Cooper Union’s annual End of Year Show opened on Monday May 21, featuring work from students in the college’s art, architecture and engineering schools. This year’s show had many new elements. On the fifth and sixth floors of Cooper Union’s Foundation building, students set up an art giveaway exhibit called “As Free as Air and Water.”
A poster hanging on the wall explains the students’ motives: “We believe that the exceptional academic environment of the Cooper Union is a direct result of its 150-year old mission of tuition-free education. The commitment to access actively fosters a community of equality between students of incredibly diverse economic backgrounds and shows that higher learning has its own value – to be pursued on the basis of scholarship, not financial ability. Cooper’s mission represents one of the strongest visions of post-secondary education in America, and it should be protected.”
Benjamin Strauss, the student commencement speaker at graduation this year, stated in his speech that Cooper Union’s education model is one that “money could never buy.” (Abram Hewitt, former Mayor of New York City, attributed his father in-law, Peter Cooper as declaring “education should be as free as air and water.”)
Next to each piece of art in giveaway exhibit is a number tag and a label. Each person who attends is welcome to take one piece of art by simply taking the number tag and signing their name on the label, which then reads as a gift from the artist to the recipient.
“We offer you our work, free of charge, so that we may highlight this exemplary mission of tuition-free education and extend its value earnestly to the public,” the poster on the wall further explains.
Art students at the exhibit work at “packing stations” to wrap the artwork for the recipient to take home. As artwork leaves, the students intend to replenish the walls with new work for the duration of the exhibit, which runs through June 9.
The second floor of the Foundation Building hosts an exhibit entitled “Divide and Compromise,” which documents the community’s response “to the urgent financial and ideological challenges facing Cooper Union.”
A series of dioramas mounted along a wall provide a timeline of various key moments over the past academic year, from the announcement on Halloween that implementing tuition was under consideration to the various ways the community has responded in dialogue, in protest and in art.
A maroon board with white text conveys, “While we see our actions driven by ideas and goals, we also see the idiosyncratic, the vibrant and the often humorous character of The Cooper Union .We are reminded that we are a community of people.”
Toward the end of the timeline, one diorama depicts the events of May 8, 2012. Tiny colorful clay figures hold little yellow booklets titled “The Way Forward.” The display recreates a scene of when a small group of Cooper Union students and alumni from all three disciplines congregated in front of 41 Cooper Square to participate in a “read out” of “The Way Forward,” a 32- page document published by Friends of Cooper Union that provided a palette of financial, academic and community building recommendations. The students and alumni stood and read in unison:
“[W]e’ve discovered what is perhaps the most crucial element to Cooper’s survival: a sense of community that transcends disciplines, reaches across generations, and, in this moment of confusion, has the vision and spirit to point Cooper Union in the right direction. We are the Cooper community and this is The Way Forward.”
One key concept outlined in “The Way Forward” is this notion of “growing down.” In contrast to exploring fee-based graduate, post baccalaureate and online courses, which are currently under consideration by the school’s administration, growing down would focus instead on strengthen Cooper Union’s roots in New York City. Through community outreach, mentoring and volunteer programs, growing down is an opportunity for Cooper Union to nurture young minds in the arts and sciences, and it “demonstrates that an investment in a Cooper student’s education is a larger investment in New York City’s youth.”
Litia Perta, former adjunct professor at Cooper Union, said in the Community Summit held on April 26, 2012, that if you give build and grow your community, “your community will fight for you.” She later posted a note on the Save Cooper Union Facebook page, quoting from a wild fermentation cookbook, “To be indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment–that is the strategy that ensures successful…and continued survival.”
Cooper Union has demonstrated a long history committed to to service to society, and there are a number of existing initiatives that continue to build community from the Saturday art program for high school students, to the Interactive Light Studio, an outreach project where engineering students are working to create a digital display that responds to sound, which will be installed at local public school for deaf and hearing children. The hope is that programs like these will flourish and grow. The strength of Cooper’s Union depends on it.
For more information about “The Way Forward,” visit www.friendsofcooperunion.org. To learn more about Cooper Union’s End of Year Show, visit http://cooper.edu/events-and-exhibitions/events/cooper-union-end-year-show