Cornish College of the Arts

Cornish College of the Arts
TypePrivate, non-profit
LocationSeattle, Washington, United States
47°37′04″N 122°20′10″W / 47°37′04″N 122°20′10″W / 47.617868; -122.336171
Cornish seal.png
Like Kerry Hall, Cornish's main Denny Triangle building is also on the National Register of Historic Places

Cornish College of the Arts (CCA) is a college in the Denny Triangle, Capitol Hill and Seattle Center[1] areas of Seattle, Washington, USA that focuses on the arts.


Cornish College of the Arts was founded in 1914 as the Cornish School of Music, by Nellie Cornish (1876–1956), a teacher of piano.[2] Cornish would go on to serve as the school's director for its first 25 years, until 1939. The Cornish School of Music began its operations in rented space in the Boothe (or Booth[3]) Building on Broadway and Pine Street.

As Cornish developed the idea of her school, she initially turned to the Montessori-based pedagogical method of Evelyn Fletcher-Copp,[4] but turned at last to the progressive musical pedagogy of Calvin Brainerd Cady, who had worked as musical director with John Dewey as the latter set up his seminal progressive educational project, what is now the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.[5] Conceived by Cornish as "an elementary school of the arts — all the arts — with music as its major subject,"[6] the school initially taught only children, but it soon expanded to functioning also as a normal school (a teachers' college) under Cady. Within three years it had enrolled over 600 students, expanded the age range of its students to college age, and was the country's largest music school west of Chicago.[7][8]

Nellie Cornish recruited opportunistically where she saw talent, and the school soon offered classes as diverse as eurhythmics, French language, painting, dance (folk and ballet), and theater.[9][10] In 1915, the first full academic year, eurythmics was added and the first studio arts classes taught. Dance, with a ballet focus, became a department in 1916 headed by Chicago-trained Mary Ann Wells. That same year, Cornish became one of the first West Coast schools of any type to offer a summer session.[11] After the closing of their influential Chicago Little Theatre, Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg were brought in to found the Drama Department in 1918; the department, with its incorporation of scenic design, music, and dance in its productions, became central to Cornish's plans to ally the arts.[12] Van Volkenburg also began a marionette department, the first such department in the country.[13] By 1923, opera and modern dance had been added to the curriculum as well.[14]

In 1920, in recognition that music was no longer the school's central focus, the school's name was simplified to The Cornish School.[15] By this time, too, the school had expanded its age range, and was offering classes and lessons from early childhood to the undergraduate level.[16] The school gathered a board of trustees from among Seattle's elite, who funded the school through the hard economic times during and after World War I, and raised money for a purpose-built school building.[10] Finished in 1921, the Cornish School building, now known as Kerry Hall, opened for the 1921–22 academic year.

The Cornish Trio of the 1920s—Peter Meremblum,[citation needed] Berthe Poncy (later Berthe Poncy Jacobson[17]), and Kola Levienne—may have been the first resident chamber music group at an American school.[18] In 1935, Cornish established the first (but ultimately short-lived) college-level school of radio broadcasting in the U.S.[19]

Through the 1920s, the school was often on the edge of financial failure,[20] but was of a caliber that prompted Anna Pavlova to call it "the kind of school other schools should follow."[21] Although the mortgage was paid off and the building had been donated to the school in 1929,[22] financial difficulties inevitably grew during the Great Depression.[23] Ultimately, convinced that finances would not allow the school to do more than "tread water," Nellie Cornish resigned her position as head of the school in 1939.[24]

While there were difficult years for the school after 1939, in the long run Cornish did much more than "tread water." With support from local arts organizations and a core of dedicated faculty and staff, the school ultimately "reinvented" itself many times, and in 1977 earned full accreditation as a degree granting college from the Northwest Commission on Colleges. That was one year after the establishment of the Theatre Department as the fifth fully fledged academic department. In 1982, the college received a large Title III grant which was instrumental in establishing the Video Art program in the Art department, and in the genesis of the Performance Production Department, which was granted full departmental status with the graduation of its first class in 1986. The BFA in Performance Production added concentrations in Costume, Lighting, Scenic and Sound Design, Stage Management and Technical Direction. Performance Production was established as an independent department so that it would be able to provide support to major productions of the Theatre, Dance and Music departments and provide its students with experience in all three. Recognizing the vital importance of liberal arts studies as a part of the education of an artist, Cornish established its seventh department, Humanities and Sciences, some years later. Humanities and Sciences had been an important part of the Cornish education even before the accreditation process of the '70s, but the important step of granting department status reaffirmed the commitment to "whole person" education.

Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, was published by the University of Washington Press in 1964, largely with funds from the Cornish School Alumni Association. Produced a decade after Nellie Cornish's death, the book was co-edited by Ellen Van Volkenburg and Edward Nordhoff Beck.

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