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A Financial History of Cooper Union

Chapter 1

Closing the Cooper Hewitt Collection: 1963


“MUSEUM CLOSING DRAWS PROTESTS: Art Leaders Oppose Plan Set by Cooper Union”, reported the New York Times on July 4, 1963.[i]  Cooper Union President Richard Humphreys recalled “the disbelief and indignation when [he] said… that Cooper Union could not afford to operate a museum.”[ii]


The Cooper Union Museum (later called the Cooper-Hewitt Museum) was created in 1897 by Peter Cooper’s granddaughters, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt, Sarah Cooper Hewitt, and Amy Hewitt Green.[iii] According to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, “Peter Cooper made provisions for a museum, but these plans were not immediately carried out.” This gift from his granddaughters made the vision a reality, and "the Hewitt sisters managed the museum as directors until Sarah's death in 1930."[iv]  By 1963, the museum had a staff of nineteen and an Advisory Board that was a who’s who in the art world.


The outcry over the closing led to the formation of the Committee to Save the Cooper Union Museum. Just four years earlier, in 1959, a new (now former) engineering building was opened at 51 Astor Place, with considerable fanfare.[v] Coming on the heels of the celebrated building, the news that Cooper Union could no longer afford to maintain its historic museum elicited “disbelief and indignation”.


Closing an iconic museum is a shock under any circumstances. Recall the fury when Brandeis University closed its Rose Art Museum in 2009, claiming financial exegency.[vi]  But it is all the more shocking for a college committed explicitly to the advancement of art. And it is virtually incomprehensable for a museum established by the hiers of the founder in keeping with his vision for a permanent "Gallery of Art."[vii]


President Humphreys cited three reasons for the closure: "the museum no longer played an important part in Cooper Union's educational program", "the collections in the present location were not being used by the general public", and "there were no funds to put the museum on a sound financial basis."[viii]


The School of Art had become focused on fine art, having moved away from the Charter's conception of the “the arts of design… as will tend to furnish... suitable employment”.[ix]  But on the question of public interest, The Times challenged Coooper Union's assessment, claiming that 16,123 people had visited the museum in the prior year, "an increase of more that 4,000 on the previous year." "The reasons for your proposed action lack authoritative analysis", wrote William Hull, Assistant Director of the New York State Council on the Arts, in an open letter to the Chair of the Cooper Union Board of Trustees.[x]


In any case, "there were no funds". The museum remained closed to the general public for more than four years, and donations did not pour in as robustly as did the scorn. So strong was the art world's resolve, and so weak was Cooper Union's position, that the school ended up paying the Smithsonian to take over the collection without realizing the value of a single piece of art. In addition to transfering the collection, Cooper Union transfered to the Smithsonian a restricted endowment of $393,000 ($1.5 million in today's dollars, at 3% inflation) plus another $300,000 in cash ($1.2 million today) to cover the first three years of the Smithsonian's operating costs.[xi]  Today, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum flourishes in Andrew Carnegie’s former mansion on Fifth Avenue.


1963 was the first time since the construction of the Chrysler Building that Cooper Union found itself in so serious a bind. How did it happen? The economy hadn't tanked, as it had when Brandeis University closed its gallery in 2009.


And given the warning in 1963, how did 2011 happen?


“Cooper Union Looks at Charging Tuition”, reported The New York Times on October 31, 2011.[xii] The outcry led to the formation of the Committee to Save Cooper Union. Just two years earlier, a new (primarily engineering) building was opened at 41 Cooper Square with considerable fanfare.[xiii] Coming on the heels of the celebrated building, the news elicited “disbelief and indignation”.


Was there an underlying cause that accounted for both 1963 and 2011? What happened in the interim? And are their hints in the prior history of the institution?


Theories abound -- some mythical, some political, and some factual. The objective of this financial history is to trace key facts, decisions and communications using primary sources that are publicly available.


Chapters 2-9 cover the period from the founding of the institution in 1859 until 1963. Fortunately, we have the benefit of a financial history written by President Humphreys in 1964, following his rude awakening. Those chapters will draw heavily from his research. Chapter 10 covers a pivotal point in Cooper Union's history, when in 1970 President John F. White built on his predescessor's findings and made a blunt assessment of the financial model. Forthcoming chapters will cover the period from 1970 to 2011.



[i] “Museum Closing Draws Protests: Art Leaders Oppose Plan Set by Cooper Union”, The New York Times, July 4, 1963.

[ii] Richard F. Humphreys, “To Correct a Prevailing Impression…”, At Cooper Union, 1964 (Fall).

[iii] "A Cooper Union Museum: Founded by Granddaughters of Peter Cooper and Soon to be Opened to the Public", The New York Times, May 23, 1897.

[iv] Smithsonian Institution Archives.

[v] “Hoover Cautions On Collectivism; At Cooper Union Dedication He Deplores Tide That Has Engulfed Much of World”, The New York Times, September 18, 1959.

[vi] "In the Closing of Brandeis Museum, a Stark Statement of Priorities". The New York Times, February 1, 2009.

[vii] Peter Cooper et al, The First Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1860.

[viii] op. cit., The New York Times, 1963.

[ix] Charter of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1859. As Ammended by Chapter 257 of the Laws of 1969 and by Resolution of the Regents of the State of New York, January 26, 1972.

[x] op. cit., The New York Times, 1963.

[xi] John F. White, The Cooper Union Financial Report, 1969-1970.

[xii] “Cooper Union Looks at Charging Tuition”, The New York Times, October 31, 2011.

[xiii] “One College Sidesteps the Crisis: As Many Endowments Suffer, No-Tuition Cooper Union Builds, and Basks”, Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2009.

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