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THE FAILURE OF
COOPER UNION

by Charlie Finch
 
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In 1972, my father Charlie visited me at my apartment in New Haven to ask me a question. "Chas," he said, "I have been asked to be on the board of Cooper Union, but I know nothing about art. Do you think I should do it?"

"Yes, Dad," I replied, "You will have more fun than anything you have ever done in your life."

For once, I was right. When I moved to the East Village in 1977, it often startled me, as I was trying to cop a nickel bag of pot on 10th Street, to run into my father, coming from a board meeting at Cooper, not to mention his brother, my uncle Roy Finch, who was a founder and leader of the War Resisters League, which had its offices on Lafayette Street. They were both younger than I am now, but then seemed as old and fierce as the ages.

I was talking with Ellen Berkenblit at Dylan Siegel's bar mitzvah the other day about her years at Cooper around the same time. Ellen, one of the stars these days at Anton Kern's gallery, said, "Well, Charlie, I had my problems with Cooper, but the neighborhood was inspirational." I know what she means, because Cooper Union's identity as a free school fit hand-in-glove with the free love ethos of the East Village, and now Cooper has ditched this felicitous hook to grub for money from its grad students.

I have long admired Cooper Union for so many reasons: David Carlin, master of Cooper's old cavernous sculpture studios; Art Club 2000; the Brucennial; architecture gurus like Toshiko Mori, John Hejduk and James Carpenter; my nephew who went there; the tech genius sculptor Sam Kusack and the media lab, named after my Dad. This love stems from the insider's view I got from discussions with the latter, who served on Cooper's Building Committee with legendary CBS executive George Fox.

The secret of Cooper Union back in the 1970s was that, thanks to its selfless, bearded, eccentric founder Peter Cooper, who it must be emphasized, started Cooper Union on the basic principle that it be tuition-free, Cooper owned most of downtown. Hence, my Dad actually cut the deal, on behalf of Cooper Union, to lease space to the legendary Bowery Bar, among other things.

Indeed, Cooper Union became so flush with real estate-created cash by the time of my father's death in 1996, that it amazes me that it could be "in the hole" enough now to strip itself of its greatest selling point: it's free! Hopefully, the students protesting today will shame Cooper into rescinding this ill-advised decision, but, in Bloombergland, shame long ago evaporated, genuflecting to vanity and greed, even at my beloved Cooper.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).


 



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