By Mary Dwyer (ChE ’19)
Meet Development Associate, Alexa Strautmanis: artist, advocate, and lover of The Cooper Union
The Cooper Pioneer: Where are you from?
Alexa Strautmanis: I’m a New Yorker. I grew up downtown, less than a mile from Cooper. Though I am originally from Canada, I moved here in the third grade with my very large family. My grandfather was an abstract expressionist, and we ended up living in his loft, where my dad grew up, because that was the only place that could hold all of us. So I grew up in Soho! I went to PS 3 in the village, the Clinton School for middle school, and then I went to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art.
What are your interests?
I feel like my interests have taken a back seat because I recently moved from East Harlem to Astoria! So my interests, outside of unpacking boxes, include exploring new bike paths in the city, going to museums & galleries, traveling, reading, and sketching. I still love to sketch. I still love using those skills even though I don’t necessarily need them in my day-to-day job. You have to keep drawing to be able to create at the level that makes you happy. You are your own worst critic, so the more that I continue to work at my art, the more I am able to accept the level that is my best.
“Often, parents want to push their kids into
something that is more career-oriented
than art seems, but my parents allowed
me to do what makes me happy.”
You seem to have a very art-based history, could you expand upon that?
Yes, I feel very lucky to have been able to go to school for art. Often, parents want to push their kids into something that is more career-oriented than art seems, but my parents allowed me to do what makes me happy. I feel very grateful to have had the freedom to explore that, and this is the exact city in which to do it.
I went to college here in Manhattan at the School of Visual Arts where I got my Bachelor’s in Fine Arts, majoring in painting with an unofficial minor in critical writing. Writing was something I discovered I really enjoyed in college. As an art student, I would have assignments to go to museums and galleries and write reviews — something most of my classmates abhorred — but I loved it! I loved being able to go somewhere, find someone’s creative vision, and share my take own on it through writing.
How did your education affect your career path?
Well, I did not graduate from college and become a renaissance oil painter! After working for a couple of artists and doing copy work for them, I was able to travel and really focus on writing, which was a skill I wanted to build upon after school. I ended up working for a creative consultancy, and I became the right-hand of the company. It was really exciting; I was able to work with artists and entrepreneurs who were really passionate about what they were doing. And while it was not art focused, it was still interesting work with creative people who wanted to be the best at what they did. But I soon realized that the industry just wasn’t for me. I loved the work that I was doing, but my heart was not in it. I wanted to make a bigger difference.
“If someone wants to contribute, or connect;
with alumni, with students or staff, with Cooper,
we are here to reach out and form those connections.”
And then, Cooper?
Exactly! I saw the job listing for Cooper just over a year ago — and I thought: this is awesome! I want to come here, I want to learn what it’s about, I want to be a part of this. I actually applied to Cooper after high school as an art student, and I did not make the cut. But after going to the art shows, and seeing what freshmen students produce, I understood. I would not have accepted me at 17 either! It is a different caliber here. Last year, I went to the ‘Boroughbreds’ art show, which, if I can remember correctly, showcased the early work of freshman and sophomore students, and I was blown away. The work was beyond anything I had seen even as a senior artist at SVA.
What differentiates, in your opinion, the caliber of two pieces of art?
I guess it’s the thought behind it. Technical skill is something you can hone with practice, but if a piece is not thought-provoking, if the concept is not original, if it is based on a hollow idea, then it feels of lesser quality than a piece that makes you think of something in a new way. The inspiration that goes into each piece of artwork, I feel, can really dictate one’s reaction to it. By understanding the mind and the method of an artist, you can really grow to appreciate and understand his or her work at the next level.
What does your current position at Cooper entail?
To best explain my role as Development Associate, let me first explain the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs. Our office exists to further the entire institution as a whole. We connect entities like organizations, corporations and individuals (both internally and externally of our Cooper community), with our alumni, our students and departments within the schools to best serve and benefit the institution each year. I work with both the Alumni Affairs team and the Development team, with annual giving being one of my main focuses.
