Address On Opening a New Archive for the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design at the Art Gallery Of Nova Scotia

(June 16th 2000)

Thank you all, for inviting me to open this important new archive. I must say, that after nearly thirty years in Halifax I feel a bit like an archive myself. In fact, of course, I am a kind of archive. We all are. Somewhere in our faltering memories there lies an immense collage of everything we were ever conscious of—if only we could dig down to it. Unfortunately, however, our memories falter. Even worse, every time this happens, we tend to close the gaps and simplify the stories. Hence all those jokes about the boy-scout messages that end up totally transformed. This was so well understood by the French artist Marcel Duchamp that he left us a specially contrived archive, represented by a set of boxes containing deliberately vague and fragmented notes with many gaps, notes that have generated, as he knew they would, a whole industry of conjecture about his work and therefore not a little controversy among the art historians.

Historians, indeed, have always been dogged by such problems, often without knowing, and sometimes without caring. The verbal reporting of history is the classic case, but written history is also fraught. In fact the situation of history was only improved upon in the nineteenth century—when the German historian Otto von Ranke outlined a system that he called, somewhat optimistically, “objective” history. The result was a school of history writing that came to be called the "Annals school,” because it was to the annals that historians were supposed to go in hope of finding greater “objectivity” in the memos and statistics, the dispatches and the diaristic fragments that serve to demolish myths or illuminate obscurity—but which, until then, historians had felt it beneath their dignity to consult. And where were these “annals” to be found? Well, in many strange places, but, above all, in one very obvious place: in archives! Indeed, our word '"archive" comes from the Greek word archeion—the name of the place where government documents were stored in ancient Greece (it makes you wonder why historians had to wait until von Ranke before they began to look into them). Anyway, ever since he proposed his new method, history has been written with much greater attention to documents—even to seemingly unimportant documents—for every document signifies something.

On the other hand, documents get lost and archives become the casualties of war, or burn down—and these days the speed with which documents get shredded at the sound of a foot on the stairs, must also be accounted for. So the “truth” still fits where it touches, mythic elements still appear, the Annals school falls short of its “objective truth” and history has to be continually rewritten.

In spite of such drawbacks, however, history is obviously better off with archives than without them, and, where public archives are concerned, there are some safeguards. Restriction of access or the sealing of documents for a lengthy period in fear of their actionable content, serve to reduce the need to destroy—and reality deferred is preferable to reality obliterated. It is with such safeguards in mind, no doubt, that the NSCAD archivist will be appealing for documents, or copies of documents, of any kind whatsoever, that pertain to the college. For instance, a few people still exist who can tell you that the archives of our sister institution, Dalhousie University, contain electrifying material where the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is concerned—and the journals and correspondence of members of faculty who left long ago could also add important dimensions. In short, the new archive will become not simply a resource for the compilation of arid statistics, but rather the material for an immense novel—a roman à clé though whether it will resemble War and Peace more than The Divine Comedy, we shall have to wait to see.

The college faculty, as in most post-secondary institutions, is organized in departments. And departmental records will also provide a rich resource—with their countless memos, reviews and curriculum changes, and their interminable committee reports that, one day, may even get to be read, thanks to the new archive. Tonight, it even seems that we may be about to add to these departments. If so, we can count another “first” for the college—a Wall Paper Department! There was a time when if you had said of an artist’s work that it would “make good wall paper,” you would have been told where to go! But this is the 21st·century, and it seems things are changing, for Bernie Riordan, the Gallery’s Director, and Richard Mueller (1) are here tonight, unharmed—after making that very comment to five distinguished members of the present faculty, as well as two American artists of international celebrity and four former students of the college now achieving national acclaim, all of whom, it seems, have agreed to have their art sold by the yard – to show Nova Scotia leading the way again!

Not only that, but the organizers have also found enterprising corporations to help the formation of the archive by actually sponsoring the wall-papers. In short we have here not only avant-garde artists but also avant-garde corporations—all of whom are to be congratulated on their participation in this wildly innovative project. The arts in Nova Scotia owe an enormous debt to such acts of corporate sponsorship (along with the philanthropy of many individuals and trusts). One of the wallpapers is already billed to appear in the annual art fair in Basle, another is installed in the office of the Director of the National Gallery of Canada, and private collectors are already placing orders.

This is an important evening. It makes concrete a new and imaginative initiative by two of the Province's pillars of visual art—The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia—an initiative which will lead to the enhancement of both, and which bodes well for the future well-being of the visual arts in our province.

And with that in mind, I have great pleasure in declaring the exhibition open.