My Perspective on The NSCAD Problem as Alumni

So I feel like I really need to say something, as an alumni of NSCAD who was on the inside when things started to really fall apart with my school. It is my school: I invested a good part of money and my life to be there, it is where I met some amazing friends and my partner who I’ve been with for 4 years, and it is where I graduated and really decided to commit to my creative career. To see NSCAD suffer and to hear constant bashing and criticism is like listening to a close friend get trashed and manipulated.

If you’re unaware of what is happening at this small but important Canadian university, a TL;DR: NSCAD is $19+ million in debt, the school in near a state of permanent collapse, and the heritage of being one of the best art schools in Canada is undergoing self-destruction.
There are many articles about this situation, but I feel like this one, by the local Halifax culture rag, The Coast, is a great summary. Many universities are threatened by low profit and outstanding debt’s in today’s economy, but NSCAD is in absolute peril. NSCAD is one of 4 art universities, not a college, in Canada. Its programs are different because they are far more open and focused more on concept than technical skill; you can take different types of courses simultaneously (such as I took ceramics, film, and drawing all within the same degree), you study art history, and you work on coming up with big ideas. What I mean is your classes go beyond just your technical skill and teachers will put in the extra work to really examine your work and offer a thoughtful critique of your ideas. The school is open 24/7 and people work their ass off on their projects. Your profs. will stay after class or go for beers with you quite frequently to talk about your work, the school, art in general. This is what made me come to NSCAD, on top of it being a very small, cozy university that lets you be a focus for instructors instead of just a student number. I wasn’t attracted to school’s like OCAD because I was already fairly well off in the technical realm and OCAD seemed to let anything pass as a thesis project – lots of decorative art and sometimes with very weak fundamentals at the end of a degree? What I found with NSCAD is that completely inexperienced students would enter the painting program, for example, and come out with very strong rendering skills but also with skills in using colour theory, composition, perspective, and generally with a bigger idea to their images.

And sure, I am being extremely positive when I say this now. I mean, I feel like I really benefited from my degree focusing on film. Even though the program has always struggled, I still left NSCAD film with at least a basic foundation in all aspects of filmmaking, I learned a hell of a lot since I literally had never touched a video camera before being there, and most importantly – I left with a high level of critical thinking for film work that I definitely did not possess before. I can dissect a film and articulate why I think certain scenes, the cinematography, the whole concept, direction, or acting is not working or working. I learned to be my own Roger Ebert. There are few who I can ask to do the same and take a look at today’s TV programming, for example? The majority is stale regurgitated acting, excessively decorative lighting and camera work that is just done to be cool (see CSI), and direction and writing that lacks substance. This is why Hollywood movies are 90% CGI and big names, and 10% actually good story that makes a film really stick to you. It is because there is a lack of critical thinking in the medium, and there is a lack of critical thinking because there is a lack of understanding of the medium on a greater level than the superficial technical procedures. This is what separates great TV like Breaking Bad, Oz, The Wire (yes I am a huge HBO fan), Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm from the mediocre stuff airing most of the day… I would say one of the most important questions in art is “Why?” and it is an extremely important question in culture. This is what I left NSCAD with, and I feel like few art colleges teach this. As long as art is pretty or cool, it’s a pass in most places.

