an exhibition of scattered sculptures fashioned from low-budget found materials by a young local artist and announce categorically, "This is what's wrong with contemporary art." The art in question had not been finely crafted enough for her taste, so she took students into another gallery to see a carved sculpture she deemed legitimate, all the 19- and 20-year-olds nodding dutifully and taking notes. The teacher was unaware of and uninterested in another small exhibition on the floor below us by another Northwest artist, that one directly addressing the issues about which the teacher had delivered her stone-tablet proclamations. Any real discussion, needless to say, was over before it began.

Meanwhile, my own discussion about this episode with a department head occurred shortly before I was not invited back. For questioning another pedagogical decision, the same department head informed me that adjunct faculty members "should be grateful" to teach at Cornish. I responded in earnest: "Cornish wants faculty who can't get work anywhere else?"

Another anecdote: Two professors invited a thoughtful visiting artist who had a Seattle Art Museum show to come into their class, but when he arrived, both made it clear they hadn't seen his show. The show had been up for weeks. The professors didn't even know what the artist made. They were simply uninterested. So were their students.

I began to wonder whether I was the only one, but talking to a range of faculty members while working on this story has led me to believe I wasn't. Several Cornish faculty do want change. They also don't want that change to be paved over the bones of their longtime colleagues, and I agree with them. Some of my colleagues at Cornish seemed to be on autopilot, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be made suddenly redundant without other options.

Several of the faculty members I talked to said the timeline has left them demoralized. They said that they weren't told until too late just how fast this was all going to happen, and that Payne has an unwinningly forceful and unflinching style.

Kimball MacKay, a professor who was vital to the integration of arts and sciences at Cornish a few years ago—somebody who's a natural philosophical ally for Payne and the new ideas—says there is just no concrete reassurance of anything from the administration, and this after repeated years of salary concessions by faculty to shore up the college. MacKay also says that Payne has made clear that she wants to cut the faculty-student ratio and even would prefer to lay off everyone and make them reapply for their jobs (an assertion Payne says was a misunderstanding). Payne was head of a program in Scotland, but she has never led this kind of radical school overhaul before.

"It's like when Vince Lombardi is hired: You know it's going to be awful, but you know you're going to win," MacKay said, during an interview with three representatives of the faculty union. "We don't have that evidence of past performance. We have one side without the other."

To criticisms, Payne responds that she unwittingly entered an entrenched group with a hostile faction, and "when I get it, I give it right back." It's the "hurly-burly of the Scottish," she said. "I came in fast because I'm used to working fast on change."

Several of the faculty members I talked to also said they've been waiting a long time, even ardently hoping, for just the kind of change Payne is promising. They're not necessarily feeling good, though—they, too, fall along a wide spectrum. One who asked to stay anonymous for fear of losing employment said, "The art department needs a shake-up. Are the bigger philosophical ideas the provost is bringing the right ideas? I think they are. But even if it's cake, you don't want it rammed down your throat."

On the other end of the spectrum is Robert Campbell. He's in the untenable position of getting what he wants while being ostracized by some of his colleagues who say he's the administration's pet. In a characteristically decisive move, Payne handed him and music professor Jarrad Powell the approval and the $10,000 in seed money to start a new Institute of Emergent Technology and Intermedia this past fall. It was an idea they'd been developing for years that was drowning in the undertow of bureaucracy, disorganization, and stuckness that has characterized the Cornish art department for a long time.

Throw in the "culture of poverty" that has existed at Cornish for decades, and you're starting to understand how Cornish arrived in this do-or-die situation. Campbell—who's thrilled at the changes—is the one who used the term "culture of poverty." He referred back to a national media article years ago that called attention to the fact that Cornish professors were then the lowest paid professors at any art school in the nation, with the exception of some godforsaken place in the South. That's changed, and Cornish professors are now more respectably paid. Salaries range from $46,937 to $68,127, but they have been dropping. Today they're at 2010 levels. At the negotiating table, professors have repeatedly given up salary in exchange for being told they'd have a greater say in the "shared governance" of things. Then came Payne.

Campbell says his critics in the union have to drop the us-and-them act and that they're being stubborn on change when what they're really angry about is compensation. He also says both sides in the Payne/art-faculty war have made mistakes. "When I was president of the union for six years, I was royally pissed off at the way things were being done, and I don't think I was very good at keeping issues separate," he admits.

You have to feel for these people. On all sides. recommended


Comments (79) RSS

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Well maybe they should fucking stop buying new buildings.
Posted by Justforthis on February 19, 2014 at 9:03 AM · Report this
The cuts should start at the top floor of MCC! Those folks live pretty comfortably relative to the general condition of the rest of the college. At the end of the elevator ride it's like entering another world up there, one that doesn't exist but for the ultra-privileged that choose to spend the money on themselves. It's a NON-profit, right? sheesh! I hold a degree from this school, working successfully in the field. I gotta say I wouldn't do it again.
Posted by CCA Alumni on February 19, 2014 at 12:11 PM · Report this
^seconded. As a student about to graduate who has worked in many different areas of the school, I can say that literally no single student I know wants the school to keep spending money on buildings. It may be a long-term part of the plan to make the school more attractive to new students, but ultimately they are failing the current students by wasting money on buildings and creating instability among our teachers. I'm about as disconnected from the art department as a Cornish student can be so I know nothing about the problems specific to them, but as a whole, the school needs to pay attention to what they do have: a history of innovative students nurtured by deeply creative faculty. Quit buying fucking buildings and work on improving the programs you do have instead of trying to race Amazon for space in SLU.
Posted by another irritated student on February 19, 2014 at 12:12 PM · Report this
I think their biggest problem is that $33,000 a year.
I certainly counsel young artists all the time not to waste their money on a degree, especially from a place like Cornish.

We need State and Federal funded higher education for every american.
Posted by CATSPAW666 on February 19, 2014 at 12:15 PM · Report this
As a former staff member of the 'comfortable 7th floor' I just wanted to make a clarification- only the Pres, VP's and Provost make large salaries. The assistants, coordinators, managers and directors on the 7th floor are paid just as horribly as the faculty.
Posted by on to better things on February 19, 2014 at 12:34 PM · Report this
I taught at Cornish and I've gotta say your numbers are off Jen. While it's probably true that core faculty earn between $46-68k (which is pretty low for a world class Piano player or illustrator of a National Book Award winner) they only teach a minority of the classes at Cornish. If I'd worked full-time, I would have been lucky to crack $25-28k, and that's without health insurance or any kind of retirement benefit. They seem to be leading the charge into the adjunct race to the bottom.
Posted by The_Teacher_Trap on February 19, 2014 at 1:00 PM · Report this
There could be five more articles about all the ridiculous problems at Cornish.
I'm a former student and after success elsewhere I returned briefly to adjunct which I did for three semesters before realizing the wages were untenable.

Please right more about this Jen!
Posted by Alum on February 19, 2014 at 1:43 PM · Report this
Posted by Cornish Student on February 19, 2014 at 1:44 PM · Report this
As an "art school drop out" of Cornish I can honestly vouch for the problems with disinterested or out of touch teachers. If we go to school, we expect to learn, not to teach ourselves techniques through the internet. That we can do for free, from home. A sculpture department that actually teaches traditional sculpture would be also be a huge improvement.

I miss the culture of students, but not at all the pricetag.
Posted by Drop Out on February 19, 2014 at 1:51 PM · Report this
I graduated in 2008. As my class was exiting, we accurately predicted the downfall of Cornish related to all the above elements. I paid $20,000 my first year there, $24,000 by my fourth year. It's now up to $33,000 with no added value at all.
Posted by Eckstein on February 19, 2014 at 1:53 PM · Report this

spot on. graduated in 2006. I'd like to underline your last sentence. "it's now up to 33,000 with no added value at all"
Posted by casey curran on February 19, 2014 at 2:51 PM · Report this
Speaking as an art department alum -

"When I got here"—fall 2012—"I said to faculty, 'Where's the writing? Where's the criticality?'" Johnson said. "Tell me. Show me. Where's the digital literacy? There was no shared ethos about what we as a team believe students should be learning."

