By Russell Smith. Published in the Globe and Mail, 30 November 2011.
I have lived in two towns where social and intellectual life was galvanized by art schools; both those art schools are now threatened.
I grew up in Halifax in the 1970s, and witnessed the first great spurts of physical and emotional growth of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design: I saw its move from a small building near the Dalhousie University campus to a few blocks of renovated 19th-century warehouses in the oldest district of the city, and I saw it become an international centre of artistic radicalism. At the same time I saw Halifax turn into an actual city with restaurants with windows on the street. The two things are not unrelated.
As a teenager I saw the studios and the students of the conceptualists, the people stencilling an image a thousand times on the same paper until it was black, painting layers of paint onto a ball until it was a giant amorphous blob, stacking pennies. If you think this kind of cerebral art is exactly why we no longer need art colleges, you’d be missing out on what living next to artists does for people.
In high school we went to see the art-student punk bands rehearsing their noisy droning in studios that smelled of turpentine and hot metal. I remember one guy had a guitar he’d painted in zebra stripes, which was about the coolest thing I had seen in my life. A little colour like that can change a town. We went on to imitate those bands ourselves, and then our younger siblings imitated us. We snuck into the bar that was peopled with paint-spattered artists and red-plaid-jacketed longshoremen; this is the only place I have ever seen where those cultures genuinely socialized. It was also the first place I saw gay guys being open about it.
The art school fertilized the university and the only theatre: I remember NSCAD, Neptune Theatre (a few blocks away) and the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium (the performing arts centre of Dalhousie University) forming a humming triangle of life; without that gossipy nexus, it wouldn’t have been a city at all.
And then there were the girls in those fragrant studios. One had a crew cut and a matronly (creepy) streak and used to let us teenagers hang around her cold apartment and fall in love with her and look out into the fog over the harbour. She wrote her poems on the fridge. This was an education in romance of every kind for a square city. Art schools are more than cryptic videos in white-walled galleries: They are electrifying spokes connected to everything around them.
At Queen’s, the fine art department was small but visible and necessary. No one was as desirable as the pale, shaking girls who would emerge from their fumes and light more fumes in the snow, who would go to parties in diaphanous skirts and long johns and army boots. Without them, that sweatshirted, healthy campus would have been an aesthetic desert. Everyone benefited from seeing their shows, too: I remember standing in front of an abstract canvas talking to a history major about deconstruction, because of that canvas’s title. The ideas even in the most annoying kind of art – the stack-of-pennies art – are the same ideas that inform everybody else’s life, they are the ideas that every cultured person and media consumer has to talk about. The white-walled galleries were for all of us.
Queen’s University has stopped accepting new students into its BFA program, due to a lack of resources. (I can hear you guffawing at the idea that Queen’s has a lack of resources: Obviously what they mean is that they don’t think it’s important.) Queen’s hasn’t announced closure of the program yet (they are going to “re-assess” it) but I suspect it won’t last long.
The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design has a $2.4-million deficit and has just averted a strike. They are talking about selling real estate or merging with another university to survive. Or they could ask the provincial government for a big infusion. I can see how taxpayers and university presidents might be opposed to the idea of paying for extremely expensive studios and specialist professors for the penny-stackers. I would say: Think instead of the unquantifiable value of glamour.