Reinventing Emily Carr University of Art + Design

The president of Vancouver’s oldest art school has grand plans to create a 21st-century university campus on False Creek Flats

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      On this evening, there’s palpable excitement in the air in the Concourse Gallery at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

      A large crowd has shown up to view a diverse and impressive array of paintings, objects, clothing, and artifacts, all created by first-year students. At times, it’s difficult to see certain pieces because of the number of people, including students’ parents and family members, jammed into the main floor of Emily Carr University’s North Building.

      The annual Foundation Show is a microcosm of the renowned art school, which has outgrown its space on the edge of Granville Island. The exhibit and the school are bursting with young creative talent cramped into a small area.

      Near the entrance of the gallery hovers a large bird created entirely from plastic forks. Jason King’s “Phoenix” provokes thoughts and feelings about the ecological consequences of living in a disposable society.

      On a wall in the middle of the show, a pencil and acrylic image of an isolated and desolate woman appears discreetly on the farthest edge of a blank white canvas. The young artist, Shangguan Yi, has entitled it “To Feel”.

      “It’s like a metaphor of psychological descent,” Shangguan tells the Georgia Straight. “I’ve heard stories and I’ve gone through my experiences, too, and I just projected it onto this piece. To be honest, I think it looks really lonely and sad.”

      Around the corner, student Jodie Lavery’s print, “Balls in the Sky”, features a Photoshopped image of a skull with scanned flowers layered on top. Depending on how you look at it, there are either trees or holes in the sky. “This was my first time ever doing printmaking,” she says.

      On a far wall hangs Hana Amani’s drawing of a person with both masculine and feminine traits. “Current social status, unlike sexuality and fashion, is becoming more neutral and unisexed,” she remarks. “So that was my inspiration, somewhat.”

      All three students profess excitement about Emily Carr University of Art + Design’s planned move to a new, purpose-built campus along Great Northern Way, just west of the VCC–Clark SkyTrain station. However, their enthusiasm is tempered with regret because the project may not be completed before they graduate at the end of the 2015–16 school year.

      The new campus is also on the mind of university president Ron Burnett as he takes to the stage to congratulate them on their “superb” show.

      “We’re going to be consulting with you as much as we can over the next six to eight months to get your opinions on what you think should happen at the next campus,” promises Burnett, an experimental filmmaker, author, and early adopter of computer technology. “We want it to be a campus that will be unlike any other in the world. We want it to express the best of what art and culture can provide and we intend to make it an institution that everyone will want to visit in Vancouver. We’re thinking very, very big.”

      This year, Premier Christy Clark promised $113 million in funding for the new campus, but it came with a catch: the university will have to raise another $21 million to cover the capital cost of a new four-storey building. Polygon Homes chair and art collector Michael Audain has announced a personal donation of $5 million, setting the stage for a major capital campaign that will be launched later this year.

      On the same day as the Foundation Show, Burnett sat down with the Straight in his book-lined office to talk about the university’s upcoming move. He’s especially keen to highlight how it will reinforce the growth of Vancouver’s creative economy by accelerating the development of the artistic hub east of Main Street. Several galleries—including Monte Clark, Catriona Jeffries, and Equinox—have already moved into the area.

      But first, he makes the case for why the new campus is even necessary. When he arrived as president in 1996, there were about 800 full-time-equivalent students on campus. That’s since risen to more than 1,800. There are an additional 3,000 part-time students who come in for noncredit courses.

      “So if you walk around, you’ll notice many improvised spaces—walls where walls shouldn’t be, classrooms that are literally underneath…offices, underneath stairs, et cetera,” he says with a smile.

      At the same time, Burnett beams with pride as he discusses how the university has evolved from its origins nearly 90 years ago as the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. Many of the city’s most celebrated artists—including Gordon Smith, Douglas Coupland, Simon Chang, Martha Sturdy, Attila Richard Lukacs, Liz Magor, and Brian Jungen—are among those who’ve attended. There are now students from 60 countries, giving the institution a strong international flavour.

      “The core challenge is how do you diversify the curriculum to reflect the diversity of the population?” Burnett declares. “How do you respond to the role of Chinese art historically? How do you decrease the emphasis on Western European art as the only form of expression?”

      Known as a school for painters and sculptors, Emily Carr has developed a parallel identity for marrying high-tech with creativity to achieve economic results. Its Stereoscopic 3D Centre of Excellence, which opened in May 2010, conducts research into cinematic-display technology and works with many production companies. A health design lab creates devices and applications to help people with disabilities lead more enjoyable and productive lives. According to Burnett, the Social + Interactive Media Centre is developing a tool with the Mozilla Foundation to enable people to find out if information they put on one website is transferred to other websites.