THIS. SO THIS. Cornish was so unbelievably lacking in ANY OTHER classes outside the arts, and upon graduating I felt wholly unprepared for the "real world" as well as the "art world." Humanities & Sciences was a joke.
I'm glad they're restructuring - my personal experience with the school was disappointing, and when kids thinking about going there have asked me about it I'm honest.
Posted by anniebat on February 19, 2014 at 2:55 PM · Report this
I graduated recently from the music department at Cornish. There are a few gems among the music faculty but the sad truth is 95% of the teachers are just straight behind the times.

Great if you're obsessed with Bach and John Cage.

I use skills that I learned at Cornish every day of my working life. Would I do it again? Absolutely not.
Posted by cornish_alum on February 19, 2014 at 3:50 PM · Report this
I graduated from the design department 4 years ago and attended Cornish while some pretty major changes were happening in the field. Whenever students asked for alterations to the Cornish curriculum to help prepare them for the field it fell upon deaf ears, if not smug dismissal. Thus, most of the students that weren't willing to go the extra mile and teach themselves (usually having to pay for online tutorial services) don't have jobs in the field. In that, I have to agree that the zero turnover core faculty are the biggest problem and often get in the way of learning relevantly. I don't think a single one of them has ever designed a website, let alone really used the evil computer tools we rely on.

Needless to say, whenever someone asks if I think they should go to Cornish I say "no". Seattle Central has a GREAT program, and if you want to pay a little more go to UW. If for no other reason you'll at least be considered part of the community and won't look like a total money-blowing idiot.
Posted by cornish_design_alum on February 19, 2014 at 4:44 PM · Report this
Wow, one year is more then my entire undergrad degree...who the hell can afford that?
Posted by j2patter on February 19, 2014 at 5:00 PM · Report this
There was no question that Cornish has been becoming a ship without sails for the past several years. Even as students we could see that. But if you really want to be an artist, you should probably build yourself a raft and start paddling.

For every wasted moment of my time there, I had an invaluable experience that shaped me. For every person (faculty, staff or fellow student) that made me want roll my eyes so far into the back of my head that they would get stuck, there were people that pushed me, bonded with me, and taught me important lessons. For every dollar that I (and my gracious family) invested in this college I can either list off all my complaints and the reasons why Cornish is dead and wasted my time and money, or I can accept the reality that I'm in a lot of debt, but it's just money. And even though I'm part of a culture that lives and breathes dollar bills, I can say fuck it I can't put a price tag on my experience and I met some amazing people that I will never forget.

I would never say Cornish screwed me over. Maybe it didn't meet or exceed my expectations because the school didn't really have their shit together while I attended. But it wasn't a complete waste. You can only get out of it as much as you are willing to put into it... that's life.

Really good article. Thanks for taking the time to write it, Jen. And good luck to all current and future Cornish staff, faculty and students.
Posted by karina nyquist on February 19, 2014 at 5:54 PM · Report this
I think Karina's statement above is well written and reflected. My son graduated in 2013 and there were definitely as many pro's as con's. The Art department needs significant help and I am pleased that Christy is ready to shake things up....it's likely needed across most disciplines. I personally was disappointed in the lack of innovation and the unbalanced commitment across the school. However, my son still had a terrific experience and grew enormously by having some amazing teachers. The school is not perfect and I could ramble off a number of issues. However, the kids that succeed at Cornish are committed to their craft and will learn and grow, even if they are not in an ideal environment and friends are made for life.
Posted by TCoray on February 19, 2014 at 6:21 PM · Report this
I graduated from Cornish in 2011 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance Production, so maybe my expertise is not valid in relation to this article, as it focuses solely on the art department, and it has been a few years since I spent my time there, but this article does not speak to my expertise at all. Every professor I had was a working artist. Most of them were among the most respected and sought after in their fields. That and the close relationships that I was able to build in classes of less than 10 students in most cases, are part of what drew me to the school. I can admit that the Cornish system had its flaws, but it is a little bit unfair to focus on the art department, which in my experience seemed the most flawed and under achieving of the departments.
Posted by littleblue on February 19, 2014 at 6:27 PM · Report this
I'm a graduate of Cornish in 2007 from the Performance Production department. I had a job straight out as a full time ATD for a regional theater. I have only gotten better jobs every two years since.

I would say that perhaps some departments have professors that are out of date and no longer actively working in their field, but last I checked this year all of the PPR faculty and staff are still actively working in the field. I'm sure that carries to other departments as well.

The base of the problem is yes Cornish is behind the art scene rather than leading it. I would also say that I never would have gone if the price was the absurd 34k it is today. I thought it was over priced at 19K and I got the krailsheimer scholarship which is Cornish largest scholarship, a whopping 10k for one year. It was once a full ride scholarship (what happen to investment Cornish?). I don't know what the CFO is doing, but it’s not managing the finances and proposing a solution to the money troubles. Cornish is 100 years old this year and the smallest endowment I’ve ever seen for a company of half their size. And if you look at the annual reports since Jeff the CFO took over 16 years ago NOTHING has changed, in the way of the endowment. Yeah it went up, but I spend more in a year working in theater then Cornish raises.

The expense of the school will only go up if they are to hold any prestige. The only answer was to build a strong foundation in their endowments 80 years ago.

So I disagree that the Professors are the only issue, in the end it seems to me that it all boils down to money. Without money you can’t buy good tools that attract good student or professors, nor can you afford to hire the good artist away from their successful jobs if you pay less. In the end I side with the teachers union as it will force Cornish to make a choice shut down or get their head out of their ass. Please choose the removal from the rectum.

One last thing if anyone from Cornish reads this, remember you have a building full of artist we don’t just talk we express and act. I suggest you look into one of your sister school NCSA (now UNCSA) they had a full strike including students to get rid of the administration mainly the Chancellor. It worked.
Posted by beckett1906 on February 19, 2014 at 7:42 PM · Report this
Soooo my background: I graduated from Cornish in 2006 and now i'm working there for what's soon to be Seattle's minimum wage. I'm out of work for four months of the year (summer and winter break), but so long as I don't apply for unemployment I can keep my benefits package. For the year 2013 Cornish paid me around 17,000. I work roughly 40 hours a week, but that's not counting the time I spend after my work day using the studio space for my own art practice. This is a huge benefit and the major reason I stay working at the school. There's been months long stretches were i'm on campus from 8am to 12pm trying to cobble together an art career. Also I haven't seen a raise in 3 years and most likely won't have a position next year... but with that said...

I see a lot of students with potential. I also see the few that just shouldn't be there. But because Cornish is trying to run 90-95% of its operating cost off tuition we're stuck keeping students who serve no other function than keeping the lights on. It drags down everyone. Walking through past BFA shows I would think to myself "why the hell is this person allowed to graduate, let alone show their work" Research centered learning will be a boon for the program so long as we actually make the students do the work, and stop shuffling them from year to year. BUT WE CAN'T because we need their MONEY!

The article hits it on the head with "cognitive dissidence" raising money (mainly by tuition) but cutting operating costs (mainly by a hiring/wage freezes, and moving toward an adjunct only system). The school needs to invest in the future but the ways administration has gone about this haven't been entirely fruitful. I think the new program Christy is trying to implement is going to be amazing, but are students directly out of high school going to know what to do with it? And if they don't how much hand holding is everyone (teachers included) going to need to get the system running and effective.

