Education

Designing the future

John DeMont March 19 2001
Education

Designing the future

John DeMont March 19 2001

Designing the future

Education

John DeMont

When Paul Greenhalgh, the internationally regarded curator and art scholar, took over as president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in January, no one questioned his credentials. In recent months, through public lectures and one-on-one discussions, the brainy Brit has had plenty of opportunity to impress students and faculty with the breadth of his scholarship and the grand scope of his vision for the tiny Halifax college. Convincing them that he really understood their school, however, took a single inspired act: he gussied up the cafeteria. Out went the vending machines and industrial-style furniture. In came catered coffee, fresh pastries and comfortable sofas. “When I saw that I said, ‘Were back in business,’ ” says Garry Neill Kennedy, who presided over NSCAD from 1967 to 1990, and still teaches there. “How can you have an art school without a place for people to relax and throw around ideas?”

In just months, Greenhalgh seems to be breathing new artistic life into NSCAD, once considered one of the

world’s best art schools. It’s easy to understand the allure of the lanky 4 5-yearold, who arrived just as Art Nouveau 1890-1914, the acclaimed exhibition that he curated for London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, was winning critical success at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. A little less obvious, perhaps, is why someone would chuck a job as head of research at the illustrious Victoria & Albert, with its 16 km of gal-

A grand vision for the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design

leries, to run a school with 763 full-time students, housed in a series of aging buildings in downtown Halifax. After six years on the Art Nouveau project, Greenhalgh says he was ready for a new challenge: “I wanted to take part in this grand experiment.”

That’s as good a description as any of NSCAD, the college founded in 1887 by Anna Leonowens, the British teacher immortalized in The King and I. By the mid-1950s, the school was still small

enough to be housed in a church hall. But in 1967, Kennedy, a painter from St. Catharines, Ont., arrived with a group of instructors who shared his desire to transform the school into a centre of cutting-edge art. “It was an extremely exciting time,” recalls former student and celebrated painter Tim Zuck, who taught there from 1972 to 1979. “We had this sense of freedom, this sense that everything was possible.”

The international art world certainly noticed. A 1973 article in the influential magazine Art in America suggested that NSCAD just might be “the best art school in North America.” Painter Eric Fischl and photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank arrived to teach, Andy Warhol received an honorary doctorate and the influential avant-garde German artist Joseph Beuys addressed the 1976 graduating class. Meanwhile, the list of alumni reads like a who’s who of Canadian culture: painters Doug Kirton and Micah Lexier; rising filmmakers Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden) and Andrea Dorfman (.Parsley Days). Musicians Sarah McLachlan, Jimmy Rankin and members of Sloan all attended NSCAD. “Its influence has been immense,” says Christina Ritchie, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who studied at NSCAD in the early 1970s.

But NSCAD seemed to lose some of its edge when Kennedy, who has just had a one-man show at Ottawa’s National Gallery, left the president’s office in 1990. The cutbacks of the ’90s did not help the school regain its zip. In 1998, NSCAD appointed an interim president, while it conducted a threeyear search for a permanent head.

The hope is that Greenhalgh, who likes drinking dark beer, reading 20th-century poetry and following his beloved Bolton Wanderers soccer club, was worth the wait. Born in the northern England textile town of Bolton, he discovered a facility for drawing as a child and later studied painting and art history at the University of Reading and London’s Courtauld Institute. After graduation, he tutored at the Royal College of Art and was head of art history at London’s renowned Camberwell

Education

College of Arts before joining the Victoria & Albert in 1994. As head of research, he effectively ran all exhibitions as well as the museums scholarly press. “Intellectually, he is way ahead of the rest of us,” says Anna Jackson, a curator at the museum. “But he is also extremely inspirational and extraordinarily dynamic.”

Moving to Nova Scotia without his wife and two children in the worst winter in recent memory hasn’t dampened that enthusiasm. Greenhalgh is aiming high: he maintains that Halifax, with its combination of history and youthful culture, is bursting with a rare kind of artistic potential. Says Greenhalgh: “We are going to create the ultimate academy of art in a Canadian context right here.” Realizing that NSCAD will rebuild its reputation by turning out the best artists and craftspeople, he also thinks the college has to better reflect the changing world. NSCAD has already begun shifting direction, offering degrees in digital communications and environmental planning. Now, Greenhalgh is developing a film school, along with new programs in fashion, glass and product design, and new graduate programs in visual arts, plus museum studies and cultural planning. He is determined to forge relationships with galleries, museums and other institutions inside and outside Canada to improve the career prospects of NSCAD grads.

Both his enthusiasm and ideas are winning important allies. The Nova Scotia government has assured Greenhalgh that there is nothing to the persistent rumour that the cash-strapped province wants to amalgamate NSCAD with another postsecondary institution. But other challenges still loom: the lease on NSCAD’s 19th-century buildings expires in 2008, and the college, with its modest endowment, is about to go looking for new digs. Greenhalgh wants a second campus to house the new programs on the drawing board. In the meantime, he has already thrown himself into the more immediate job: showing he can revitalize NSCAD—and in the process, reinvent himself. CD