The State of the University is a seven-part multimedia project by the Queen’s Journal staff of volume 141, 2013-2014. Below is my contribution investigating the state of visual arts on the Queen’s University campus in the wake of an admittance halt in the BFA program.
In an institution with leading science, engineering and business programs, a strong Fine Arts department can get forgotten in its shadow. With the recent reinstatement of the BFA program, arts students call for change among their peers and stress the importance of arts culture on campus.
The State of Visual Arts
By Meaghan Wray
It took one email for 107 Bachelor of Fine Arts students to learn the fate of their program.
In that Nov. 9, 2011 message, students saw what seemed to be a triumph of the sciences over the arts. At an institution known for its Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, not for its Bachelor of Fine Arts program, this sentiment didn’t seem implausible.
The email, sent to all BFA students by Gordon Smith, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, cited a lack of resources.
“A review of the resources available to the BFA Programme in the immediately foreseeable future indicates that they are not sufficient to sustain the current programme,” Smith wrote. “Given this assessment the Faculty does not feel it would be responsible to continue to admit students at this time.”
The BFA program suspension captured a positive light within a dark cloud. It brought together a faculty and a portion of the student body with a shared motive – to repair a fracture in the skeleton of creativity left on campus.
It took a mere 23 days for the student body to spring into action. Kaisa Moran, then fine arts department student council chair and BFA ’12, encouraged everyone to come protest on Summerhill via a Facebook event.
Around 30 per cent of students who participated weren’t Fine Arts students, Moran said. A petition, passed around on the same day in support of the BFA program, gathered nearly 600 signatures.
Although the recent reinstatement of the BFA program for the 2013 academic year was a success, there are other fiscal dilemmas that have punctured the arts scene on campus.
1994 marked the opening of the Union Gallery, an ambitious effort that saw a student fundraising initiative to raise approximately $340,000 for its construction. The gallery is student-driven and features works by BFA students and professionals, from Kingston and abroad.
The organization strives to integrate artistic culture into the Queen’s and Kingston communities.
After the loss of their student fee in 2012, which provided 50 per cent of their overall operating budget, the success of this integration is at stake.
The unique space provides a professional atmosphere for the artistically-inclined. It runs independent of any department – an aspect that Jocelyn Purdie said sets the facility apart from other university galleries.
Purdie, director of the Union Gallery, said the arts in general tend to face struggles.
“[The BFA program is] fairly small and it is harder for them to keep up with some of these other bigger programs and as money keeps getting cut,” Purdie said. “It tends to be those less financially viable programs that get hurt.”
In the wake of the funding cut, Purdie seems optimistic. But optimism can only go so far when the referendum system itself seems flawed.
“[It’s] very difficult to [maintain funding] when every three years you have to go and try to get your money,” Purdie said. “The referendum is a bit problematic in terms of [if] people know about what they’re voting for.”
In the 2012 fall referendum, 50.4 per cent of students voted against the continuation of the $3.71 three-year mandatory fee, while 49.6 per cent of students voted in favour of it.
A mere margin of 28 student votes reversed an 18-year streak of maintaining the student fee.
“I was really surprised at the [low] voter turn out the last referendum … It made me wonder what’s going on,” Purdie said. “I don’t know if it is an indication of support or lack of support for the arts, or whether people are actually taking it seriously.”
Although students may be unaware of a variety of financial barriers facing the arts, Purdie said they could always use more support from Queen’s administration.
“The arts in general are always having to keep making the case for why they’re important,” she said. “Always, there could be more support for the arts from administration.”
Looking into the future, Purdie said she has high hopes for the Union Gallery.
“The arts won’t have a future on campus unless we get people advocating and out there, sort of pushing, keeping it on everybody’s agenda,” Purdie said.
Anna Speyer, BFA ’14, has held vice-president, president and fourth-year advisor positions on the Union Gallery operating board.
She’s a painter, printmaker and, like most other students, unsure of what route she wants to take in life.
“The reason why I chose Queen’s was … I wasn’t ready to stop learning about things that are interdisciplinary,” Speyer said. “I’ve learned from my extracurriculars that I’ve been able to pull from and kind of help to draw in what I find meaningful.”
Speyer said that there appears to be a lack of interest in the arts on the part of students.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t really understand what art is, in the grand scheme of things, and why it’s important,” she said. “It’s just hard because there’s so many people who are unaware and that just kind of leads to people not really caring.”
She said the power to understand who art students are and what they can provide to the Queen’s community, rests in the hands of the student body.
“We’re just students learning, that’s all there really is to it,” Speyer said.
“It’s learning, just in a different way.”
Students were left in muddy waters, James Puffer said, when the program was suspended and reinstated. Some students don’t even know the program still exists, he added.