When I was going to Cornish, tuition was about 80,000 for 4 years, currently students are looking at 132,000, plus a forced meal plan and $800ish a month in dorm room fees which all freshmen are required to live in. The article is mainly centered around the art department and honestly that's where most of the trouble is. I can't speak directly to theater, dance, or music, but I know Design has around a 90% retention rate. That's an amazing number and I believe what's driving this retention is students can see a job in the design field post BFA. Art students on the other hand, or at least the ones with any ounce of sense know they're studying a field with very very little revenue opportunities.
Posted by casey curran on February 19, 2014 at 8:05 PM · Report this
tharp42 21
Wow. Bad times at the ol' alma mater. I am a theater grad and while Cornish did equip me well in many areas, I too can vouch for a faculty that was often disinterested in anything going on outside of the halls. I started a theater company with three other Cornish grads in the mid 90's and our work soon became noticed by the greater Seattle theater community. We did shows for several years, successfully. Our reviews were great and houses full. During that time, only 2 faculty members ever could be bothered to come check us out, along with the previous president, who was a gem. I was frankly amazed that these instructors who had spent three or four years helping us hone our skills totally ignored our work after releasing us into the wild. Could it be because so few of them had anything going on in their own artistic lives?
Posted by tharp42 on February 19, 2014 at 8:15 PM · Report this
Really, Cornish? Even an outside observer can see past a lot of this rhetoric. Why blame the artists/teachers, who many observers can see are active professionals, visible and viable in the art community here and around the country? Why blame the programs, when it is the administration and board who appear to be the parties at fault for the current financial dilemma, the culture of poverty, the escalating tuition, and the failure to raise a decent endowment for operating expenses beyond those funded by tuition alone? It is classic One Percent-101. Blame the employees. Point fingers at and punish everyone else but the higher-ups who failed to avert the crisis due to years of financing on tuition alone, who institute austerity while collecting large salaries and building expensive buildings, who may lay off employees who have worked devotedly for the college, and who seem to encourage overt age discrimination by vilifying people who stuck it out. Nice work. Nellie Cornish would not be proud. She would be outside picketing.
Posted by JN on February 19, 2014 at 11:42 PM · Report this
as a former Cornish professor, in the bastard stepchild department of Humanities and Sciences, I can tell that while Cornish badly needs change, it can't come at the expense of the already strained to their limits faculty. As an adjunct responsible for teaching the only required critical thinking/reading/writing class at Cornish, I made $18,000 a year.

When cuts were needed, they came from staff and faculty's benefits, including health and retirement. All salaries were incredibly low--I often wondered how Cornish kept IT people when they were paid 1/5 of what they'd make at any tech company. Adjuncts are used more and more for cheap labor, while robbed of job stability and academic freedom.

Also, Cornish won't promote from within but instead brings in abrasive outsiders and sets up "us vs them" dynamics over and over again. Many of the best faculty left because the institutional environment was stifling, as well as the poverty level wages.

Cornish will go under soon without serious and widespread change but I for one am not optimistic.
Posted by former_faculty on February 19, 2014 at 11:53 PM · Report this
I think it's very telling that the endowment is so piddly, on both sides of the coin. No resources to draw on for growth and substance, and few alums donating(?) or no development(?)
Posted by Cordy on February 20, 2014 at 12:52 AM · Report this
thank you jen for the piece on Cornish.
I wanna say it was your best writing ever but of course it is not. (you and everyone else at the stranger, THE GREATEST RAG EVER!!!, rock on a weekly basis. props.)

that said this piece was the first important work of art criticism I have read in my 25 years here in seawa.

keep up the great work,
Peter Warren (A.K.A. Soap Bar @ facebook.com)
Posted by peter warren on February 20, 2014 at 3:12 AM · Report this
I'm an art alumna teaching on the other side of the country. While it may be time for change at Cornish, wow, those salaries are low! And the high percentage of adjuncts who are not making a living wage is now endemic to higher ed across the land. I encourage anyone who is teaching part time to submit data to adjunct.chronicle.com and follow the us steelworkers' new "adjunct project". I had many excellent full and part-time professors at Cornish, though I wish I was made to do more reading and writing and taught studio management skills.
Posted by Art Alumna on February 20, 2014 at 6:28 AM · Report this
@23 If you say there's little hope, I believe you unfortunately. You're one of the few people that probably knows best.
Posted by Eckstein on February 20, 2014 at 9:43 AM · Report this
As a 1999 graduate I am glad they are looking at ways to make some changes. The faculty works hard, are (mostly) great teachers and I had a good experience. One thing I have learned is the contributions from Alumni is almost nothing compared to schools where Alum give back quite a bit. No surprise when students walk away with 120K of debt and no real work skills. It's wonderful and essential to make art but rarely is going to make you money to pay that debt, let alone your basic needs and bills.
Posted by sonf on February 20, 2014 at 9:54 AM · Report this
PS-When I started in '95, tuition was around $14,000 a year.
Posted by sonf on February 20, 2014 at 9:58 AM · Report this
I became the one-man Cornish English Department when Alan Furst quit to write bestsellers a la le Carre and passed the gig to me. I made $1,000 a year.
Posted by Tim Appelo on February 20, 2014 at 11:03 AM · Report this
I graduated in 2008 from the theatre dept. I was attracted to the Idea that Cornish was a small boutique school where I would get serious training and time with my teachers. I expected my class to be around 20 people... it was 64 at the start "The largest class yet" (they have gotten bigger every year). The tuition started at $25K and leapt every year by at least a thousand dollars. There are too many students that being charged too much, not getting the intense training that produces quality graduates. The teachers are spread too thin and as a result are not able to give the care I am sure they want to give. I asked very specific questions before choosing the school - Do you set your students up in the community to help insure their success? ( they said yes... the answer is really no... ) (Are there continuing programs and access for Alumni to the schools resources /community? They said yes... the answer is really no). I loved my teachers (still do) and my classmates and I learned a great amount. The teachers you would think would get paid well being that the students are charged such absurd amounts, but they aren't, where does the money go? Mainly the high up Admin and to buildings they wouldn't need if they didn't accept/keep so many students that don't necessarily have the skill/drive/dedication to be there. They have been so focused on expansion and raking in the money they have lost track of producing good quality artists. Of the 32 that graduated from my class maybe 10 that I'm aware of are working with any real regularity in acting. Most are slaving away trying to pay off our student loans and doing a show on occasion and many have given up completely. If instead they went back to focusing on a small amount of students, charging a reasonable rate for tuition, in a smaller space, producing skilled quality artists who were passionate about their craft and grateful for the schooling they would have alumni more likely to give back and stay involved in the school. I think most of us are so embittered by the crippling amount of debt and lack of fruition Cornish has left a bitter taste in our mouths. It would be a sad thing if the school failed with such history, It does need change, but the change is not to get bigger, it is I think to go back to its roots as a small intense conservatory
Posted by DionysusDaughter on February 20, 2014 at 11:19 AM · Report this
I'm a current Cornish student and scared shitless. Already up to my neck in debt I don't know wether too cut my losses now or to trudge on and finish my degree. I don't blame the teachers, there are some great ones there and they are only doing what they can in the given frame work. However I don't feel as if I'm gaining any real new skills, but at least I'll be able to talk eloquently about my lack of skill. I only have one certainty, I will be working for the rest of my life to pay off this debt.
Posted by cocoapuffs on February 20, 2014 at 12:24 PM · Report this
sharonArnold 33
so I'm struggling a lot with this article (and its comments on/off SLOG) about Cornish College of the Arts. first off, I think it's too ambitious in regards to the broad range of subjects it attacks. are things at Cornish really that dire? arts organizations everywhere are having a hard time right now. and yeah the art department really needs a lot of work, but given the new change in leadership at the school, do we really expect things to turn around overnight?

I chose to get as much out of my education as I could while I was there because it was a privilege I never thought I'd have. I fought for it. If you want to talk about the cost of education in the US, that's a bigger conversation than the particulars of this local institution.

Cornish has quite a few instructors and staff in every department who are inspiring, active, well-known, and engaged members of the art community and from what I understand they are trying to get more. it does each of those artists a disservice to slam the entire school with broad strokes about mediocrity. and suggesting the school might shut down? come on. sensationalism is not journalism, I'm sorry. I'm just going to say it out loud. let the crucifixion begin.

