Cornish College, 100 Years After Nellie | KUOW News and Information

Cornish College, 100 Years After Nellie

Nov 13, 2014

Nellie Cornish, founder of Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts, circa 1922
Credit Courtesy Cornish College of the Arts

What do acclaimed dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, drag performer par excellence Jinxx Monsoon and conceptual art darling Sutton Beres Culler have in common?

They are all graduates of Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts.

The college celebrates its centennial this year on November 14. The accredited college grants degrees in everything from dance to design.

But that's not how Cornish started out. The school was a labor of love for Seattle pianist Nellie Cornish.

Cornish was pretty much self-educated, according to current college president Nancy Uscher. "She sought out the best teachers all over the world," Uscher explains.

Uscher calls Cornish a woman ahead of her time, a maverick who understood the important role the arts could play in the community. It didn't hurt that Cornish was a strong-minded woman with a vision, at a time when most women didn't play large roles in public life.

"I think she saw it as her destiny to invent her life," says Uscher. "She had courage, and moxie, and energy and brilliance."

Initially, Nellie Cornish established the Cornish School of Music. By 1919, her small academy had expanded its offerings to include dance, drama, speech and more. Nellie Cornish served as the head of her school until financial conflicts forced her to resign. By the mid 1970s, the school began the transition to the fully accredited, four-year Cornish College of the Arts.

A hundred years after Nellie Cornish followed her vision to create a school for the arts, Uscher says the college is one of several dozen across the country that train students to become working artists.

One hurdle, according to Uscher, is to distinguish Cornish College from those other schools. "I think our challenge is to educate students for the 21st century," she says.

These days the college divides its activities between a main campus in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, its older home on Capitol Hill and the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.

In 1938, radio broadcasters in Seattle described the Cornish School as a truly western institution.

These days Cornish College of the Arts brands itself as a destination institution. But, true to its century-old roots, they brag it has the "Seattle advantage."