Free Art and Education For All

No one believes in free education more than those who’ve experienced it. At Cooper Union, one of the the last tuition-free colleges in America, the issue has been especially poignant, since in April board members announced that students will begin paying tuition for the first time in the school’s 150-year history. Next year, admitted students will be charged on a need-based sliding scale for that would cap at 50 percent (about $20,000 a year) of the total tuition, but the declaration set off a firestorm of protests and building occupations nonetheless. For commencement, Cooper Union this year mounted two exhibitons: the official, annual show of student work, Show Up, and a response called Step Down, organized in by Free Cooper Union, a student group protesting the tuition situation. Show Up included end-of-year exhibitions from students in Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, the School of Art, and the Albert Nerken School of EngineeringStep Down—which was organized only a week before—followed the following prompt from Free Cooper Union: “Students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the Cooper Union are invited to submit works relating to Cooper’s hallmarked slogan “Free as Air and Water”, as coined by Peter Cooper’s son-in-law, Abram Hewitt at Cooper Union’s 1901 commencement speech.”   Step Down commenced on the Foundation Building’s 7th floor and, with lectures, slogans and sitting on the ground, it felt like a remaining bastion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, if no longer free education. The work of course is plentiful and varied—but as whole very impressive, crossing many media, moods and mindsets. Extant in both shows is art whose existence is not fraught by the deafening pressure of ballooning student debt. How that affects the art is tough to say but it deserves to be considered. Special nods go to the delightful data visualizations created students at the Albert Nerken School of Engineering. With works that were both beautiful and informative, they tackled such far-ranging topics in infographics as presidential pets, war death tolls and race in the NBA. Show Up Step Down Cooper Union Through June 15  Photos by Rani Molla.  Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.

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