I don't regret my art school education one bit. I went back at 27 with my eyes wide open. that said, between Pratt and Cornish, I graduated in 2006 with about $110K in debt. I've got it down to $75K. this struggle is the single most frustrating thing in my life as a professional artist. it hinders every possible move I could make. I would be able to do more, take higher risks, and have a lot more fun if I just didn't have this $1000/month commitment. but again. this is a choice I made. to those of you still in, stay in. it's the only way you will make it worth the debt - it's worse to be in debt and not have that degree. again, push hard for what you want out of your school and it will be rewarding.

I am sad, frustrated, and angry that in the US this choice is so fucking expensive. but can I blame Cornish or Pratt Institute for that? not at all. I blame the system that forces institution to make the wrong choices, the wrong cuts, the wrong administrative hires/fires, and the wrong revenue-building strategies. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't sour about the state of non-profit arts education as a whole, but it's particularly heartbreaking when people are counting on a future through them. as long as we have our national leadership verifying what "everyone" thinks is true, that art or art history shouldn't be pursued because they aren't "economically viable", that the only jobs worth getting are the ones that make money (for both employees and corporations), as long as we think the only subjects worth investing in are those which are on the test; we're going to continue to have a problem in higher education.
Posted by sharonArnold http://lengthbywidthbyheight.com on February 20, 2014 at 2:43 PM · Report this
I feel that anyone reading this article should note that Jen Graves is a former Cornish employee , who parted ways with the school several years ago on less than spectacular terms. Her bias against this school is clearly shown when she quotes students who only support her viewpoint. Her main interviewed student, Sarah Bergmann, graduated in 1999. That is 15 years ago, her individual experience at Cornish is important but not relevant to the current state of the school. Jen even points out that faculty and administration has changed in the recent past, so why interview such an older graduate? The support of this article is outdated and leaves a bad taste in my mouth about the author, not the school. I am not saying the the article is entirely incorrect, but it's broad range of attacks with no clear focus or point leads me to believe this article was written with a slightly malicious intent.
Please do your research and take Jen's words with a grain of salt.
Posted by DesignerinSeattle on February 20, 2014 at 6:40 PM · Report this
Why whine. I never got a bachelors degree. Just having that sheep skin is an advantage in life. If they really want to succeed, hire Camille paglia for art history
Posted by jeffy on February 20, 2014 at 7:59 PM · Report this
@SharonArnold: I shan't crucify you for your blunt yet balanced remarks. I've followed discourse in various forums re Cornish since 2005. While the school had made many mistakes, the ongoing critique is, by and large, circular and fragmented. Well-considered, useful observations get weakened or buried under snark, cynicism, and really cloudy personal agendas. Over and over again.

Like you, I returned to school as an adult, and made the most of my time in undergrad. When I considered UW, having been a working artist for over a decade, I found their range of disciplines meager, cramped, and compartmentalized. At Cornish I worked hard and engaged my instructors and classmates on a grown-up level, unafraid to question teaching or evaluation methodology, debate cultural, political, and artistic history/theory, and make diplomatic but pointed comments in critique. I was in several situations where debates reached fighting & just shy of shouting stage. I was taking an enormous personal risk on several fronts - the financial, of course, being a biggie. I don't pretend to be free of worry, frustration, even fear. But what's done is done. No one can take my education from me.

It took a bit more study to develop my interdisciplinary practice and criticality to the point where I can actually call them by those names. The primary objective in undergrad was acquiring/honing aesthetic language. Being self-motivated probably made me demand the best from my teachers. Several people - who shall remain anonymous here - really stand out in my memory, but I derived benefit from every professor I worked with, and several I just knew. Sure, they had flaws and limitations - so did/do I. I don't blame Cornish for the incompleteness of my own vision - it took the time it did to gel. Having turned a harsh light on how much I didn't know, at what time, and why, I know my share of the responsibility for that. Earlier remarks about continually debating, questioning, and fighting should put to rest any rumors that I'm shilling for my alma mater.

I disagree with many decisions, mainly administrative, made by the school: ill-advised real-estate purchases, admissions policies, and favoring amorphous "expansion" over creating contexts for actual creativity and inquiry, to name three. Yet It never ceases to amaze me how blame for nearly everything is constantly put on the faculty. I'm on record as thinking them far from perfect. But if anyone believes that firing many of them isn't a harbinger of more reliance on adjuncts, instead of a revitalized, justly treated and paid core faculty, not so fast.

A close friend with a PhD in physics is still, in his mid-50s, running from school to school to make ends meet (barely), with almost no benefits. One of my MFA professors, an incredible artist, writer, thinker, and activist, with a distinguished, decades-long record of teaching, publishing, international residencies, collaborations, and awards, received tenure less than 2 years ago. If anyone ever earned it, she did, but it's a rarity for even the most deserving to be so relatively secure in their jobs. Sure, more instructors with serious technical/media chops would be fabulous. How they'll be attracted and retained if higher education continues to cannibalize adjuncts in its hiring practices is a mystery. And as far at artists go, younger is not always better. Every now and again one must restate the obvious.

You're spot on in mentioning the larger economic and cultural forces at play here - including their effect on all arts organizations. Cornish's misjudgments hurt the school, but factors beyond its control not only worsen the consequences, but support chronic bad and desperate decision-making. It seems people have no clue about the steady drop in government support for education over the last 30 years, persistent American anti-art, anti-intellectual sentiment, and more recent divisive political strategies designed to kill any sense of shared citizenship or civic obligation. It's a damn shame, not least in light of the surge in inquiry and debate about opening up the canons and expanding art discourse into a more egalitarian and world-encompassing model.

By the way, in case anyone out there was wondering, masturbating one's erudition and education for effect isn't truly intellectual, just egotistical, boring and stupid. I'm totally anti-that.
Posted by Paintwhiskers on February 20, 2014 at 10:46 PM · Report this
@34: Your assessment is sharp and carries much truth. Beyond that, I'll just say that having, to all intents and purposes, only one paid critical voice in this town makes for very serious imbalance.
Posted by Paintwhiskers on February 20, 2014 at 10:53 PM · Report this
Good article. But what is missing is larger context: These same issues are plaguing most colleges, perhaps especially art colleges, in the United States. This type of broken culture of academia is not specific to Cornish, though theirs may be especially acute.

Consider this: I graduated from a respected art college in Philadelphia 20-plus years ago, and these same issues occurred (disinterested and uneducated instructors, "artist" faculty who haven't shown in decades, staff/faculty unwilling to change, etc.) I currently work in a local college art department and see many of the same issues named in this article. A colleague at UW tells me there are professors there who refuse to email, let alone adapt forward-thinking instructional techniques to their pedagogy. NO one has any money. Everyone is strapped thin. Ball-busting department heads are being brought in everywhere to work miracles. My own job is threatened, and I'm certainly not happy about it. But this is the state of higher education in the U.S. in 2014. Obama loves to talk about fixing education, but all he does is lecture for more accountability and transparency. Systematic changes need to be made to the entire post-secondary structure.
Posted by mitten on February 21, 2014 at 5:35 AM · Report this
"Art isn't separate from history, philosophy, science, humanities. Skills matter, but they're meaningless in isolation. "We get them into these rooms with easels," Johnson said, "but we don't actually talk about what they're doing."

I started out at The Academy of Art College looking to get formal skills honed as an illustration student. I finished my higher education at The Evergreen
State College (a bargain tuition wise!) where they offered a full year course called Science, Art and Ideology with faculty from the Art Department, Science, History and English all teaching as a group and separately within the context of the course. It was brilliant. As an artist it changed everything for me.

Posted by Claire Johnson on February 21, 2014 at 6:41 AM · Report this
"Art isn't separate from history, philosophy, science, humanities. Skills matter, but they're meaningless in isolation. "We get them into these rooms with easels," Johnson said, "but we don't actually talk about what they're doing."

I started out at The Academy of Art College looking to get formal skills honed as an illustration student. I finished my higher education at The Evergreen
State College (a bargain tuition wise!) where they offered a full year course called Science, Art and Ideology with faculty from the Art Department, Science, History and English all teaching as a group and separately within the context of the course. It was brilliant. As an artist it changed everything for me.

