Marianne Cooper is a teacher at heart.
She’s also a visionary who is not afraid to take risks.
Cooper, 80, recently announced she will be retiring from Richland Academy of the Arts after founding the downtown facility 30 years ago.
She took a chance all those years ago, giving up a tenured position at Ohio State University-Mansfield to pursue her goal of making arts available to everyone.
“There was so much talent here and the potential of children,” Cooper said. “I began to research what could potentially be in Mansfield.”
She initially made a proposal for the branch campus.
“That didn’t come around, so I put it in the drawer,” Cooper said.
Undeterred, she took early retirement to continue her quest.
“It was so hectic,” Cooper said. “I was doing both jobs for at least a quarter.”
The first person she told about her idea was the late Tom Croghan, a legendary local musician. He was immediately on board.
“He grabbed me and said, ‘We absolutely have to do this,'” Cooper said.
Looking for a building took time
Money was a concern, but a startup from the local chamber of commerce helped. Cooper said she and others “looked and looked” at potential buildings, including Westinghouse.
They settled on a 7,000-square foot building across from the Carrousel at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets. The building needed renovations.
Cooper remembers those early days.
“We were a school without walls,” she said. “We taught all over town. The building wasn’t ready.”
Richland Academy of the Arts offers private lessons in instruments, voice and piano, along with dance, theater and acting classes. The academy serves school-age students to adults.
“We are not a formal school. We are a community arts center,” Cooper said.
In 1998-99, a capital campaign spearheaded by Bob Enskat raised $4.5 million. The money was used to help purchase three abandoned buildings to give the academy the 47,000 square feet it enjoys today.
A native of Bowling Green, Cooper arrived in Mansfield in 1970 with her two children to be a professor at OSU-M. She had taught in public schools in Ohio and Michigan prior to her move from her.
“I actually knew people living in Mansfield,” Cooper said. “Then I met my husband (Bill) here. We had 45 years together.”
Her husband passed away in 2019. They were introduced by Sarah Davis, the longtime Richland County recorder.
“He was such a staunch supporter of this place,” Cooper said.
Co-worker took daughter to Richland Academy of the Arts for dance lessons
Sheri Hughes is the assistant director at Richland Academy of the Arts, along with being director of the community schools.
Her daughter took dance lessons at the academy starting in 1992. Hughes has worked there for 20 years.
She said she will miss Cooper’s consistency and guidance.
“Marianne is full of energy and life,” Hughes said. “She’s passionate about arts education and providing opportunities in the best way possible for everyone to enjoy the arts.
“When I think of Marianne, I think of her passion and drive.”
Cooper has always been actively involved in the Mansfield arts scene, participating in numerous choirs, theater productions, community events and other arts-related endeavors.
Ken Barnett met Cooper at the branch campus, where she was a choral music professor.
“I thought I knew music, but she taught me an awful lot about music,” he said. “I was introduced to the really good stuff through Marianne.”
Barnett said he grew up in a family that listened to “cowboy country.”
I have known her for 40 years. They have worked together on numerous projects at the Renaissance Theatre, as well as summer musicals.
“She’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known,” he said.
Cooper accompanied OSU-M students to Europe
Barnett said the highlight of his time with Cooper was a trip the OSU-M chorus made to Europe, featuring stops in Yugoslavia, Italy and Austria.
“We were in Europe when Ohio State had their graduation,” he said, adding the chorus held a commencement of its own in Austria.
Cooper conducted three European choir tours and one national tour for the chorus at OSU-M.
She has fond memories of those times, noting education has been in her background from the beginning. Her mother of her was a teacher.
Cooper graduated from Ohio State with a bachelor’s degree in music education. She earned her master’s degree from Bowling Green while pursuing a PhD.
While teaching voice, Cooper has made lifelong friends, including Adena King. King took her first voice lesson from Cooper at the age of 23. She is 52 now.
“She’s just amazing,” King said. “She can pull things out of you that you didn’t know were there.
“I’ve spent all of my adult life singing professionally, and that was because of Marianne. I can’t speak highly enough about her.”
Craig Green, the choral director at Madison Comprehensive High School, is another who has stayed in touch with Cooper.
“I was a student at the academy right around when they first opened,” he said. “My family was financially strapped, and I couldn’t afford it.”
Green received financial aid to be able to attend.
“It was a wonderful time to get involved,” he said.
Green noted that Cooper keeps track of her students.
“For as long as she’s been doing these things, she’s still involved,” he said. “She She’s watching. Ella She knows.”
Cooper reached a new audience in 2006, when Richland Academy of the Arts became a nonprofit sponsor of charter schools throughout Ohio. The Ohio Department of Education made the request.
“It’s been a very positive connection,” Cooper said. “We are able to bring arts to these urban schools.”
Cooper won’t retire until her replacement has been hired
She will not officially remove until her replacement has been selected. Cooper wants to stay on to help with the transition.
“There were certain things that needed to happen (before retirement),” she said. “COVID delayed things, probably two years.”
Staff at the academy have been working on strategic planning and a rebranding of the organization.
“We’ve been working feverishly this past year,” Cooper said, adding a new website will be up next month.
The strategic plan includes seven goals.
“In 2014, we had plans for theater space drawn up,” Cooper said of one primary goal. “It got put back in the drawer. If you don’t try it out, everyone will forget it.”
Life will be different without her
Someone else will have to see those goals through.
“It’s going to be hard to replace her. It’s going to be different,” King said. “She brings an energy level that is infectious.”
Barnett added, “I think the biggest adjustment for her will be not having to worry about it anymore. The Richland Academy of the Arts was her baby. She was laser-focused on the academy.”
When she retires, Cooper will pursue her loves of gardening and travel. Her son de ella lives in Dubai, while her daughter de ella lives in Dublin.
She also has a stray cat that recently “adopted” her.
“It’s an exciting time of life,” Cooper said. “I’m very much looking forward to it.”
Not surprisingly, she vows to remain involved in the arts. Cooper also has interest in other nonprofits and would be willing to work part-time.
“I’m still looking for my third career,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I won’t sit still.”
Cooper also plans to give voice lessons again.
Always the teacher.