The state of fine arts

By Chris Beauchamp

Described within a university document as the University of Calgary’s “poor cousin on the lookout for welfare,” the arts at the U of C, and the faculty of fine arts in particular, have long been associated with the worst of what can happen when budgets are slashed, staff reduced and programs cut.

Contrast this image with successes within the faculty, however–notably John Lefebvre’s recent $1.2 million donation–and it becomes clear the “poor cousin” image doesn’t tell the whole story. Throughout the past 15 years, while the provincial government slashed post-secondary funding in order to reduce Alberta’s debt, the FFA has never given up its commitment to continue producing quality work. Though budget cuts are still having daily effects on the departments within the faculty, thanks to a number of high-profile initiatives, the FFA may finally be poised to become a local and national leader in the art world.

According to FFA acting dean Dr. Bill Jordan, the Lefebvre gift was a huge turning point for morale within the departments of dance, music, drama, and art. Other initiatives include a new $100,000 media lab in Craigie Hall thanks to a gift from NBC Universal Studios, two new positions–the first in five years–and a hand-built organ in the Rozsa Centre. As well, the FFA is being considered for a Canada Research Chair–a first for the faculty.

“I think there are people in our faculty who have stepped up and said we are a faculty who has not been treated right,” said Jordan. “We’ve been very good at telling that negative story, and I don’t think we want to repeat it. We are very positive and forward looking on this.”

Jordan stressed that the FFA is not the only faculty forced to struggle with budget issues, but noted small faculties like fine arts are more impacted by budget changes than larger ones.

“It has been said that you can scrape the loose change off the floor of the science and medicine faculties and it would be just great for fine arts,” he said. “We don’t need that much.”

Jordan’s point that fine arts has learned to do more with less was echoed within the departments, though each department has dealt with its own set of challenges.

Art department: Big cuts bring big changes, but not all bad

The U of C is likely unique in having our art department perched on the top of a parkade, but don’t let the location fool you, the department is turning out more than valets. According to department head Dr. Arthur Nishimura, the art department has nearly 500 students working in art history, studio art and art education–up from about 300 in 1997. Over the same time period, the number of full-time faculty has dropped from 26 to 15.

“The reality of it is, since the mid-90s, we’ve lost positions,” said Nishimura. “We’re hurting. It’s a situation of making major changes to the program in order to accommodate diminishing resources.”

Nishimura recounted an episode at an administrator’s workshop, where a colleague from engineering mentioned he had gone through the hiring process 22 times in recent years, while Nishimura has done it once.

“The overall sense I have is there’s a positive view of the arts on campus,” he said. “But on my more cynical, pessimistic days I feel we’re kind of relegated to a kind of token-ism. You can’t have a university without [the arts].”

Nishimura said retiring staff have not been replaced with new hires, and as a consequence the art department is in a process of restructuring in order to offer the same programs with as little as eight faculty members.

“We’ve built that into the program because we don’t know what the future will hold,” said Nishimura, noting the evolution of the traditional visual arts into multi-media and digital art is also forcing the department to rethink its approach.

Nishimura said the two new positions in the FFA are centered around IT and multi-media, noting the move to more concentration on digital media is an important one, but shouldn’t come at the expense of traditional arts like painting and sculpture. He said the whole department is on the verge of a major change to ‘visual studies’ designation. The existing bachelor of fine arts streams of art, honours art and developmental art will be collapsed into the single visual studies stream. The change will maintain current curriculum, said Nishimura, but will ease administrative efficiency.

The move will also expand the reach of art into faculties as varied as management and engineering, and Nishimura is excited about the realization that art concepts like creativity and abstraction can have practical applications. The change is currently awaiting provincial approval.

“There are a lot of programs across the country that have made that move,” he said. “On the one hand we’ve lost a lot, but on the other, we’ve taken something very positive out of that situation.”

Other changes to ease shrinking resources have included doubling 400 and 500 level courses into one course, moving the focus of senior classes to independent research and the physical move of the art slide library from the parkade to the McKimmie Library.