Posted by Claire Johnson on February 21, 2014 at 6:45 AM · Report this
Too many errors and biases. The age discrimination in this article saddens and angers me. Twenty years experience should be regarded as a strength, something to boast over, not evidence of irrelevancy. Also, the average faculty at Cornish make no where near this amount. Most are adjunct, paid pitifully, and eligible to live at the YMCA. These are also active, working artists. My criticism of the new administration -- Payne--is not her enthusiasm for redesign. Most of us would love an opportunity to work together on program design. My complaint is her top down over night get it done mean and bullying spirit. She hasn't even taken time to know the faculty and what they can do, let alone consider the students' voices. Changes need to be made collaboratively and thoughtfully. Payne's lack of respect for faculty has been evident from the day she arrived. Too bad. Cornish may have financial troubles, but there is no shortage of creative, progressive, talented people teaching and studying there.
Posted by Rozie on February 21, 2014 at 7:58 AM · Report this
“We need State and Federal funded higher education for every american.”

Ah yes, make the 70% of Americans without college degrees pay for your flaky ‘arts’ degree.
Posted by Maybe if you studied welding on February 21, 2014 at 9:10 AM · Report this
By the way theater majors, there is work for you out there! It's called "waiting tables".
Posted by Struggling artists = white privilege! on February 21, 2014 at 9:20 AM · Report this
I'm not a student or faculty of Cornish, so I can't speak to the quality of the program. However, I will say that quality buildings are an important part of attracting good students and faculty, and real estate is a good investment for a college. But plenty of schools manage to maintain quality facilities and programs at the same time, so the buildings are not necessarily the problem.
Posted by whatevercathy on February 21, 2014 at 11:56 AM · Report this
@42 & @43. Your devaluation of art as a profession is wholly ridiculous. And the fact that you commented anonymously speak volumes. Do you really think that the arts have no social impact? Do you think your own life would be the same without them? If you do, your ignorant, bottom line. And yes, the 70% of Americans that do not to go to college should have to pay, just like those of us who walk pay for the roads the cars destroy. I'm sick of hearing the Ayn Rand-ian argument about how government funding and taxes are the root of evil.
Posted by Eckstein on February 21, 2014 at 2:53 PM · Report this
Joseph Patrick Gray 46
Keep thinking about this passage in Nellie Cornish's Autobiography (for those who don't know, she founded the "institute" in 1914). In it she describes how she built an endowment set for the school and was about to throw the gala event to launch it. This was at the very beginning of the great depression. The day before this event the Seattle Times owner (one of the Blethen boys, I believe) wrote an article saying art was essentially a waste of money and the endowment as frivolous, essentially. The day of the event those providing the endowment all backed down, such was the social politics of the day.

Interestingly I see this event as pivotal for the provincial attitude towards art amongst Seattle's nouveau riche for the remainder of it's history, up until the present day. Just consider what Gates/Allen/Bezos attitude is toward the value of new art in society is. Any one of them could endow any of the art institutions or museums in this town, like, forever. And they have not (sorry Paul, your star trek and guitar collection doesn't count, though I do dig it. oh wait, you didn't even give EMP an endowment).

But then again, maybe they tried, and the anti-corporatism in the art world destroyed any sort of possible benevolence there.

Just remember folks, art is a measurement of leisure time. Evidenced by the fact that almost the only folks who can afford a formal art education these days are either trust fund kids, or retired.

Posted by Joseph Patrick Gray on February 21, 2014 at 4:07 PM · Report this
I nearly forgot about this gem:

"She [Payne] swears she was popular with the unionized faculty at the art college of the University of Dundee, which is rated among the best art schools in the UK and number one in Scotland."

"Swears she was popular" is now a credible component of a "relatively [interesting word choice] formidable academic résumé"? Please.
Posted by Paintwhiskers on February 21, 2014 at 4:25 PM · Report this
"Gates/Allen/Bezos attitude is toward the value of new art in society is"

Isn't Gates terrible? Trying to eradicate malaria instead if helping white kids get an MFA.

Did Van Gogh get a handout?
Posted by Mother Fucking Artist on February 21, 2014 at 4:35 PM · Report this
@42 - Dude, welders get laid off too. Let folks pay for all kinds of shit they don't have, believe in, or personally benefit from - like kids, wars, etc. Oh, wait, we already do.

@43, so, by the logic of your ID, no black artist ever sweated and suffered trying to get his/her work out, with much, much less chance of success, than white folks? Good to know.
Posted by Paintwhiskers on February 21, 2014 at 5:48 PM · Report this
Oh my - My take as a former employee in the administration and faculty at CCA is as follows:
Cornish has a mix of faculty that is passionate and effective, demoralized and ineffective or entrenched in an outdated method and ready for retirement
Cornish is in a situation where they have a financial need to accept some students who have neither the talent, perseverance or prior education to successfully travel thru to graduation and then toward future employment or success in their field of choice
This of course affects the experience of those students who do have a realistic future in their chosen field of study and this colors their educational experience and it affects the public view of the school.
One might argue that Cornish has not made a mistake with the purchase of real estate – time will tell.
What has been a mistake is that the administration was not proactive in addressing the need to address the challenge of addressing the need to address building an endowment for student tuition needs, facility needs and programing needs. The stress on faculty, staff and department heads to keep the school afloat despite this void has been tremendous.
This stress has been added to by not being able to address the needs of students towards success in today’s arts environment. Departments are not able to offer a menu of classes or rigor that addresses the competencies needed for employment of graduates. Cornish graduates are lacking in writing, critical thinking and arts administration education. As well in some departments they lack necessary technical training and often do not have the innate talent required to succeed in their field.
There has been a shortsightedness of the administrators of the college that is not acceptable. And honestly no one was minding the ship for some years.
I am in awe of the faculty – and staff - who have held the school together for so many years – I would not give all of them kudos – some are in need of finding a more comfortable pasture to retire too, some are cruel, some are arrogant and have nothing to teach, but there are some incredible, generous, talented teachers at Cornish who share their passion, history, respect and talent with the students. They have carried the school forward despite the flaws of the administration, its lack of support and current economic challenges.
Somehow over time Nellie Cornish’s vision still lives – it inspires faculty and give hopes to students who see the potential of an education there.
It is good to shake things up – it is needed.
And it is good to remember that the beauty of art is that it has no caste or social strata – it is for all to make. When I was there (and frustrated with a lack of institutional scholarship aid) I told an administrator that I had no interest in teaching only the rich. To me that wasn’t what arts education or civil society was about. It was about offering opportunity to everyone with an interest and sensibility towards art.
So – Identify those who still have the passion, who are honest about what they are doing and who see the value of an arts education – and do the right thing for arts education. Put some art studios on the seventh floor – or maybe some dance studios! Get the students out of the basement and put them in the light.
Do the right thing for the students – it is as simple as that.
Posted by appoggiatura andante on February 21, 2014 at 10:02 PM · Report this
It appears from the article and above comments that the author may have a bias against the art department due to having lost her job there. She concentrated on a few negative examples, sliming by association the rest of the faculty at Cornish. I suspect that this does them a great disservice. These are people who appear to have taken a huge financial hit by staying at Cornish, and they likely don’t deserve guilt by association. They, like many others in the US these past six years, also do not deserve sudden unemployment or being forced into poverty-level retirements, which it appears may be the result of the threatened layoffs.

Change is often healthy and welcome, and it sounds like many faculty at Cornish do want change. It will be unfortunate if it is achieved by forcing out artist-teachers. Apparently the new provost “commissioned 100 women in a traditional fishing town on the east coast of Scotland to make paintings and tell their own stories about the collapse of their traditional industry and identities.” What about the collapse of laid-off faculty members’ jobs and identities? Even if the ideas for change are excellent, if the manner in which a swift and desperate change takes place is sudden and inhumane, then Cornish may be saved financially, but what about its heart and soul? What kind of example does this set regarding their chosen careers for students in the arts? It teaches them this - that artists are expendable.
Posted by JN on February 22, 2014 at 11:14 AM · Report this
Ms Graves has written an unbalanced article which
gives great credence to the administration's side of the issues, while presenting the faculty as out of touch, divided and responsible for the college's debt.