Bad Decisions

I am also being extremely positive because, as you can imagine, the seriousness of this debt has really affected the morale of the teachers and students at the school. In my last semester, the air was getting very depressing. This was the talk of the school: how we’re going to merge with Dal and our unique “brand” or perspective was going to disappear; how we’re going to lose any one of our campuses; how teachers are being laid off, underpaid or switched over to part-time; how classes are being cancelled (massacred) every semester; students are leaving, teachers are quitting…  and meanwhile, none of this made sense when you compared it to how the school was spending money. In my last year, the film department was shuffled around a lot because they decided to renovate our building. This sounded good, but most of the renovations were superficial – a new entrance, fancy light fixtures, a screening room (that for some reason, we rarely could access?), meanwhile what we really needed was an elevator, proper sound rooms, a better equipment room…
The huge glass door entrance that mostly got in our way of moving equipment to our building became a joke that symbolized just how poorly decisions were being made at NSCAD – as if some glass doors were going to attract new students, not the quality of the programs and the accessibility of our tools. And now, after spending several millions on renovations and even limiting our space by moving the other audiovisual department — which is rather outdated and uses ancient, mostly broken equipment in my opinion — into the limited space based on seniority decisions, they might sell the building all together? They want to move the film department into the Port Campus – let me explain what that is like: the Port Campus is an open concept design where most of the walls are mobile, there are HUGE windows letting in light. The sound proofing in the Port is non-existent, and you can’t control lighting if you have giant windows blasting sunlight into every room – film needs a controllable environment of silence and darkness. This will be an absolutely disaster to the film department and the Port Campus is already over-crowded. Now this is ridiculous not only because I was a film student, but because the film department puts out work into the public nationally and internationally and is very interactive with the local community. It is a huge benefactor for NSCAD in terms of publicity and reputation.
This is not the only decision that will greatly diminish the quality of our program – and other programs. Like I said, I heard from The Inside that many teachers are being put on part-time when there is already a lack of teachers – most teachers teach several courses simultaneously, which is already bad because that means they are being stretched thin and there is a lack of variety in teaching technique and perspective. You don’t get along with a certain teacher or really learn well under their teaching technique? Well too bad, this teacher is the only one who teaches that class and you need the credit to progress. It’s removes competition between teachers and lowers quality. There’s laziness, there’s prejudice, there’s fatigue, there’s favoritism. Likewise, teaching at an art school is very different. There’s less lectures, less collecting grades through exams – you have to be involved on a completely different level and be very interactive, so you really can’t spread teachers so thinly. It is also a different environment for students than it is in a program that is 80% lecture courses – students need to be just as involved in their education and art, being as difficult as it is to teach, requires you to be very motivated and interactive. You can’t sit back and expect to learn things by being passive (This is biggest complaint I hear from art students overall). Sometimes what is needed isn’t deeper participation from students or teachers, but just a professional mentor to bring realistic and current experience and knowledge into the program – the NSCAD administration doesn’t actively pursue making this part of programs, like it is at AFCOOP for example; however, some teachers take initiative and organize professional speakers and workshops outside of the school. I am saying all this as objectively as possible, because criticism of teachers is often the biggest topic when criticizing NSCAD. At this point, I feel like teachers are working in an environment that is going against them and you need to look at the higher level of dysfunction. Teachers are humans – they can only do so much individually and the administration needs to support them, not undermine them.
Another decision that diminishes the quality of the school is just the sheer number of classes that are being cut out of programs. Lack of funding, lack of teachers, still sometimes a lack of space – but how can you attract new students without courses? If you look through the NSCAD course booklet, I would estimate (going by my experience with the film program) only about a quarter of the classes are being offered. For example, “FILM 3350 / MDIA 3349 Production Management for Film” was never offered while I was there for 4 years. As far as I know, it’s still not offered and isn’t going to be offered, even though it is a critical portion of film production. And another class, “3151 – Natural Dyeing Workshop” was cancelled permanently during my second year and it was a class I really wanted to take for my knitting work! There is lots of instances like this, not just these two. By the time I graduated, the Production Design class also died off, as another example.
I know many of courses also overlap, so it starts becoming impossible to complete a degree within a reasonable time frame – something which influences students to quit or transfer to a new school. Part of the problem is also the Foundation Program, which is a mandatory first-year program that brings people up to speed on basic fundamentals. That’s very good to do, but the way it is administered doesn’t work. Much of this program is repeated in second year, and no real focus even begins until 3rd year – that’s more than half way through the degree. It also bores students who are already quite skillful or students with no interest in certain areas, so lots of students drop out. Other schools have this program, but students are tested and placed within it only if needed. It is also a separate program that separates different types of students, so for example, you are not taking higher level courses with the general public or random seniors. The “real” education needs to start faster.
On this topic, most art schools also lack business courses and professional integration programs. Sheridan is one school that is an example of a school that connects graduates with employment opportunities. They work on a portfolio that they can use for applying for work, they work on technical skills they need for a job, and most people I know from Sheridan find a job relatively quickly after graduating. This doesn’t necessarily work so easily at NSCAD because of the variety in the education and the variety of professions that are addressed simultaneously. Sheridan mainly sends out animators. NSCAD? Ceramics artists, performance artists, filmmakers, videographers, video artists, sound artists, fashion designers, graphic designers… However, as hard as it is, this needs to become part of NSCAD programs because why go to a school that won’t help your employment opportunities in our current era? How can you be a professional artist if you can’t make an income and need to spend most of your time at jobs unrelated to art? How can you sell work or find clients when you just never learned how? Unfortunately, most people graduate NSCAD and many art schools with “Now what?” and “Figure it out.” I heard frequently from teachers during my degree that about 1% of students really succeed in a creative career (whether that’s a real statistic or just a way of saying “Most of you will fail”). Well, here’s one reason why!
Here is another terrible decisions I will end on when critiquing the school: The closing of the school’s for-profit gallery. This was an outlet for the community to connect with NSCAD, for NSCAD to show off work, and for current or alumni students to make profit on their work while giving a bit back to NSCAD. Now there is one less outlet for NSCAD to builds its reputation and earn money. The article claims a $40k loss every year – that is not much in the scheme of the entire school’s debt. Is that the wage of one or two people and some minor operation costs? What should have been done is taking a look at how the make the gallery more profitable so it would break even and make a profit. One thing I never saw at the Seeds gallery is the sale of inexpensive productions like prints and merchandise. You couldn’t buy art books or posters of art, for example. With the gallery taking 50% commission on artwork, the prices for original art were high. Not many people in today’s world have $3.5k to dish out on a painting, so the market this was catering to was very very small. Also, I am equally opposed to the move to the supposedly touristy area on the Port of Halifax. The new location of the gallery was at the very end of the what is considered the touristy area, and as I was there – it really lacked signage. I worked at the new Halifax Seaport Farmer’s Market, and I know from being on the inside there too – the place was struggling. This move sounded like it was meant to be a quick fix that backfired, or a way to justify simply closing the gallery.

