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Weekly Update – Cooke Museum of Art


[This week’s Philadelphia Weekly includes my feature on the Cooke Museum of Art, a project at the Jay Cooke Elementary School in North Philadelphia. Here’s the link to the art page and below is the copy with some pictures. I have a bunch more photos on my flickr site.]

Making the Grade
A North Philly elementary school opens a visionary museum for young artists.

Diane Pieri with lockers painted in the manner of Japanese landscapes

Diane Pieri wears several hats-artist, teacher, traveler. But I’m guessing Pieri-whose works on papyrus are seen at Rosenfeld Gallery and whose public art project “Manayunk Stoops: Heart and Home” will be installed around early September along the canal tow path between Lock and Cotton streets-never dreamed she’d be a museum director. Pieri’s Cooke Museum of Art (CMA) isn’t your typical art institution, although it has security guards, membership cards, tour guides, official photographers and a caterer for the opening reception.

A CMA tour guide lines up his group before they begin the tour.

Housed inside Cooke Elementary School in North Philadelphia, Cooke Museum is a participatory student enterprise that displays youth art by 120 students from second, fourth, sixth and seventh grades with all the dignity afforded to artists at the great museums of the world.


Two years ago principal Gerald Branch asked Pieri-a resident artist at the school under the Art Partners Program-to design an art project. Pieri worked up her idea, and the Cooke Museum was born. Colorful folk paintings, hand puppets and an inspired project of self-portraits on road maps are currently on display, all works by students of Pieri and William Casey, the school’s art teacher (call him the CMA’s co-director). Wall cards in the manner of those at the Philadelphia Museum of Art give pertinent information about the artist and the work.

Cooke art teacher, William Casey, and students Brianna and Jason who are acting as security guards for the CMA

Word about the CMA has gotten around, and this year tour groups are visiting from neighboring schools. When I stopped in, student security guards, caterers and tour guides were at their posts awaiting visitors. Dr. Barry Drossner, a retired school district principal, and Belita Thornton, manager of the Logan branch of the Free Library, were visiting. Thornton came because a Cooke student gave her a flier and asked her repeatedly if she’d come. “I’m here, and I don’t even know his name,” she said, pausing to get her photo taken by one of the student photographers covering the event. Later I found myself interviewed about how I liked the show by a student with a video camera. All the students were taking their jobs seriously, and everyone enjoyed finding their art on the wall.

Belita Thornton, of the Free Library and Cooke student who invited her posing at the Cooke Museum

With limited budgets and the emphasis on reading and math test scores, it takes a principal committed to art to keep a program in school nowadays. “This part of the child’s life is pushed into the background,” says principal Branch, also an artist with a serious exhibition record. Branch, who has a rare belief in the importance of art in the curriculum, began his career at Cooke as art teacher in 1979 and became principal five years ago.

Karyn, a Cooke student caterer, arranging the refreshments.

“He’s a remarkable person with great vision,” Pieri says of Branch.

Student artists pose in front of their artworks

Also remarkable are the art installations in Cooke’s upstairs corridors, where banks of unused student lockers have been taken over by students and transformed into landscape and totem paintings. These surprising and colorful works take the edge off the institutional nature of the big school building that’s home to 800 students.

Lockers painted as Native American totems

CMA’s success can’t be measured in a test. But the sense of student empowerment and pride in this enterprise is apparent to any visitor.

Cooke Museum of Art
Through June 16. Cooke Elementary School, 13th and Loudon sts. 215.456.3002.