The faculty are committed to being current, cutting edge and active in our fields. Our jobs are, and have been, to teach and mentor the students to find their artistic voices. The administration's job is to run the college in a forward looking, financially responsible manner; the board's job is to raise money for scholarships, an endowment and infrastructure.

It's pretty evident to us faculty where to point the finger. Hopefully the readers of The Stranger will do a little 'critical thinking' of their own and see where the truth lies.

I must say that I (we) are a bit disappointed in The Stranger. I've always seen this paper as questioning the 'corporate viewpoint' in all things, and supporting the workers - it appears they have done quite the opposite here.

-Longtime Core faculty member, CCA
Posted by Quaylin on February 22, 2014 at 12:40 PM · Report this
If people who love the arts had any guts they’d find people to start a new school—a hybrid hands-on and online art school suited to these times. Near the end of her career, Miss Aunt Nellie tells how Mrs. Fuller got her to get into electronic media; with the help of Edward R. Murrow and KOMO, they started the first radio school for the arts—comparable, maybe, to Campbell and Powell’s new program. Please, everybody, stop viewing today’s problems in education through the frames of the last century and work on solving them with new frames. Start with the kids. If you don’t make sure tomorrow’s wage earners can balance their art careers with the world economy, you won’t get much of a social security check. Hug a millennial art aspirant, and be honest with them. Make post-MFA continuing ed the norm. Teach. Research. Practice. Produce. Serve. Really and virtually. Hurry.
Posted by Bill Ritchie http://www.ritchie-art.com on February 22, 2014 at 5:08 PM · Report this
Hi Stranger readers, Tom Varner here. I am a composer and jazz/improvising French horn player, was in NYC 26 years, have been in Seattle about 8 years, was a part-time adjunct at Cornish for around 3 years, and have been a core faculty member (Music Dpt) for about 18 months. Separate from the money issues and the 'new big changes' issues--all points valid for debate--I just wanted to add that my Music Dpt colleagues, whether adjunct or core, are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, and in my opinion, ALL are engaged, passionate, active, and work very very hard. Between my jazz-playing fellow teachers we must have about 40 collective cd's out as composer/leaders, and all play on at least 150 others. We are active and play with our our groups, and also play with our students, and with Cornish alumni, all other the world, and at local places like Tula's, Royal Room, Chapel Center, Gallery 1412, Egan's, Bake's Place, Boxley's, etc. etc. We have recently had many cutting edge artists like Marty Ehrlich, Darcy James Argue, Nicole Mitchell, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Butch Morris (RIP) play in residencies with the students. No one I know in the Music faculty is "old or out of date or unengaged." I love collaborating with the dance teachers also. They seem very engaged as well. The art teachers that I have met also seem very passionate and smart and care deeply about the students. Ok, that's all, best to all --tom v
Posted by tomvarner on February 22, 2014 at 5:08 PM · Report this
The only truth in this article are the statements in regards to the financial situation that Cornish is in. It is a tuition driven school and the endowment is embarrassing. I am Junior in the art department who has received merit based scholarships for the last three years I've spent at Cornish, and as a student, I am beyond offended by your comments in regards to the faculty. Yes, some of them have not had a show in the last decade, but for every one faculty that does not have work hanging in a show, there are three more who do, MANY of whom have received praise from Jen Graves in the last year. Jen, how exactly can you review work that supposedly is not being made? Also, just because someone is not currently making work it doesn't mean that they don't have the brain capacity to teach students and stay up to date with the current happenings in the art world. How dare you place such a broad umbrella over the faculty. I wont deny it, there are students in every department that are at Cornish simply because they can fill a financial gap, but that is in no way a reflection on the faculty.

I am also offended by that fact that there are no interviews with CURRENT students. Someone who graduated 15 years ago is the least valid source. The entire institution has gone through several changes in the last 15 years, programs are different, faculty has changed, admin has come and gone. I know I do not speak for myself when I say that there are many of us who would love to tell Jen Graves exactly how it is. We experience Cornish and interact with the faculty on a daily basis, Graves on the other hand was laid off and truly comes off as a spiteful ex-employee. Seattle needs more than one person writing about art. I refuse to refer to Jen as a journalist at this time, for she has displayed herself as anything but that.
Posted by AshRobb http://www.ashleighrobb.com on February 22, 2014 at 10:18 PM · Report this
Addressing only the issue of student satisfaction with an arts degree:

Most of my professional life has involved skills learned well past my days at Cornish over 30 years ago. In those days, I actually did a few semesters where the larger ensembles were relegated to rehearsing in a renovated tool shed in the back parking lot of 710 East Roy, no heat by the way. To cut down a few steps we crawled through a window in what was used as the green room behind the theater carefully handing our instruments, to many the only possession of any value, to one another through the same window before literally jumping 3 feet to the ground. The ensemble was redundant and I had played in much more prolific bands at the community college I had attended scant years before enrolling at Cornish to "get my degree on". However, I will say learning to save a few steps and make a doorway out of an elevated window has become very useful over the years.

It isn't the degree but the permission you give yourself to create in this unreceptive world we now live in. I entered Cornish as a middling music student and somehow left a slightly better music student that continues to study hoping for improvement. It is understandable that people spending so much money expect the moon when they leave the hallowed halls and Cornish promises that to get their hands on the money. Still, the larger responsibility will always reside with the individual. You pay a price to be called a student of art, one the world mostly refuses to acknowledge except as causality of magical thinking. Until you come terms with this, you will always be quantifying profit margins in dollars. If you live in the real world, you make money, you lose money, you owe money. Interlaced amongst the passing days of this never ending cycle is the rhythm of your existence. Your life experience is invaluable but only to you. The trick of selling that same perspective for a profit is something Cornish or any art school can't really teach. I do think it starts with recognizing that sometimes a window is a door.
Posted by gbwhale on February 23, 2014 at 8:02 AM · Report this
Addressing only the issue of student satisfaction with an arts degree:

Most of my professional life has involved skills learned well past my days at Cornish over 30 years ago. In those days, I actually did a few semesters where the larger ensembles were relegated to rehearsing in a renovated tool shed in the back parking lot of 710 East Roy, no heat by the way. To cut down a few steps we crawled through a window in what was used as the green room behind the theater carefully handing our instruments, to many the only possession of any value, to one another through the same window before literally jumping 3 feet to the ground. The ensemble was redundant and I had played in much more prolific bands at the community college I had attended scant years before enrolling at Cornish to "get my degree on". However, I will say learning to save a few steps and make a doorway out of an elevated window has become very useful over the years.