NSCAD’s Budget

Now, the exact numbers of salaries are not released, but we can still compare the data.
The Financial Highlights page (pg 16) really makes it out to look like the academic salaries are the majority of the school’s expenditure, and visually – the place that would need cuts. But how does this make sense and it is this the right place to make cuts? I’ve tried to make a case that education, and therefore the teachers and facilities, are the school and the product NSCAD is selling.
Academic Salaries – 8,370,079
Administration – 2,685,838
Facilities –  2,490,457
How is it that a school with under 1000 students has such a high administration spending and so much admin.? NSCAD is about the size of my high school, which also had 1300 students.  In my personal opinion, NSCAD is overstaffed in the admin. department. It’s also unclear where academic salaries and administration overlap, as there are some professors who are also in the administration department, janitorial staff, completely separate facilities such as the library and the art store. There’s also hierarchy, and how salaries are distributed on the ladder and the difference in growth. How do benefits compare for administration staff versus academic staff? Why are administration costs almost equal to the cost of facilities and how does this pan out when the NSCAD administration argues we need to cut down on facility costs when the facilities are part of the selling point for NSCAD?
I found this great website where a group, The Higher Education Strategy Associates, examines this exact kind of data. It is a good read before jumping to conclusion that either academic or administrative salaries are to blame, and shows just how complicated and ambiguous some of this data is.
I’m in no position to make an educated opinion on these numbers because it’s not my expertise. BUT: I’m still under the opinion that if we’re going to slash facilities, slash faculty, slash important services, then we should be slashing administration to scale. I’d like the point out that the majority of NSCAD faculty is associate or assistant professors, visiting artists, or just instructors – they don’t fall under the full professor pay scale and there is way more academic staff than administrative staff (including where roles overlap). I also feel like high administrative salaries should reflect the size of a school – we have 1000 students, not 18,000.

“Tom Traves of Dalhousie is by far the highest paid at $393,000. That’s unsurprising considering that his institution has more than double the population of the next biggest Nova Scotia university with more than 15,000 full-time students.

But taxpayers may wonder why certain presidents are paid so handsomely to run universities that enroll fewer students than most high schools. For example, NSCAD, whose $2.4-million deficit necessitated a provincial bailout this year, managed to pay its president David B. Smith $210,000. With 821 students, that $256 a head. By comparison, Traves made just $26 a head.”

If those numbers stand – that means the president’s salary at NSCAD is at least 12.8% of the administration salaries. How do the other executive salaries trickle down, and how does that compare to academic salaries that are mainly not full professor salaries?

Facilities

Not the say that facilities are not a problem for the school. The Granville/Duke Campus is hosted in a group of interconnected historical buildings in downtown Halifax; these buildings are ancient and under-maintained. According to this article pre-dating the previous article on selling the Academy building (which is a newer, better maintained, and renovated building) , it would cost up to $20 million to bring the Granville Campus up to speed. Even when you read the report, there are more pro’s than con’s to keeping the Academy vs. Granville building.

I know from studying and working in this building, it is moldy, rickety, annoying to navigate, poorly ventilated, and has a mouse problem. I would never want to caught in a fire in this building either. Aside from the charm and history, it’s not really a keeper. When I compare this to the idea about the Academy building and the film department, it makes far more sense to move the Granville Campus to the Port or near the Port at least and integrate more with the Academy building.