Last year I worked with the senior council, and I am doing the same this year. We all work together on the senior bash, and senior gift [and right now artists and architects are under-represented so we could use your help!]. I am excited to work with the seniors, many of whom I’ve met in the past year and they are really passionate, involved, and enthusiastic individuals.
My role recently just shifted from assistant to associate, so I will work more closely with alumni this year. Specifically, I am working with volunteers for engagements events, one of which is Reunion Weekend (June 3 – 5, 2016). This year’s is expected to be the largest reunion yet, and I want to help ensure a high turnout from all participating classes – so no alumni miss out on what always proves to be a fun and celebratory event.
I also work with alumni affinity groups, and we just recently started one for entrepreneurs. Cooper is in a real need for a solid alumni group for students and faculty interested in entrepreneurship to connect and help one another to grow and prosper. We have a very driven group of alumni and faculty pioneering this project, and I see it being vital and successful, even in these early stages.
This is what we are here to do. If someone wants to contribute, or connect; with alumni, with students or staff, with Cooper, we are here to reach out and form those connections, and do what we can so this institution can continue to flourish year after year.
What do you love most about your job?
I love how inspiring the students are. Cooper is a special place; amazing things happen here. It was a tangible moment when I started out and I was invited to the Invention Factory lecture and reception. I was new and still learning, so I was solely attending as an observer. But immediately, I was overwhelmed with awe by what these students were doing — it was so inspiring to me, and it stuck.
I really try to take that feeling to work with me: the way that I see students in Invention Factory, exhibitions, etc. talk about their work. Cooper students look at the world and say how ‘can I improve this, how can I make this more functional, or more beautiful?’ — they take what they have in front of them, maybe confront something that they cannot see, and they find a solution creatively, academically, or socially to address the problem at hand. Anything is possible to a Cooper student — I am so aware of that; I see it every day. So I come to work here at Cooper each day and I try to do just that; anything great we can do, we should do. Just as Cooper students say, “if it is the right thing to do and it will benefit society” I say, if it is the right thing to do and it will benefit the school — let’s do it!
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I just started a new chapter here, so my sites are on the upcoming year and the tasks at hand. It’s really advantageous to start out a new semester because I can focus on improving upon last year’s programs, events and initiatives to be better than they ever were before – constantly striving to improve. This is also is a very important time at Cooper, and I knew that during the time when I came on board as well. A clear shift and transition is happening, in a place that has seen more than its share of transitions in recent years; a real weight has been lifted with the resolution of the lawsuit, and with that good news to share we are looking forward to what is next to come. We’re especially able to better, and more openly communicate now— especially with the CUAA in particular — so it has been a really positive working environment as we share knowledge and rebuild faith and trust within the Cooper community.
“A clear shift and transition is happening;
a real weight has been lifted with
the resolution of the lawsuit”
What advice would you give Cooper students?
Take advantage of the amazing resources that are offered here on campus: career fairs, mock interview nights, networking & volunteer opportunities, even after commencement; we have programs in place to help connect graduates with career opportunities and to other alumni in their fields. At Cooper, we really want to engage with our community in these aspects because it is so important that we take care of our students while they are here and continue to nurture them after they graduate.
Anything else you would like to share?
I would like to briefly circle back to my work with the Annual Fund. Now that a ‘Free Education Committee’ will be created and put in place at Cooper, it is also a goal of mine to grow participation this year. This means increasing the number of supporters that Cooper has, outside of fundraising totals. [Some background on Annual Fund gifts: All dollars raised are unrestricted, meaning they can be put to immediate and valuable use where funds are most needed within any of the respective schools.] This is vital because each and every student at Cooper directly benefits from the vital resources on campus that these gifts help to provide.
Growing community participation – even slightly – also greatly helps the likelihood of Cooper being selected to receive large gifts and grants from major donors and corporations outside of the institution. Organizations want to support institutions that have the support of their community.
It is something I am very passionate about, because Cooper was built on a foundation of philanthropy, so it is prevalent that the generosity of individuals matters a great deal to the continuing success The Cooper Union. For these reasons (and for all of the other reasons I’ve mentioned as well), I am also very happy and proud to support Cooper’s amazing students each year.