It isn't the degree but the permission you give yourself to create in this unreceptive world we now live in. I entered Cornish as a middling music student and somehow left a slightly better music student that continues to study hoping for improvement. It is understandable that people spending so much money expect the moon when they leave the hallowed halls and Cornish promises that to get their hands on the money. Still, the larger responsibility will always reside with the individual. You pay a price to be called a student of art, one the world mostly refuses to acknowledge except as causality of magical thinking. Until you come terms with this, you will always be quantifying profit margins in dollars. If you live in the real world, you make money, you lose money, you owe money. Interlaced amongst the passing days of this never ending cycle is the rhythm of your existence. Your life experience is invaluable but only to you. The trick of selling that same perspective for a profit is something Cornish or any art school can't really teach. I do think it starts with recognizing that sometimes a window is a door.
Posted by gbwhale on February 23, 2014 at 8:05 AM · Report this
And obviously I am a Luddite given I didn't trust the process of registering and ending up posting the same comment twice. Surprising an old fool like me makes his living and executes totally within the modern world of cottage industries connected by the Internet.
Posted by gbwhale on February 23, 2014 at 8:11 AM · Report this
Window becomes a door - nice! - Bill Ritchie
Posted by Bill Ritchie http://www.ritchie-art.com on February 23, 2014 at 8:50 AM · Report this
Well, it sounds like the faculty are actual artists who teach actual art, which is actually out of fashion with ignorant young people who think they can complete ignore a real education, training, foundation, and produce trendy junk and call it "art." Art for my sake, please. That is not art, nor is it education. Art students have merely become idiotic in their thinking. You can make such a great career, such an impact on the world, after all, doing installations for the rest of your life. You, too, can be Ai Weewee.
Posted by HTML on February 23, 2014 at 5:03 PM · Report this
Joseph Patrick Gray 61
Correction to my comment (#46) - turns out it was a speech, not an Op-Ed piece. From Miss Aunt Nellie:

"When Joseph Blethen took the floor, there was a great stir of anticipation in the audience. He began by speaking about the great depression after the war. He said that people were not anxious to spend their money on unnecessary things...the audience looked at him wide-eyed and shocked. He went on to declare that building a new home for the Cornish School was untimely and unfeasible. Those on the stage looked breathless. Mr. Ames turned pale and quickly closed the meeting in a voice that was almost a whisper: 'We do not all agree with Mr. Blethen; if anyone wishes to give money for the building, it can be left with the treasurer of the realty company.'

So the meeting ended like a wet firecracker" - Nellie Cornish

@48 (MF Artist...) - too bad you have to hide behind anonymity, perhaps we could have have a meaningful discussion. Though, agreed, The Gates Foundation is doing fabulous work, not only around disease, but also in bringing banking systems to poor rural areas around the globe via mobile phones. Unfortunately you then blindside yourself (or just have low reading comprehension), the point is about the perceived value of the arts. The mention of Van Gogh is interesting in this context: you essentially back up my point by exhibiting the provincial attitude that creative production should not be rewarded. I'm curious what your opinion is about those who profit from Van Gogh's work to this day? Was Van Gogh simply a bad businessman?

Perhaps I should reiterate though, a second point, that the perception that art is a valueless burden on society might have something to do with the art worlds elitist snobbery, particularly towards those who have the fortune to become monetarily successful.

Posted by Joseph Patrick Gray on February 25, 2014 at 1:49 PM · Report this
God, I had to comment on this! Cornish is a ridiculously overpriced institution who uses their affiliation to only a handful of relatively obscure artists to promote themselves. The staff is mostly awful, bored underpaid, and largely incompetent. When the chairman of the board gave his speech at my graduation in 2006, we all booed him! Why, because we were all sitting their feeling that 1. we had been ripped off 2. been sitting around for four years waiting for the enlightening art school experience, and it just never did. One look at the productions that come out of Cornish and you will notice that there are very few and, the quality is actually embarrassing for everyone involved. They, in short, deserve to fail.
Posted by iCandy on February 26, 2014 at 2:49 PM · Report this
God, I had to comment on this! Cornish is a ridiculously overpriced institution who uses their affiliation to only a handful of relatively obscure artists to promote themselves. The staff is mostly awful, bored underpaid, and largely incompetent. When the chairman of the board gave his speech at my graduation in 2006, we all booed him! Why, because we were all sitting their feeling that 1. we had been ripped off 2. been sitting around for four years waiting for the enlightening art school experience which would prepare us by building upon our talents, and it just never did. One look at the productions that come out of Cornish and you will notice that there are very few and, the quality is actually consistently embarrassing for everyone involved. They, in short, deserve to fail.
Posted by iCandy on February 26, 2014 at 2:54 PM · Report this
#62 perhaps your problem was that you were, as you say "sitting around for four years waiting for the enlightening art school experience...)

It's been my personal experience that you actually have to WORK to have an enlightening experience, and that extends past time spent at Cornish. IF you expect everything to be handed to you, prepare for a long wait.
Posted by AshRobb http://www.ashleighrobb.com on February 26, 2014 at 6:25 PM · Report this
Well, I actually was only there for two years, but I guess you can make broad baseless opinions on someone you know literally nothing about, but I maintain; Cornish is a half-assed school, with everything from pathetic facilities, to almost no resources for students, and absolutely none for alumnus, a really sloppy sub-standard curriculum, and a very lax entrance requirements which basically packs the place with people with almost no experience or ability, which creates an overall low standard. They cannot in anyway be compared to most schools abroad, or even major institutions in the US. The vast majority of the students their wouldn't have a prayer to be allowed into an actual world-class institution. Unfortunately, the price for tuition is within a world-class one. The graduates from Cornish tend to defend the school out of a sense of pride, but as you can see from the interview with Sarah Bergmann, I'm not alone in my assessment, as someone else who has been successful in spite of going to such a ridiculous school.
Posted by iCandy on February 27, 2014 at 1:46 AM · Report this
Yes, I totally made a broad baseless opinion on someone based on a direct quote from them.

I am FULLY aware of the situation at Cornish as I live it on a daily basis. The School has had two different presidents, a handful of department chairs, who have all made changes to the curriculum, two provost, and the faculty has changed quite a bit, The program is in a major transition and its obviously not going to happen over night. Im sorry you're so spiteful about your brief experience at Cornish but perhaps you should educate yourself about the current state of the school, current being the operative word.
Posted by AshRobb http://www.ashleighrobb.com on February 27, 2014 at 6:55 AM · Report this
I gave an honest answer about my experience at Cornish, but I want to be clear I hope the school succeeds, and that it does so while supporting faculty who have long been placed into a difficult position of keeping the school running despite an unsustainable business model- an added burden on the faculty that no doubt contributes to the culture of poverty that Bob Campbell described in the article.

I hope Cornish is able to simultaneously strengthen their endowment, since sending students into the world with a financial burden upwards of $100K is a disservice to the artistic community, with far-reaching effects. It sounds like Cornish is attempting something extraordinary in the history of the college. Flaws or no flaws, it is a school we want to value and support. I sincerely root for the larger cultural community to support the school.

Thanks, Jen, for tackling this subject. I know it must have been challenging to cover so many facets of this institution in one, limited-word-count article.

-Sarah Bergmann
Posted by SBergmann on February 27, 2014 at 1:33 PM · Report this
All you former Cornish students posting here sound like a bunch of whining bitches. You, correction, your parents, paid to go to this school. Some of you succeeded. Good. A lot of you failed. Good. It's life pussies, get used to it. My question to all of you is this: have you done your best when you were in school? Have you done the work? Have you actually paid attention to the instructors? Or were you busy screwing around and not actually learning? How many of you whining assholes have actually realized that an art school is a place to train? A lot like an athlete trains with dedication and focus, in order to achieve a goal? I know you, weak pathetic losers, snarking at the 1st opportunity given without the ability to cast a critical eye in your own direction. Shut the fuck up and go back to the short order cook job you're lucky to have.
Posted by Dozer on February 27, 2014 at 6:06 PM · Report this
The problem with this article is that the main source is the writer herself.

You put forth a piece that is astonishingly without context and do a great disservice to all parties by printing something based on a few conversations in the hallway, a misunderstanding of adjunct work, and perhaps a press release.

Over reliance on adjuncts is a national epidemic, not a Cornish phenomenon. Unless you are a tenured Yale professor, you've probably heard of it, yet here you absurdly rely on your own brief experience as an adjunct for information.

Cornish has the same endowment problem as every other independent art school in the country. Lack of endowment forces tuitions high, eliminates most aid, makes it hard to attract students and keep standards high at the same time. Ditto faculty.

How does a school build a healthy endowment? The first thing an institution has to do is become established in 1845 or be within walking distance of the Walton family in Arkansas.

That Cornish remains an independent degree granting institution at all is a large accomplishment. Many small art schools have been bought up by for-profit corporations because they could not survive the tension between delivering quality, attracting good students and paying the bills. These schools are now reduced to exploiting the GI bill and student loan program to churn out techno-design degrees that have long ago given up the pretense of offering "art".

