Queen’s must rise to its artistic reputation

Budget cuts have squandered creative arts funding at Queen’s, but artistic programs are doing more with less to meet and exceed the University’s expectations for robust creative arts

John Burge
John Burge
Clive Robertson
Clive Robertson
Agnes Etherington Art Centre has expanded since it was conceived in the 1920s to meet the University’s demands for creative arts, but further growth is at risk from budget cuts.
Agnes Etherington Art Centre has expanded since it was conceived in the 1920s to meet the University’s demands for creative arts, but further growth is at risk from budget cuts.

What makes Kingston livable aside from comparatively affordable housing, safe neighbourhoods and being a node on a transportation corridor? To live in Upper Canada’s former capital is to be a quick trip to the many allures of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

To read the glossy recruitment brochures, incoming students, staff or faculty might be forgiven for thinking they were moving to a place re-envisioned by Creative Cities urban theorist Richard Florida.

The faculty recruitment brochure’s panoramic aerial photos of water, trees and limestone buildings alone suggest a lakeside paradise. Additional reference to a critical mass of “homegrown” arts groups conjures up access to artists, audiences and patrons.

The growth of cultural attractions for new arrivals appears promising if we consider the planned lakeside construction of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Sharing a site with the city-owned T.K. Tett Centre cultural facility and sharing costs with the city and senior levels of government, Queen’s seems to be doing the right thing to make a deal for a joint arts community project. Queen’s initially referred to the project as the “arts campus” which is perhaps not the smartest way to overcome civic fears of the academy’s self-sufficiency or isolation.

To answer the question of how the University’s creative arts programs are dealing with the projected budget cuts due to peak in 2012-13, we might reply that Film, Drama, Music and Art are swimming towards a lifeboat that could be a combined School of the Arts housed in the Isabel Bader Centre. Like our sister units, we’re simultaneously revising curriculum and degree program delivery, assessing pedagogical innovations and looking for dance partners. We don’t have the luxury of following the administration’s credo of doing “less with less.” As artists, professors, program directors and administrators we are doing more with less.

Our comments on the re-visioning exercise and ongoing budget cuts to academic programs are likely similar to many other programs at Queen’s. Here, we want to add a reminder about how the arts in its interstitial capacity epitomizes the link between key neglected aspects of the “Queen’s Tradition” and its future opportunities and possible relevance.

In outlining a draft of future institutional priorities, the Principal’s Where Next? planning document omitted mention of the humanities and culture. As Film and Media Head Clarke Mackey suggested in a letter to Principal Woolf, if one was looking for future excellence and synergy, why ignore the traditional and contemporary roles played by the four creative arts departments participating fully, as they do, in the “study of culture and communication [which is] the core concern of a majority of 27 Arts and Science departments?” In the last three decades the case for culture as an economic engine and effective catalyst for urban revitalization and community building, and as a measure of quality of life, is hard to miss. The popular and national need for local arts infrastructure building in the late 19th century and early 20th century was exemplified locally by The Kingston Art and Music Club of the 1920s and its active catalyst, Agnes Etherington. The donated Etherington house allowed Queen’s to develop a university and community art gallery: the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC). In the same period, many alumni began purchasing a collection of art for the university.

This is the tradition the Bader family has followed, with major contributions of art and capital funding for the renovation of the AEAC, by the funding of Chairs in Art History, by providing Bader student fellowships, and by Isabel Bader’s assistance to the only graduate program in Art Conservation in Canada.

As a site for cultural policy innovation, Queen’s hosted the Kingston Artists’ Conference in 1941 funded by the Carnegie Foundation. At this conference, artists from Canada and the United States debated the possibilities for cultural democracy. This modest Queen’s event helped advance the merits of public funding for universities, arts programs and facilities. Furthermore, initiatives arising from this and subsequent meetings of artists, scholars and cultural workers that helped mobilize citizen, media, and governmental support for what would eventually become the Canada Council for the Arts and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. In the late 1950s, Queen’s didn’t need Maclean’s magazine to annually poll the veracity of the university’s claims of academic leadership.

And today? The community cultural building continues with less fanfare, but this is an incomplete snapshot. Film and media faculty and students have been involved in the National Film Theatre, Cinema Kingston and more recently the Kingston Canadian Film Festival and the Reelout Queer Film and Video Festival. The department provides interns for CKWS and COGECO 13. Queen’s drama department professors are artistic directors of Theatre Kingston and the Thousand Islands Playhouse.

Members of the Kingston Symphony Association teach in the School of Music; the new Conservatory of Music enriches the cultural lives of local residents including many retirees. Music faculty are involved in local and experimental musics including directing Tone Deaf, an annual festival of adventurous sound. The Departments of Art, Film and Music and its faculty and students are constantly collaborating with the region’s artist-run centre, Modern Fuel.

The Stauffer-located Union Gallery works in tandem with the AEAC and Kingston’s artist residence, The Artel. Art History and Art Conservation are closely linked with local communities through their practical and knowledge-based expertise. More than this, Queen’s arts faculty sit on the Arts Advisory committee for the City of Kingston and were key advocacy players in the push to renew the Kingston Arts Council in its current role as a municipal arts funding body.

Within and far from the city limits, Queen’s creative arts programs are awash in interdisciplinary, cross-community reciprocities. Such embeddings are immensely valuable as a model for our undergraduate and graduate students. As much as we work nationally and internationally, we’re closely aligned to the local—that same rich and appealing local Queen’s toutsin its recruitment brochures.
John Burge is a Juno Award-winning composer and professor in the School of Music. Clive Robertson is a performance and media artist, professor in art history, and acting head of the Department of Art.

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