The Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University, one of Canada’s oldest and most influential art schools, is kicking off a 125th birthday bash tonight at its Anna Leonowens Gallery with the opening of three exhibitions that promise to trace the college’s different eras.
Gallery 1 will be devoted to historical works portraying the college and its personalities, including a portrait of NSCAD founder Anna Leonowens by Robert Harris and a landscape by past president Arthur Lismer. Gallery 2 will host Corrections, an installation by conceptualist Garry Neill Kennedy, NSCAD’s longest-serving president, in which all the imperfections in the space are circled. And Gallery 3 will be home to King & I: Reprise, an installation with working bar co-created by 2012 Sobey Art Award finalist Eleanor King and decorated with works by the school’s alums and faculty.
“King & I started kind of as a lark between myself and Stefan Hancherow,” says King—who is also director of the Anna Leonowens and a NSCAD alumnus—in a phone interview. “It kind of came out of this longing for a place where artists could meet and just hang out and talk…kind of like what the Khyber bar was to my generation of students in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”
The first iteration of King & I took place at the gallery in December 2010. It was so well enjoyed that the organizers of NSCAD’s 125th anniversary celebrations asked King and Hancherow—who graduated from NSCAD in 2008—to remount it specially for this September’s festivities.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity for faculty and students to hang out with each other, or for graduate students and undergraduate students to do that.” King explains. “So we were trying to create that collegial atmosphere for whoever wanted to participate.”
In addition to the working bar serving up a happy hour from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily, the 2012 installation features works on the theme of drinking by NSCAD-connected artists. These works include sculptor and faculty member Thierry Delva’s sandstone versions of 12-pack beer boxes and alumni Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby’s video Being Fucked Up, as well as works by Craig Francis Power, Kelly Mark, David Askevold, Micah Adams, Michael Fernandes and roughly a dozen other artists.
“Stefan and I felt that many conversations about art tend to happen over drinks,” King says. “Often good ideas, and sometimes bad ideas too. That’s when a lot of riffing on ideas happens, at least for us.”
While NSCAD certainly does have much to celebrate—like its legacy in developing conceptualism in Canada and abroad, and its continuing reputation as one of the nation’s leading art schools—the fact remains that the school has faced difficult times in the past few years.
A December 2011 report, released by a provincial government minister, assessed the school’s debt at $19 million, and it requested the institution implement cost-cutting measures.
In February 2012, NSCAD president David Smith announced his resignation.
In May 2012, NSCAD passed a 2012–2013 budget that aimed to cut its deficit in half. At that time, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald reported that measures to achieve this goal included fee and tuition increases adding up to $400 per student per year; a decision to cut up to 55 classes from the school’s timetable; and a directive to not replace departing faculty.
When asked about these events, King admits that “it has been a really difficult time here,” with the Anna Leonowens Gallery also suffering due to budgetary cuts. (A position at the gallery that was vacated has not been filled.)
But, she says, she sees her role—and her installation—as an opportunity “to bring morale up again.”
“I guess my attitude around trying to be okay with even being here at all is just to continue to do my job in the most positive way that I can and to try and make this a place where students still want to be. Because without the students—if we don’t have the enrolment—the school will go under,” she notes.
The December 2011 report traced a large part of NSCAD’s financial difficulties to the decision to move forward with developing its newer Port Campus without sufficient funding in place. The new campus development was championed by former president Paul Greenhalgh, who was at NSCAD from 2001 to 2006, the latter being the year construction commenced on the project.
“Obviously, I don’t like to see the decisions that were made,” King says. “I don’t like to see those problems being downloaded onto the students or onto the staff…. But I see my job as trying to be supportive and to support the students in all the ways that we do—and then to celebrate and be happy when we can.”
NSCAD’s 125th anniversary exhibitions run until September 29, with a special performance and concert also happening at nearby Halifax locations on September 22.