Perhaps, as a journalist, you might read about who else is still afloat? How are they doing it? Check out the website for the art school association at http://www.aicad.org/about/? It lists Tyler School of Art but we know they have become part of the state system and the Boston Museum School became a part of Tufts in 1945.

Did you talk to anyone outside the Cornish community for perspective? It doesn't appear that you did, because you evidently do not see how silly it is to cite a a few isolated grumpy faculty and students as some kind of "outing" of perceived incompetence by the art department.

If there are a few people in the art department who are not working in media that light up and spin around after 25 underpaid years in the saddle, I cannot believe that they deserve to be publicly savaged by these histrionics.

The Cornish administration can thin out what they perceive to be "dead wood" the usual way–with retirement buyouts–without your help. If you, as a journalist, want to mix in, you oowe it to us all to do your homework.

Posted by hitchcock on February 27, 2014 at 6:51 PM · Report this
In regards to Jen's supposed responses to the comments posted on this article :

And once again Jen Graves gracefully dodges questions about the relevancy of her quoted students, refusing to acknowledge that her resources are hopelessly outdated. Congratulations Stranger.
Posted by designerinseattle on February 27, 2014 at 6:53 PM · Report this
UGH, FIX THE LINK IN http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archive…

It links to the slog post about the article, which then links to the article. LINK DIRECTLY TO THE ARTICLE.

Also, in regards to http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archive…

1) you should've allowed comments on it, now everyone needs to know people are commenting on, your story, or your response to the story.

2) You wrote a sensational headline. Own it.
Posted by j2patter on February 27, 2014 at 11:45 PM · Report this
So, looks like demonizing a population (the Art Department) and turning populations against one another (adjunct and core, young and older, in a larger culture rampant with marginalization based on age) are the first steps toward attempts to divide, conquer, and balance the budget. This appears to largely be about money, piling on as many attempted (and perhaps dubious?) justifications as possible. Who knows if they are true or not?

Are there more full time faculty in the Art Dept? If so, that may be why the "change" is starting there, to save on salaries. If it is about student-faculty ratios, which departments might have the worst ratios? Might that be performance departments? If so, they may not be immune - they may be next. Do faculty have contracts? If so, isn't Cornish planning to honor those, and if not, might that not be the most telling sign yet of who is really behaving badly and why?
Posted by JN on February 28, 2014 at 8:09 AM · Report this
So are you saying you never saw the cover headline before it went to print? If you did see it, did you raise any objections?
Posted by bigyaz on February 28, 2014 at 12:45 PM · Report this
Somewhat off base here, but this is my original comment on the FB post from last week. To me, it's a huge part of the story, but it's also sort of a dirty secret...

Part of me really wants Cornish to succeed, because if the school fails, then all of the artistic businesses put out of business by Cornish when they moved to their current location will be for naught. The damage this school has done to the actual artistic businesses in the Denny Triangle is irreversible and cruel to say the least. It will certainly be a double edged sword for me, and people like me, if Cornish does go away. I won't be sad they are gone, but I'll still be angry at the injustices served to the actual, working artistic business royally fucked over by the school.
Posted by DennyTriangle on February 28, 2014 at 4:49 PM · Report this
I was chair of the Art Department at Cornish in the mid 1980's. The work load was crushing, pay was short, but there was a commitment by many to remake the curriculum and establish higher standards, which was done. The Art Department at that time was the leader at the school along with the Music Department. One of the issues of having a "relevant" faculty is based on the environs in which the school lives. I found Seattle to be a very limited environment for a professional artist. There are not enough venues and widespread activity for a critical and lively professional life to be created. If artist/faculty are not well paid, they are not able to travel their work or themselves in a way that will help their work grow. I found many faculty jealous of students or "outsiders" (people from other cities) having exhibitions in Seattle, as if their owed piece of the pie was being unfairly removed from their grasp. For myself, moving back to a larger city saw an immediate burst of professional activity and by association the growth of critical viewpoints necessary to add content to the classroom.

What survives today in private art schools is largely the corporate model of modest growth every year; constant expansion marks the success stories of so many art schools today.

Cornish will have to look at its own very existence and the way that existence is defined in order to move forward.
Posted by Lewis deSoto on March 2, 2014 at 5:16 PM · Report this
Isn't thinking outside of the box and the concept of a sprawling campus with multiple buildings a diametric opposition?

In the late 80's through to the early 2000's I had a small rotating staff of people that handled details I had neither inclination nor desire to learn. Today I handle all of those tasks while making a much smaller paycheck. The arts BUSINESS like all things is becoming leaner and meaner with an entire industry of cottage contractors that stay within micro budgets to earn their keep. In the interim, those same small entrepreneurs are waiting for the opportunity to occupy a niche that might prove more then marginally provisional. The solace comes only in doing the craft long enough to become better.

The path not taken for Cornish could have been to become even smaller, more elite and catering to an even more rarefied emerging student/ artist. The financial result would have been most likely net even for teachers and adjunct but net negative for administrators. Obviously conjecture....

If a student well versed in rock, pop music, EDM or rap enters the music program at Cornish, they study classical and jazz theory because it is something both teachers and student agree will strengthen their craft. If that same student says they want to make a living in music, it would be horribly misled to advise that student to ply trade as a crappy jazz musician when they are so much better at the skills they already present. Likewise, the path forward for Cornish as a school is to identify the strengths they have and emphasize those, not dwell upon the fact that other schools have a thriving widget department (a hypothetical nonsense term) and then throw minimal money at it trying to scavenge for unqualified students that have no idea what they truly want.

Lastly, in the 80's while other music departments were entering national competitions in downbeat magazine and winning, I and my fellow Cornish students were playing the Cool jazz festival in front of 10,000 people. While other college students were performing gradis for annual college recognition, we Cornish students were at the negotiation table with George Wein striking a deal to open for McCoy Tyner, Randy Brecker, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Spyro Gyra. If the administration had spent the minimal money to send us to any of the many educational jazz festivals we would have secured a national reputation for the Cornish music department for decades. The problem with Cornish has never been foresight, it's been the inability to recognize the opportunity in hand.
Posted by gbwhale on March 5, 2014 at 9:48 AM · Report this
Not only should they stop buying new buildings, they should stop raising their tuition by such absurd amounts. In a period of 8 years they raised tuition by $12,000 PER YEAR (total of $30,000+ per year), this being a $12,000 that for most students is beyond their financial aid package and can't be financed except out-of-pocket. Students who go there often can't graduate because of these prices. They've got a horrible graduation rate. I'm one of these cases, I couldn't go for my senior year because I couldn't get funding. No one can fucking afford to go there anymore unless they're rich and spoiled, and god knows we need those kinds of people creating art.

How on earth is an art degree even worth $120,000 anyway? Most people who go to art school end up selling necklaces on etsy for a living. It's not a law degree, there's no logic that would make it worth spending that much.
Posted by CCA Almost Alumni on March 13, 2014 at 11:43 AM · Report this
What was the board's role in all of this?
The critical decisions that have led to many of the problems cited were made by a dysfunctional board and an ill-prepared president. As they looked at sites for new facilities, the board chose a site in one of the highest-taxed areas of Seattle,and rejected several sites that would have served the school better. One wonders why the real estate "experts" on the board chose the Lenora building.

The chief responsibilities of a board are to provide governance, establish policy and direction and to hire and evaluate the CEO. Governance includes fiscal responsibility. The board committed to purchase new buildings and make improvements before the funds were raised. Were they unable to convince donors, at the time, that it was a good investment to donate for capital improvements and endowment?

As for faculty, it is the CEO who is responsible for hiring/evaluating/firing faculty and staff. All colleges have some excellent and some mediocre faculty. I am more concerned that the CEO didn't even know how to read a financial statement, and that the board who hired him was unconcerned about that fact.
Posted by caring observer on March 18, 2014 at 11:24 AM · Report this
thanks for the info on sarah bergman, she's great.proud of her!
Posted by john berry on March 28, 2014 at 10:06 AM · Report this

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