2009, Cooper Union’s 150th anniversary, has been a particularly high-profile year for the school. After three years of construction, the massive New Academic Building has finally taken shape on Cooper Square. Cooper Union has replaced its old logo of the golden ratio spiral with a “dynamic,” motion-based logo designed by Doyle Partners, creators of such brand identities as Barnes & Noble and Martha Stewart. The school has seen an explosion of prospective students—70% more early decision applicants than previous years—as the guarantee of a full scholarship upon admittance looks more and more appealing.
Three years of transition and frequent relocation has left the student community fragmented. The three schools contained within The Cooper Union–Art, Architecture, and Engineering–see less and less of each other. A number of art students’ studios were relocated to Long Island City following the demolition of the Hewitt Building on Cooper Square. As Cooper Union revamps its image, many students feel their education has been pushed to the background to make way for the school’s “great future”. These are the conditions under which the 2009 End of Year Show was curated and exhibited.
Joshua Weibley, a student and one of the show’s curators, believes the last three years have led to an understandable skepticism of the administrations ability to adequately represent students.
“Self-representation,” say Weibley, “became one of the biggest concerns prompting this year’s inaugural student-curated End of Year Show. As the institution’s ongoing building projects have seen its tightly knit community become increasingly more diffuse the question had to be negotiated of how work representing such a widely dispersed student body could be brought successfully into a single space. How could a unified face be representative of a scattered body?”
The End of the Year Show displays work from each of the schools’ disciplines: art, architecture, and engineering. This year’s show broke new ground as the School of Art student body elected student representatives to curate their portion of the show, as opposed to the proposed curatorial team appointed by the administration.
The show opened May 26th in the Foundation Building in the East Village.
“For many years the End of the Year Show at The Cooper Union School of Art has suffered the ignominious position of trying to represent conflicting purposes,” says professor and alumnus Doug Ashford. “Behind its seeming obvious function as a presentation of student work lay hidden itineraries.” The show serves to display the labor of professors, it presents to the public the school’s curricular philosophy, and provides an opportunity for potential donors to get a feel for the school. “These are all truly great reasons to produce an exhibition in themselves but when working together could and often did create a context that left out the most important purpose of any academy–the education of young artists,” Ashford says.
Characterizing the work as a whole is difficult, but the show does represent how effectively Cooper Union still fosters an inter-disciplinary environment. Painting, sculpture and installation feel much more integrated than in previous years. Video work also has a much stronger and more cohesive presence.
As a contributor, the show’s curation affords an opportunity to better understand my own work and the community in which it was incubated. I am able to analyze the display of other students’ work with the knowledge that its orientation and inclusion does not come from a separate sphere of engagement. The elected curatorial team was committed to representing their work, the work of others, and the Cooper Union as an institution in a critical and compelling way. Furthermore, this year’s show will serve as a precedent for future student involvement, not only in its exhibitions but also in the Cooper Union’s image as a whole.
“By turning over the curatorial effort to the students themselves,” says Ashford, “the School of Art has moved beyond itself to a moment in which the collectively diverse experiences of students can be recognized and presented. Not surprisingly, all the past EOYS purposes are still answered in an exhibition that successfully represents the product and pedagogy of a great school. What was remarkable however was the inclusiveness and equality with which the entire student body was able to treat itself. The intelligence and focus that the show demonstrated by placing works of poetic resonance and differing formal structure in the same arena was compelling. What is even more remarkable is the degree to which the student-curated exhibition created an opportunity for a new level of learning: a pedagogy that was actually doubled in that it was both coming from students and produced for students. This reciprocal moment of representation created a context in which students were faced with one of the most significant elements in the production of artistic meaning today – the organization and display of artworks in public contexts.”
Ultimately, Ashford told SMAC, “We are fortunate that the school now has the possibility, through its exhibition policies, to engage with a critical conversation about artist-initiated exhibitions, art spaces, and the institutional rethinking that artists can design. These arenas of critical and formal refection have been part of the purview of artists for some time now and deserve to have a place in the organization of Cooper Union exhibitions and even in the planning of our curriculum.”