Conversations | Alison Cornyn’s “Incorrigibles”

Conversations | Alison Cornyn’s “Incorrigibles”

“The issues of young women’s experiences in detention demand attention, and art is a way to channel that attention and express those experiences.”

A box of old letters and photos purchased for $5 at a yard sale in upstate New York became Alison Cornyn’s Incorrigibles. This NYFA Fiscally Sponsored project is a book, web platform, film, exhibition, research project, and a powerful social justice initiative that reveals personal narratives of girls who were incarcerated and deemed “incorrigible” at the New York Training School for Girls between 1904 and 1975. Cornyn’s enterprise merges art and politics, and past and present to reframe our understanding of how power and perception play into today’s issues of juvenile incarceration.

On January 24, 2018, join Alison and the Vera Institute of Justice for a special screening of Incorrigibles and a panel discussion on girls’ incarceration. The event is supported in part by the 2016 NYFA Opportunity Grant, an award that allows Sponsored Artists to take advantage of specific, unique opportunities that significantly benefit their work or career development.

Title: Incorrigibles: Breaking the Cycle of Girls’ Incarceration in New York
When: January 24, 2018, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
Where: Irondale Center, 85 South Oxford Street, 12th Floor Brooklyn, NY 11217
RSVP: Register here

Read through our interview to learn more about Alison Cornyn’s Incorrigibles.


NYFA: What were some of the reasons cited for having young girls sent to the school? 

Alison Cornyn: The project gets its name from the term “incorrigible,” often cited as the offense for which young women were sent to the school. The term is still used in juvenile justice to deem girls “unable to be corrected, improved, or reformed.” Other offenses cited included being “disorderly,” “ungovernable,” “wayward,” “in danger of having morals corrupted.” Often the story of young women’s detention revolved around behavior outside the framework of accepted gender norms. Intake forms and medical examination documents also reveal that many of the girls were sexually and physically abused; rather than the abusers being sent away, the girls were.

NYFA: Your transmedia project includes a web platform, installation, book, and documentary film. Why all of these media, rather than just one? Why did you choose these media specifically to tell the story, rather than others?

AC: I wanted to make this work accessible to the greatest number of people– researchers, the general public, incarcerated women, old or young, rich or poor, literate or not. Public events and the website were designed to attract a broad audience. There is currently no existing website that investigates in-depth the history of young women’s incarceration. Made possible through a Discovery grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the web platform will make visible the deep ties between race and young women’s incarceration. Users will move between time periods and compare personal stories, records, and a changing legal landscape.


NYFA: There is endless debate on whether art should have a purpose and affect social change or not. What are your thoughts on the definitions and boundaries of art, especially when it comes to art as communicating social justice issues?

AC:  From the caves of Lascaux to the Sistine Chapel, Goya, and Picasso’s Guernica, strong art powerfully interacts with society and history. Art deals with the things that move us and arouses passionate responses. The issues of young women’s experiences in detention demand attention, and art is a way to channel that attention and express those experiences.


NYFA: When you envision a future where juvenile detention for young women is eradicated, are you looking to empower and reverse the trauma that these girls faced?

AC: I’m not sure that one can entirely reverse the effects of the trauma of an injustice. But what one can do is create surrounding circumstances based on knowledge that empowers individuals to have better, richer, and more fulfilling lives.

Often in juvenile justice, adult “experts” define and determine what is “best” for youth, especially girls. Research on the Training School shows evidence of how the young girls were consistently described by individuals other than themselves, and the letters the girls wrote to their families reveal their own voices, with distinctive identities that defy the stigmatizing labels of the social welfare bureaucracy. Inspired by these letters and voices, I give young women a platform to perform and enact scenarios that they define as important to their lives.

NYFA: What are additional ways to empower girls who would have been sent to juvenile detention in the past?

AC: We need to make a cultural shift in our understanding of power dynamics that generate abuse in all instances of society, starting with girls and their families. For ourselves and for them, we have to understand what is causing girls to act out, to run away. Often, it is the need to protect themselves. Incorrigibles is also about creating safe places where, beyond knowledge, exchanges and advice can emerge.

NYFA: Why did you choose NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship?

AC: NYFA has been the fiscal sponsor for many of my projects since 2000. NYFA supports artists and provides a community of artists with resources and access to opportunities. NYFA staff provides validation and oversight of projects that funders can trust and artists also can depend on. They are super helpful and responsive to questions, problems, etc.

– Interview conducted by Priscilla Son, Program Assistant, Fiscal Sponsorship & Finance

Are you an artist or a new organization interested in expanding your fundraising capacity through NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship? We accept out-of-cycle reviews year-round. No-fee applications are accepted on a quarterly basis and our next deadline is March 31. Click here to learn more about the program, current fiscally-sponsored projects, and to apply.

Images courtesy of Alison Cornyn from top to bottom: Anna’s room, If These Walls Could Talk installation at the Oliver Bronson House on the grounds of the former New York State Training School for Girls, 2013; PINS Petition, Probation Department; Incorrigibles draft book with detail of Jewel Ward and unknown girl at the New York State Training School for Girls; Girls past and present

Amy Aronoff
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