By Murray Whyte. As published in the Toronto Star, 3 December 2011:
It’s D-day at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, though hundreds of students and faculty at the 124-year old university won’t know what that means for weeks, if not months.
On Wednesday, Hugh Windsor, appointed by the provincial NDP government, delivered a report on the school’s future viability to his masters at the ministry of labour and advanced education, and the mood around the school in Halifax is less than cheery.
NSCAD University is facing a potentially catastrophic budget shortfall this year of more than $2 million, and speculation on its possible doomsday scenarios run the gamut from being forcibly merged with Dalhousie University to its outright closure. Windsor was given carte blanche in his recommendations — none of which have been made public, said a spokesperson for NSCAD; there is no timeline for its release — which is greater cause for worry.
How NSCAD arrived here is, of course, significant. A thriving international hub of art education since at least the late 60s, when it became a destination for a burgeoning crew of conceptual art superstars like Sol LeWitt, John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, the school recently undertook bold steps to expand. Its state-of-the art new campus in the Halifax port region opened in 2007, but it did so with a deficit. Ever since, up to 10 percent of the school’s annual, provincially-allotted budget has gone to debt servicing.
The larger question the NSCAD situation provokes, though, isn’t tied to the specifics of its particular crisis. In a tightening economy, art is typically a first target of public funders looking to shave valuable dollars. Art education, meanwhile, is expensive. Its demands for studio space and specialized equipment run far beyond the norm. So the question in the minds of some in the Nova Scotia provincial government is less whether NSCAD can survive, but whether it — and others like it — should.
“It’s like an engineering school — you’re constantly upgrading technology,” acknowledges Sara Diamond, the president of Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD), which fills a similar role here as NSCAD does for the Maritimes. As part of a practical package that folds fine arts education in with bleeding edge design technology, Diamond argues that the benefits of such institutions far outweigh their costs.
“Our students emerge as highly skilled and extremely adaptable,” says Diamond, who chairs an association of schools that includes OCAD, NSCAD, Emily Carr University in Vancouver and the Alberta College of Art and Design University in Calgary. “We hear from employers across all sectors, ‘we need your students. They’ve got the thinking and skills to turn around big problems.’”
John Kissick is the director of the School of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Guelph, which in recent years has become a virtual factory of successful Canadian artists. He suggests that fine arts unto itself is by no means a frill. “I could argue on and on, in terms of the skill sets needed in the marketplace today, that a studio arts education is as good as it gets outside of the professions,” he says.
Kissick is a graduate of the fine arts program of Queen’s University, which is undergoing its own crisis, suspending enrolment for the program for the 2012-2013 school year, though Dean of Arts and Science Alistair MacLean attributes this to the pending retirement of one of the program’s three full-time professors (“I was concerned with admitting new students without being certain we could fulfill course requirements,” he said).
For Kissick any crisis is a broader one. In a tightening funding environment — Ontario schools have been told to expect no funding increases for at least six years — universities chase dollars wherever they can find them. Art programs, he says “can be seen as boutique — they take up lots of space, they have small classes. So if they’re not healthy, they’re vulnerable.”
Then there is the argument that art has become overly-academic, applying unnecessary layers of intellectual rigour to what a broader public might assume to be an intuitive pursuit. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists are art school graduates: Marcel Dzama, who received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Manitoba, or Jeff Wall, the most prominent of a set of renowned Vancouver photo-conceptual artists, who studied at the Courtauld Institute of the Arts in London in the early ’70s.
Luis Jacob, a Toronto-based artist who has built a significant international career without having gone through an art program, still acknowledges its significance. “An art school is really important for giving young people a community — a set of peers all trying to create their artistic identities together. That’s extremely important,” he said.
For Jacob, who has shown at the Guggenheim Musuem in New York and at the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Europe, the lack of community in his own artistic development left him craving it all the more. “This idea that artists sit alone in a studio and create things and then become successful isn’t true,” he says. “Art is a professional and social milieu, and art schools are a huge part of creating that.”
Diamond argues to not just to maintain that aspect, but augment it. “An art education is very intimate — there are low faculty-student ratios. You get a lot of student engagement in these environments,” she says.
Schools like OCAD have also evolved in recent years to lead cross-disciplinary learning across arts, humanities and sciences that bodes well for a future demanding innovation, she says. “We end up turning out independent, extremely flexible thinkers with interdisciplinary skills who are ready for anything.”