Nishimura also mentioned a report commissioned by the U of C to look at the state of the arts. President’s special advisor Susan Bennett drafted the “State of the Arts” report to assess the situation and recommend ways to improve creativity and innovation in the arts. In it Bennett calls for a lasting commitment to the Calgary Institute for the Humanities, and the creation of a new Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Interactive Technologies. The results are currently being reviewed by senior administration. Nishimura is hopeful the report will be taken seriously.

“From my position there’s not a hell of a lot I have control over, but that’s my hope,” he said. “To change the department so it will have a future, to give it a role in this institution that’s relevant.”

Music department: Singing an upbeat tune

Although some of the specifics of John Lefebvre’s donation are still in the planning stages, the gift promises big things for the department of music–perhaps not surprising given that it was in music that Lefebvre found relief from his law degree during his time at the U of C.

In addition to entrance awards for the top entering students in each FFA department, and a new fund for special projects in the arts, the Lefebvre donation will directly fund the John Roberts Distinguished Professorship for music professor Edmond Agopian, as well as the Joyce and Quentin Doolittle Fine Arts Studio in Craigie Hall. The studio will provide space for performance arts students.

“The John Lefebvre dollars have turned us around in spirit,” said music department head Dr. Jeremy Brown. “From two years ago to today, things have changed a lot in a positive way.”

Brown also noted that Yamaha Canada has loaned the department four grand pianos, and the Cantos Music Foundation is sponsoring the creation of a hand-built baroque organ in the Rozsa Centre. The organ will be one of two in North America and will be the impetus behind the creation of a new professorship and graduate program in organ.

“I think that now that things have stabilized, I don’t know if we were as hard hit as the perception was,” said Brown. “There’s a lot to be optimistic about.”

Brown acknowledged that cuts have affected how the department runs, but stressed that budget issues are based on provincial funding, not necessarily institutional bias. He highlighted facility and staff issues as current challenges, noting the department is blessed with access to the Rozsa Centre, but that renovations are needed in Craigie Hall. Students have also faced increasing charges for one-on-one instruction over the past four years, said Brown.

“Our enrollment is about the same as it was some years ago, but the amount of professors is significantly fewer,” he said. “We can’t have full-time people to teach every instrument so we rely on sessionals.”

For the 130 undergrads enrolled in the music program, the addition of new space and renovations to Craigie Hall–including $30,000 of Students’ Union quality money announced last week–will hopefully mark the beginning of more improvements.

Drama department: Not a tragedy, but not a feel-good flick either

In many ways, the drama department story mirrors that of music and art. Morale dropped with each successive budget cut and staff position lost. Although the department has access to premier performance space in the University and Reeve Theatres, the cost of maintaining these spaces has sometimes come at the expense of student rehearsal space. For department head Dr. Jim Duggan, both the Lefebvre gift and the SU money could not have come at a better time.

“In some cases, a single bulb [in one of the performance theatres] costs $150,” said Duggan, noting renovation and maintenance funds were often the first to go in lean times. He also mentioned the loss of the Alberta Community Lottery Boards after they were taken out of the provincial budget in 2002. The lottery money was used for upgrades to the FFA’s performance spaces.

“When Lefebvre appeared it was a very bad morale time,” said Duggan. “It was a big deal, and it seems to have improved our standing.”

Duggan pointed to other contributions generated since the announcement. He noted the Engineering Associates Program from the Schulich School of Engineering paid for a quarter of the budget of the department’s recent production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Duggan’s concerns for drama also revolve around the loss of positions through retirement, and subsequent reductions in courses. Even the course requirements had to be reduced from 12 to 10, he said, because not enough staff were on hand to offer a varied enough amount of options. However, Duggan is guardedly optimistic.

“It’s really heartening for us to have these displays of support for the fine arts come from other areas of campus,” he said. “I hate being nibbled away at, but we’ve been able to maintain a program I’m very, very happy to go out and recruit students to.”

Dance program: The poor cousin’s poor cousin does good

With a foot in the door on the ground floor of the U of C’s Urban Campus, the dance program is proving that there is room in the university’s academic plan for more than engineering and medicine. Celebrating their 10th year at the U of C, dance is also demonstrating that art can build strong bridges between the university and the community.