Why? The Port already hosts the Foundation Program, which is mostly drawing and painting. It already hosts most of the design department. It has a better floor plan, environment, and safety conditions suitable for textiles and print making, which would gel well with ceramics as well. It doesn’t work well for photography, but photography could be relocated to the Academy building potentially, if the space was further renovated (there are many incomplete rooms in the building even after a major renovation). There are some issues with this because Granville also hosts the library, the administration, the auditorium, and the Anna Leowen’s Gallery, so I see how that seems impractical when you can move two departments. However, I think you’d be addressing many issues by leaving the Granville Campus, including: cost, safety; the split sense of community when the two main campuses are on opposites sides of town; transportation (Halifax transit sucks) between classes that are literally 30 minutes apart or less, space. There is building space for rent across from the Port that can accommodate more space.

Of course, there are the numerous options listed in the article and report, and even though supposedly it will not cut on cost – how much better does a school look and function in a building that isn’t a maze, it is together, and it’s not deteriorating? I just can’t agree that cutting out the Port or the Academy building, at this point, is wise.

Solutions

I really hate to read or hear that NSCAD has not been offered any better solutions than what is currently happening, which is an implosion, destruction of its identity, and rather meaningless short term solutions of slashing budgets here and there. I hate to hear this from the school administration, the news, the government. As much as the school is in significant debt, it is not just any business. It is an educational institution and a place for learning about and creating culture. It’s a place to be critical of society and a place to make life more pleasurable and beautiful. It’s part of Nova Scotia’s and Canada’s heritage, and a significant part of Halifax.

“Since when is Canada, one of the world’s largest and most dynamic economies, too poor to provide its young people training to become artists? Since when has it become so poor it can’t afford to pool its resources and sponsor an institution that, for 125 years, has enriched Nova Scotia and Canadian society? What is wrong with us?” (source)

I have to agree. Canada seems more likely to save Air Canada than invest of fraction of the money into helping a piece of cultural heritage, the arts, and an education institution. Art funding continues to be cut, and NSCAD has always depending on public funding. It’s hard to get back up when people who are supposed to support you help kick you down and it’s quite evident there is no quick fix button.

As much as students are protesting and fighting for the school, it’s not fair for NSCAD to expect students and faculty to find the solution or continue to hike up tuition and have faculty bare the weight through cuts.

NSCAD is still a business – and it is failing to make a profit. It needs to look at itself as product, and figure out how to make itself profitable. Again, it’s not going to do that by imploding and destroying exactly what it is known for.

One thing I have blatantly noticed over the years is NSCAD’s complete lack of advertising. NSCAD’s strongest advertising tool is its students work! Yet you see the Seeds Gallery closed, Anna Leowen’s shows are hardly advertised to the general community, alumni achievements are hardly highlighted (alumni is actually very disconnected too), there are not nearly enough community related art shows. There are no NSCAD artbooks, no magazine, no flyers, no commercial. NSCAD social media is pretty dead, except when a students post on the school’s behalf. The easiest way for me to prove just how absent NSCAD’s identity has become is the fact that most people don’t know what NSCAD even is! Did you, before reading this? People know Sheridan, they know OCAD, they know Emily Carr. NSCC, a community college across the water in Dartmouth, is better known than NSCAD. People think I went to NSCC.

NSCAD needs a voice and international identity. It needs to look to other institutions and look to see just what they are doing to promote themselves. It can’t just look inside, it needs to look outside too. And just like an unemployed individual looking for a job, it needs to invest itself, put itself out there, and stay competitive. It might cost NSCAD more in the end to seriously invest in marketing and keep blood flowing to its program so they don’t lose quality, but it is what will keep NSCAD alive in the long term. I think if NSCAD had an aggressive marketing and creative business strategy that it could present to the government and investors, they would be more enthusiastic in helping out. It’s very unattractive to keep playing the wounded victim card and it’s not good enough to be passive and pretty exclusively dependent.

I wrote this just to say the above, because it is actually something I’ve yet to hear in the discussion. The above is a short, quick list of things that can help with marketing NSCAD. The second thing I want to say is: As students, faculty, and alumni, we are obligated to speak of NSCAD with pride. We can’t keep propagating a depressive, nervous, and shameful air. Our word of mouth and our success matters for the health of the school, because it is ultimately what evaluates the quality and significance of it as an institution. Word of mouth and demonstration are still some of the most powerful marketing tools even in the advent of the internet. This is the least we can do.

EDIT: Please note, after writing this, a new president was appointed and my commentary only reflects on previous presidents that I have experience with.