Cornish College of the Arts is a fully accredited institution in the Denny Triangle and Capitol Hill neighborhoods of Seattle, Washington, US that offers the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Dance, Theater, Performance Production, Design, and Fine Art, as well as the Bachelor of Music degree. Cornish College of the Arts is the oldest music conservatory on the west coast. Today it is nationally recognized as a premier college for the visual and performing arts, and one of only three fully accredited private colleges in the entire nation dedicated to educating both performing and visual artists.
Cornish was founded in 1914, as the Cornish School, by pianist and voice teacher Nellie Cornish (1876–1956), who was influenced by the pedagogical ideas of Maria Montessori, as well as Calvin Brainerd Cady's ideas on music pedagogy, and who served as the school's director for its first 25 years. Within three years it had enrolled over 600 students, and was the country's largest music school west of Chicago.
The Cornish School began its operations in rented space in the Boothe (or Booth) Building on Broadway and Pine Street. Initially, the school taught only children, but it soon expanded to functioning also as a normal school (roughly what would now be called a teachers' college). While music was at the heart of the curriculum, Cornish recruited opportunistically where she saw talent, and the school soon offered classes as diverse as eurhythmics, French language, painting, dance (folk and ballet), and theater. In 1916, Cornish became one of the first West Coast schools of any type to offer a summer session. The school had the first marionette department in the United States. By 1919, the school was offering classes and lessons from early childhood to the undergraduate level. The school gathered a board of trustees from among Seattle's elite, who funded her school through the hard economic times during and after World War I, and raised money for a purpose-built school building. By 1923, opera and modern dance had been added to the curriculum as well.
The Cornish Trio of the 1920s—Peter Meremblum, Berthe Poncy (later Berthe Poncy Jacobson), and Kola Levienne—may have been the first chamber music group resident at an American school. In 1935, Cornish established the first (but ultimately short-lived) college-level school of radio broadcasting in the U.S.
Through the 1920s, the school was often on the edge of financial failure, but was of a caliber that prompted Anna Pavlova to call it "the kind of school other schools should follow." Although the mortgage was paid off and the building donated to the school in 1929, financial difficulties inevitably grew during the Great Depression. Ultimately, convinced that finances would not allow the school to do more than "tread water," Nellie Cornish resigned her position as head of the school in 1939.
While there were difficult years for the school after 1939, in the long run Cornish did much more than "tread water." With support from local arts organizations and a core of dedicated faculty and staff, the school ultimately "reinvented" itself many times, and in 1977 earned full accreditation as a degree granting college from the Northwest Commission on Colleges. That was one year after the establishment of the Theatre Department as the fifth fully fledged academic department. In 1982, the college received a large Title III grant which was instrumental in establishing the Video Art program in the Art department, and in the genesis of the Performance Production Department, which was granted full departmental status with the graduation of its first class in 1986. The BFA in Performance Production added concentrations in Costume, Lighting, Scenic and Sound Design, Stage Management and Technical Direction. Performance Production was established as an independent department so that it would be able to provide support to major productions of the Theatre, Dance and Music departments and provide its students with experience in all three. Recognizing the vital importance of liberal arts studies as a part of the education of an artist, Cornish established its seventh department, Humanities and Sciences, some years later. Humanities and Sciences had been an important part of the Cornish education even before the accreditation process of the '70s, but the important step of granting department status reaffirmed the commitment to "whole person" education.
Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, was published by the University of Washington Press in 1964, with the assistance of funds from the Cornish School Alumnae Association.