      “We work with approximately 300 companies in partnership projects,” Burnett says. “It has been an interesting and hidden outcome of the way the creative economy works.”

      Emily Carr University has received a $2.8-million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and another $5 million from the Canada Foundation of Innovation. Burnett points out that the school also recently obtained two grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The federal funding means the school can hire three Canada Research Chair scholars—in aboriginal studies, digital media, and health-related design.

      Burnett points out that the province conferred university status on the institution after administrators provided a report showing that more than 90 percent of Emily Carr grads were employed.

      “People haven’t recognized in Vancouver how the knowledge economy and the creative industries have actually become significant parts of what we do,” he states.

      An example is in the area of technical sports apparel, in which local companies like lululemon athletica, Sugoi, Mountain Equipment Co-op, and Arc’teryx are relying on local designers to become world leaders in their field. Last year at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the founder of lululemon, Chip Wilson, declared that because of this design expertise, apparel manufacturers will be bringing a lot of production back to Canada in the next decade. That’s because robots and other technological innovations are bringing down the per-unit cost of production in Canada.

      Burnett strongly agrees with Wilson on this point. “That’s a very, very important insight,” the university president says. “That’s why a company like lululemon, irrespective of its current challenges, is so wonderful—because they get that.”

      Most of the city’s residents don’t realize that the school offered four-year diplomas for many decades before it moved to Granville Island in 1980. The Social Credit government of that era later allowed it to grant degrees, and seven years ago, Emily Carr began a master’s program in applied arts.

      In recent years, the art school has formed partnerships with other academic institutions—most visibly at the Great Northern Way Campus with UBC, SFU, and the B.C. Institute of Technology—but also with North Island College and the University of Northern British Columbia.

      “This is a specialized institution, so it’s different from a comprehensive university,” Burnett emphasizes. “It prides itself on the fact that people are involved in a studio-based education with a very strong academic core.”

      Not long after Burnett was hired as president from McGill University, he decried any notion that the digital revolution should be seen as dramatically different from the introduction of sophisticated paintbrushes and pencils for earlier generations. “Each technology provides the good artist and the committed artist with additional tools,” he told the Straight at the time.

      The message didn’t go over well with everyone—one instructor even told Straight visual-arts writer Robin Laurence that the Internet “was a huge waste of time”. History suggests that Burnett deserves credit for being a visionary in foreseeing the growth of the creative economy.

      Five years ago, the Conference Board of Canada published a report declaring that the artistic and cultural sector “generated about $46 billion in real value-added GDP [gross domestic product] in 2007”.

      “However, when considering the effect of culture industries on other sectors of the economy—accounting for indirect and induced effects—the overall impact was much larger,” the report states. “According to our estimates, the economic footprint of the culture sector was valued at $84.6 billion in 2007, or 7.4 percent of real GDP.”

      Meanwhile, author and University of Toronto professor Richard Florida has written several books and articles about the rising economic importance of the “creative class”. One of his titles, Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, focuses on the monumental impact that a person’s city of residence can have on the course of their life. Burnett describes it as an “important book”.

      Florida’s consulting company evaluates many factors in cities, including the number of patents being filed from various metropolises. “Our map of global innovation clearly shows a world composed of innovative peaks and valleys,” Florida writes in Who’s Your City?. “The leaders—the tallest spikes—are the metropolitan regions around Tokyo, Seoul, New York, and San Francisco. Boston, Seattle, Austin, Toronto, Vancouver, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, Helsinki, Osaka, Seoul [sic], Taipei, and Sydney also stand out.”

      Burnett says there are 80 postsecondary institutions in the Boston area alone, which help drive the city’s economy. “You’re dealing with this massive inflow and outflow of intellectual, pragmatic, and material engagement,” he notes. “Vancouver is not bad. We have, for our size, good institutions. And we need to recognize how they integrate into our economic picture and recognize UBC provides incredible economic value. Smaller colleges provide that, too.”

      One of Burnett’s admirers is Vancouver NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball, who was running Carousel Theatre on Granville Island when the art school arrived in the neighbourhood. “The day they opened, it was too small,” she recalls over the phone with the Straight. “It’s been a huge success. Ron Burnett has done an amazing job down there.”

      About 14 years ago, Burnett started thinking about how the school should deal with its continued steady growth. He recalls sitting down with Martha Piper, then the president of UBC, to discuss how to promote more collaboration between postsecondary institutions. BCIT officials were later invited to join the discussion.

