Cornish—Seattle's Preeminent Art School—Risks It All
Can They Pull It Off?
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.