An Address to Members of the Universities Art Association of Canada On Opening An Exhibition Of Art And Craft by the Alumni of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design

(Anna Leonowens Gallery, November, 1994)

Tonight we are actually opening not one but three exhibitions, two of which look back to what sometimes seems to have been a Golden Age (those of Conceptual Art and of the NSCAD Lithography Workshop), and one (that of the Joseph Beuys Scholarship winners) which looks forward into a darkly unpredictable future. The Beuys Scholarship Fund is, all-the-same, a monument to that earlier period when Beuys, who in the political climate of the 1960s refused to visit the United States, nevertheless accepted an invitation to the NSCAD artists' conference of 1970—and, four years later, returned to receive the College's Honorary Doctorate of Fine Art and to bequeath to us the famous chalk-board now in the Art Gallery of Ontario, from which the scholarships derive.

The Halifax Conference (to give it its correct title), which coincided with Canada's 1970 October Crisis, is an event seldom mentioned in the histories, although it is probably to be matched in the twentieth century only by the Weimar Dada/Constructivist Congress of 1922. You may recall that shortly after it, one of the participants, the American Carl Andre, caused an international incident by leaking (but refusing to confirm) his intention to read the prohibited F.L.O. Manifesto at the opening of his retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada—an exhibition which was therefore cancelled by the gallery.

Of course, the actual works of Carl Andre, like most works in the present show, limited their politics to the confines of art itself: they were “against” preciousness, the autographic hand, the commodification of artworks, museums, and, for a very brief time, even against high prices. They also had in common an emphasis on the processes involved in their own creation. However, the comparison ends there; for the gross materiality of Andre's sculpture becomes attenuated in the products of the litho workshop and a matter of airy indifference in the exhibition of conceptual art, even though many works stop short of “dematerialization,” the ultimate criterion of “conceptual,” according to critic Lucy Lippard. (1)

But if the politics of war, race, gender, sexual preference, and so on, were not initially themes to be found in their work, few conceptual artists were left unmoved by the cataclysmic events of 1968, and it is worth recalling that it was in response to those events that conceptual art evolved into the radical tendenzkunst still with us. In the present show, that can be seen already beginning in the pieces by Martha Wilson, who later moved to New York City and eventually ran the celebrated Franklin Furnace Gallery.

Few of us, I think, can look back over the quarter century that has passed since then without invoking the old shibboleth ars longa, vita brevis; for we who were there have certainly deteriorated more than the art on the wall, which looks as fresh as it did at the time of its first manifestation, even though it is no longer considered by the National Gallery as “contemporary” and today comes under the aegis of the Curator of Modern Art. Of course, that is partly determined by institutional pragmatics, but it does remind us (and we need reminding) that most of the students we teach today were not born when Sol LeWitt declared "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art" or when Lawrence Weiner wrote "The piece need not be built".

In those days, the Anna Leonowens Gallery, the site of these present exhibitions, was located in a different part of the city and part of a six-storey expansion of Dalhousie University. UAAC members of a certain age will recall that the first UAAC convention in Halifax actually took place in that building in 1969, two years after Garry Kennedy's appointment as President of NSCAD. The growth of the College in those days, however, was so rapid that the new building became obsolete almost before completion, and the College is housed where you find it today, as the result of an initiative in which the President and NSCAD Board were persuaded by two members of the Design Division to lease and restore an entire city block—an inspired decision that set afoot the rehabilitation of Halifax's downtown core.

As you may also know, other radical changes that the College underwent in those years were due largely to the collaborative planning of Garry Kennedy and Professor Gerald Ferguson, which, among much else, produced the first Canadian lithography workshop with a master printer—on the European principle then being followed at the Tamarind workshop in the United States. My own first contact with this project was in 1970 when Professor Ferguson toured Canada to promote it and turned up in my office at the Art Gallery of Ontario and I unwittingly endeared myself to him by being the only curator in Canada to place a standing order for everything the Workshop produced.

The uniqueness of that modest gesture was significant. The NSCAD Lithography Workshop was to have been financially self-sustaining, but because in its first year it invited only Canadians to work with the master printer (I refer to such names as Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, and Greg Curnoe), it found itself many thousands of dollars in debt due to the unresponsive Canadian market. All of which turned out to be a blessing in disguise when, to recoup that loss, the College began offering contracts to artists from Europe and the States whose sales brought the project back to solvency. Indeed, anyone who at that time bought the entire run of the workshop, out of enthusiasm for its magnificent prints, would be happy at their increase in worth today. For instance, John Baldessari’s I will not make any more boring art, (not even written by him) was $400.00 and now fetches $4,000.00.

However, the salient factor motivating the Lithography Workshop was the animation of the College by the artists (as had been the case with The Artists' Conference), and as was to be the case with the NSCAD Press from 1972. Other ingenious ways of having the visitors participate in College life were dreamed up by, among those here tonight, David Askevold and Charlotte Townsend-Gault.

I understand that learned papers are to be given in the next few days to examine the “meta-narrative” that produced these activities, and it therefore remains to be seen if through these brief remarks I have committed one last act of NSCAD hubris, before the nemesis of scholarly vivisection. However that may be, one thing is certain: the works of art will survive, and, like the rewriting of Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh in the early 1900s, will perhaps provide a text to be dialectically rewritten in terms that we must leave to be discovered by the class of 1995. Among the Beuys scholars, indeed, I sense something of that kind already. But who knows if in twenty-five years time there will be panels here to focus on them in their turn?

I leave you with that question. The autonomy of the College—which gave it the flexibility to develop as it has, renewing the downtown of the city while becoming a focus of international art, craft, and design—this essential autonomy is now at risk as governments seek to halt their slide to fiscal chaos. I congratulate Bruce Barber therefore on his foresight in giving this UAAC conference the opportunity to review a crucial moment in the history of the College. For today, as the corporate state restructures, the histories of its institutions are at a discount. In short, it is a time to trumpet our unique identity. And to that end I have much pleasure in declaring these exhibitions open.