      Around the same time, the dot-com economy was going bust, leaving Vancouver-based heavy-equipment manufacturer Finning International in an awkward position. The city had rezoned its property on False Creek Flats to create a high-tech precinct, but there was little take-up because of a severe downtown.

      The company decided to donate the 7.3-hectare site to four postsecondary institutions—UBC, SFU, BCIT, and Emily Carr—as “a pragmatic business decision”, according to former Finning real-estate advisor Bob Laurie, The shareholders benefited because the institutions could provide tax receipts, which were used to reduce the company’s taxable income. But there were also “softer elements”, he told the Straight by phone: executives wanted to give something back.

      “The vision was to get Emily Carr married to an engineer, so that you get entertainment, art, and computer skills,” Laurie quips.

      The collaboration resulted in the creation of the Centre for Digital Media. Burnett says that he’s looking forward to the new Emily Carr campus becoming a “learning institution for the 21st century”.

      He’s been inspired by the University of the Arts London, which has more than 18,000 students from 114 countries. Burnett recently visited a new campus at the St. Pancras International train station, where students learn and create in an open area that looks like a mall. “People are everywhere,” he says. “They’re seeing art. They’re making art. They’re experiencing it.”

      The benefit for students is that they’re being forced to communicate outwards to an audience. And the passersby become accustomed to absorbing and valuing art. He points out that a similar pedagogical approach has been adopted at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has a public and open space, as well as at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

      His vision for the new Emily Carr campus is a very public space, including sculptures and installations that turn the institution into a community square for the surrounding area. Burnett also wants 200 to 300 beds of student housing on the site to create a greater sense of community. “We’re also hoping there will be housing of differing sorts available either for purchase or rental,” he adds. “But it’s a little premature at this stage, right? It’s early days yet. These are complex deals that need to be developed. I am hoping for a good residential component to that site.”

      Emily Carr University’s board would have to contend with Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy, which stipulates that housing cannot be built on industrial-zoned land unless it’s 150 metres from a rapid-transit station. However, it’s possible to qualify for exemptions if the housing site is smaller than a hectare—or if the university itself becomes the site of a SkyTrain station.

      Laurie had used his negotiating skills to help persuade the B.C. government and the city to support the creation of a VCC–Clark SkyTrain station at False Creek Flats. And this is key to Burnett’s vision for the future of the new campus, which is further west. “There’s a provision in our site for a station at the corner of Thornton and Great Northern Way,” he says.

      Meanwhile, back at the Foundation Show at the old campus on Granville Island, one of the faculty veterans is eagerly looking forward to the next stage in the history of the institution. John Wertschek, who teaches creative process and photography, decides to speak to the Straight in the cafeteria. It used to be a classroom, but was converted into a dining and social-amenity space to accommodate the growing number of students.

      “It’s really hard to find any room anywhere in here,” Wertschek says. “This building is not purposed as an art school. I think we’ve all struggled and worked very hard to make it possible to make this place run.”

      When he gets up to speak to the students at their art show, Wertschek opens with a simple message: “The 40th Foundation will take place at Great Northern Way in 2017. This will be the last graduating class from this building.”




      Apr 25, 2013 at 8:07am

      No offense to Burnett or to all the great students at ECUAD, but the emphasis in Vancouver ought to be "How do you decrease the emphasis on B.C. art as the only form of expression" at places like the Vancouver Art Gallery?

      While I am a strong supporter of the visual arts, I worry that between ECUAD and the (new) VAG the visual arts in Vancouver will become a self-admiration society.

      I would argue that it precisely the ignorance of European art (and the way in which European art has long incorporated worldwide art) that makes B.C. art so bad. B.C. produced art seems to be on a mission to ignore and forget tradition. The idea that European art is elitist and colonial etc. is just a cover for the arrogance of the ignorant. Careful, lest this become art produced by ignoramuses for ignoramuses.


      Apr 25, 2013 at 10:17am

      Hazlit, don't worry so much.


      Apr 25, 2013 at 2:00pm

      Interesting. When Christy Clark made her grand announcement at ECUAD, a group exhibition that was on display in the Concourse Gallery was FORCIBLY removed by...who exactly?...That art needs to be removed from the walls of the school for our "government" to toot their own horns about supporting the arts is just plain ridiculous. Of course you don't read about the giant, disrespectful headache this caused those part of the show.


      Apr 25, 2013 at 5:12pm

      Purpose built art school = more space for exhibitions = no art forcibly removed.

      maurice yacowar

      Apr 26, 2013 at 4:00pm

      That's so exciting -- the new campus, new direction and the improved VAG. Look forward to seeing it.