“The problem was a big deal but the resolution, it was never very broadly publicized. It should have been celebrated,” Puffer, BFA ’14, said. “Sometimes I feel like people don’t know what we’re doing at all. We kind of feel like an island in the middle of campus in Ontario Hall.”
Puffer voiced the frustration that students felt when it seemed the University was putting arts students on the back burner.
Like some other arts students, Puffer has been involved in displaying artwork on campus. Him and other BFA students worked on wooden signage for The Brew, located in the JDUC.
For someone so passionate about his degree, looking back on the program’s history left him visibly deflated.
“I’m just trying to think back to two years ago without being jaded and bitter,” he said.
The suspension, while meaning to provide a solution to the big financial question of program longevity, left many unanswered questions for students.
“You really did kind of question where the priorities of the administration were, if they had our back or if they really cared, if there’s going to be a fine art program at all,” he said. “Sometimes you do kind of maybe feel like almost like a pain in the University’s side.”
The fine arts program debacle, and now the Union Gallery student fee loss, has brought together a group of students. But the case for the rest of the student body is still unknown.
“When [Union Gallery] didn’t get their fee, that was really disappointing,” Puffer said, “because it was just like, ‘do people care? Is it a priority in people’s lives?’”
If it looked like the student body wasn’t prioritizing arts on campus, who would be tasked with keeping it alive?
The AMS executive, who last year campaigned on the promise to create an arts council to support arts on campus, failed to respond to interview requests from the Journal.
Kathleen Sellars is the director and an associate professor in the fine arts department whose field of interest includes sculpture and time-based media.
Getting into the artistic field, however, wasn’t achieved without challenge.
“In my generation, it was quite common that art wasn’t really supported in school. I was an apt student who did sciences in high school and I had to get special permission,” she said. “Art was thought to be a course that students who weren’t academically-inclined could be competent in … they thought I could do better.”
Originally from Newfoundland, Sellars said there were no art schools available in the area at the time. After studying sciences for a year at Memorial University, she realized it wasn’t meant to be.
Cheque in hand to pay for her second year, Sellars had an epiphany – she knew art was her calling, which led her to Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
However, she’s found a way to combine both interests. Most recently, Sellars has specialized in computer-based robotics, sculpture, graphics and animated video to excavate and explore issues in medical research.
“Because of that history and my interest in the sciences, that’s something that I’ve always been interested in combining in my art,” Sellars said. “There’s a lot of chemistry involved in art.”
The intersection of fine arts with sciences and other areas of study is unique to this campus and one reason why the program thrives.
“They can support the ideas in their work with whatever subjects they’re interested in,” she said. “So that’s an exciting change for students.”
The class sizes, as well as the focus on traditional practices with a contemporary focus, lend a hand to the successes of Queen’s fine arts students.
Unlike most other institutions with arts studios, Queen’s students can leave their works-in-progress set up rather than placing them in storage. This allows them greater working hours and an ability to create larger bodies of work.
A major aspect that makes Queen’s an overwhelmingly positive environment is the close-knit community that’s created, she said. This, in turn, is reflected within the fine arts program.
“Students start in the program, and move through the program together,” Sellars said. “It really helps to build a strong bond among students so they have a real strength and peer group support, not just in the program but after they leave.”
Fourth-year students are taught like a graduate fine arts program. They are expected to develop their own body of work under supervision, rather than having timetabled courses.
“What we’re good at is giving students the tools so they’re quite confident in what they want to do, continuing on,” she said.
The suspension of admission, Sellars said, has presented challenges to the program in getting the word out that they’re “open for business.”
“I think it’s really unfortunate that students feel like they aren’t getting an equal share or that they’re not valued as much as other students,” she said. “I think some of that may be a result of the suspension of admissions.”
“Even though that was such negative publicity at the time,” she said, “it did raise attention for fine art and the need for support of the program.”
Having said that, Sellars added that a recent donation of $15,000 was received from a private donor, which will go towards new equipment.
This type of donation has yet to extend to the other fine arts student hub on campus – the Union Gallery.
“It’s really unfortunate for the gallery, the way that the funding is provided to [them],” Sellars said. “I would certainly advocate and support for some more secure and stable support and funding for the gallery.”
This funding, she said, would ideally come from the University.
“The way that [Jocelyn Purdie] has been able to run it with students I think is a very effective and efficient management of a professional space and I think it strongly benefits students,” she said. “It’s a learning space. It’s not just about exhibiting student work and promoting what they do.”
Perhaps, Sellars suggested, students should move forward and channel their energy in other areas, rather than dwelling on the past suspension.
“Students are here for a short time, and I would really hope they could spend their focus and their energy and their efforts towards their studies,” she said.
Featured image by Charlotte Gagnier