“Dance has less faculty members, less real estate and less funds [than the rest of the FFA],” explained dance program coordinator Anne Flynn, noting the program has never jumped through the hoops necessary to become a full-fledged department. Flynn also said dance is unique because it formed from separate programs within the FFA and the faculty of kinesiology. Even now, Flynn said she must make budget submissions to both faculties.

“It covers everything from the training of elite performers, to people who are going to teach at elementary schools, to the square dancing community,” said Flynn, who doesn’t believe the arts have been intentionally ignored by university administration, but rather funding shortfalls mirror the priorities of society at large.

“[The arts] are just not able to absorb cuts in the same way,” she said. “We have six or seven people. We did lose a position three years ago–to lose one position when you only have seven–the students are impacted.”

For Flynn, the most important priority for dance is space. That’s why she’s so excited about the Urban Dance Project, which will see dance join nursing, social work and environmental design in a new facility downtown. The project already has undergraduate students working and learning as part of a real dance company, 200 level courses for non-majors taught at the downtown YWCA and community-based programs at the Salvation Army and in the east village.

“All the community-based classes are being taught by practicum students with support from the faculty,” she said. “The dance program will do some very significant infrastructure building for the first time.”

“We recognize the sustained under-funding, but we’re focused right now on the possibilities of expansion,” she added. “I’m really pleased the U of C decided to include the arts. Maybe they’re saying the arts are really important and maybe we haven’t always recognized that, but we’re going to start the next 40 years making sure that’s important.”

Fine arts: Past 40 and into those golden years

Administration does seem to be listening. With the broad recommendations in the Bennett report on the state of the arts, and the U of C proclaiming 2006 as the year of the arts, there is the potential for a much bigger focus on arts. U of C provost and vice-president academic Dr. Ron Bond acknowledged the effects of budget reductions, but said cuts were necessary after the province cut PSE funding by 21 per cent in the 1990s, and also stressed that the FFA wasn’t the only faculty affected.

“There’s been more support for the arts generally, and the FFA specifically, than the stereotypes suggest,” said Bond.

Bond–described as a long-time advocate of the arts by people within the FFA–has spearheaded the Discover the Arts initiative as part of the U of C’s 40th anniversary celebrations. Plans based on recommendations in the Bennett report and from the faculty include a symposium on the arts in September, a department of music concert as part of the TD Canada Jazz Festival, a drama alumni project and the launch of a multi-disciplinary graduate program. Bond is hopeful increased awareness of U of C arts will create further opportunities for improvement.

“In the fund-raising world, success breeds success,” he said.

Bennett’s report covers art in the broadest sense of the term, from humanities to environmental design, but her recommendation for the FFA is a reinvestment in faculty.

“You can’t lose that number of positions and tighten the budget without limiting the day to day practice of the faculty,” said Bennet. “But having said that, there is an extraordinarily high rate of student satisfaction in the faculty–above a typical profile at the U of C. They’ve done an extraordinary job.”

Although the 2004 threat of massive university-wide budget cuts never materialized, administration has been adamant about continuing with a reallocation pool. To that end, each department across the university identifies two per cent of its budget each year to be directed into a pool to pay for U of C priorities. Acting dean Dr. Jordan said fine arts came to symbolize budget woes because it was a battle they were willing to fight.

“We were the focus because we allowed ourselves to be the point of engagement on that,” said Jordan, noting FFA dean Anne Calvert held a town-hall in the Rozsa Centre that drew over 600 people to discuss the proposed budget cuts and reallocations. “There was all this fear and anxiety.”

Though Jordan said the FFA as a whole has survived the reallocation process mostly intact–a view supported by Brown–for Nishimura’s art department, the reallocation can be traced directly to the loss of retiree positions.

“The faculty gave up [two] positions to meet the reallocation,” said Nishimura. “For this coming year, the retirement happening in our department is once again being used to fund that reallocation. Obviously those resources are getting reallocated somewhere else because we didn’t get them back.”

Jordan remains optimistic that 2006 will mark a new high in strengthening ties between the FFA and the broader community.

“Calgary became known as an arts town, not just a cow town,” said Jordan. “That has all changed. It has had spillback on the university that is just great for this faculty.”

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