campus encounters

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Cornish College of the Arts

Cornish College of the Arts (visited 6/23/17)

Cornish 1

Kerry Hall, the original building

“We’re interesting. We’re different. If students don’t come here, we’d like to help them go to one of our responsible peers that will take care of them.” Being such a small school (about 800 students with only 8 majors) allows them to offer this kind of care that extends through their entire time on campus.

Cornish view

View from campus

This small, not-for-profit school is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and the National Association of Art and Design Schools. The school was founded as Cornish School of Music in the early 1900s when Seattle was mostly a logging town. The symphony had just started so they pulled in the musicians to provide lessons. From the start, the school’s mission was to pull together all the arts. The founder wanted people to work together, so musicians worked with dancers, film makers work with actors, all disciplines learn different aspects of their craft. For example, every dancer takes choreography and creates new work in addition to being an excellent technical dancer.

Cornish dance studio

One of the several dance studios

Several famous people came out of Cornish, including John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham; the founder let them use facilities/give recitals in exchange for lessons. In the 1970s, Cornish became a full degree granting college. Before then, it was treated more like a community center. In 2003, the main campus its left Capital Hill home and took over several empty buildings in South Lake Union before Amazon got to the area.

Cornish dorm

The dorm


Today, Cornish is spread out into 3 locations. The original building, Kerry Hall, still sits in its original location in Capitol Hill and houses the music and dance departments. The Cornish Playhouse and Scene Shop are in the center of Seattle, and the remaining buildings (about a dozen including housing) are in South Lake Union. Students use the city bus to get in between. There’s no particular reason for students to have cars with all the public transportation around, and there’s no student parking. “There was a lot, but they’re now building a dorm on it.”

Cornish bookmaking

Bookmaking studio

For students or families wondering why go to an arts school in a place that is decidedly not Los Angeles, New York City, or Chicago, the rep said this: “Seattle won’t chew you up and spit you out. It’s not massive. Yet, this place has a vibrant arts scene. Teachers are working professionals.” There is quite a bit of music and theater. There’s a program in the city called “Teen Tics” that allow students under 20 to get free tickets. Theaters also call Cornish with extra free tickets so students can go to productions.

Cornish pianoThere are only 8 majors from which to choose:

  • The music department is about performance, not education. Spaces are almost all multiple use. All can be used to practice when classes aren’t in session. Music limited by space and instrument. They can get credit for the AP music exam but has to still pass the placement test.
  • There are about 80 dancers in the Dance department at any given time. Classes include required technical dancing as well as a range of elective options such as hip-hop, African, Jazz, men’s technique, and much more. All classes have a live accompanist musician. They have about 80 dancers in the department.
  • Cornish costume studio

    One of the costume studios

    Almost 200 students major in theater. There are lots of blackbox theaters that students use for thesis, directing, and acting. They take standard acting, musical theater, do original works (needs another audition). They produce 20 main-stage and 16-20 student productions each year. They carefully place students in a variety of roles so they know what to expect in the professional world and what to expect from the directors. “It’s not always the top student but those who take risks. It’s not all shiny every day.”

  • Performance Production pulls together all the behind-the-scenes work. They work with many of the other departments. “They do all the extra stuff like set and lighting design.”
  • Cornish int arch

    An Interior Architecture studio

    Visual Arts. All students in this program complete a 1-year Foundations class, then they commit to a concentration. They spend 18 hours a week in Foundation rotating through instructors and specialties so they get a taste of all types and are later able to work together more effectively. They also take classes in art history and theory. Part of this requires that they spend time in the library twice a week to use the resources. “If they think they’re going to come to an art school and never write another paper, they’re going to be really surprised!”

Cornish dining

Dining Hall

For admission, test scores are optional. “It’s like sprinkles. Nice, but not needed.” The required recommendation letter does not need to be from the school; it can be from a private instructor or some other person who knows the student’s work. Part 1 of the application looks like a lot of other schools, but part 2 is the audition or portfolio review either in-person or digital. “It’s scary. We get it.” They’re looking for potential, for those who will step up and take risks. “There are scary days, and we’re going to push you and ask you to do things that aren’t comfortable. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But we want you to go out of your comfort zone and try.”

© 2017

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