eventy-one years ago, McGill instituted its first and only Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program. It survived only four years. In that brief period, notable alumni such as Mary Filer and Nancy Petry, among many others, graduated, and subsequently became well-known for revolutionary works that have been showcased in the Art Canada Institute and the National Gallery of Canada.
In 1952, McGill’s Fine Arts program morphed into the Department of Art History and Communications Studies in order to focus on academic research instead. McGill’s art community temporarily dissolved until students and staff took it upon themselves to reawaken creative initiatives.
In the absence of a sanctioned art program, student-run groups such as The Fridge Door Gallery (FDG), the Visual Arts Society (VAS), and the Fine Arts Council (FAC) have stepped in to fill the gap. Full-time McGill staff, including career advisor Susan Molnar, have run art exhibits such as Artists Among Us, and people like Associate Professor Ara Osterweil in the Department of English have designed interdisciplinary classes that incorporate artistic practices. In 2015, the Faculty of Education launched the P. Lantz Initiative for Excellence in the Arts, which includes an Artist-in-Residence program and McGill’s first Art Hive Initiative (MAHI). Most, if not all, of these new initiatives have emerged since the early 2000s. Slowly but surely, the art community is rediscovering itself at McGill.
McGill’s art initiatives, however, have grown separately and rarely collaborate—oftentimes, they hardly know of each other’s existence. Sophia Barnao-Seward, U3 Arts and executive director of the FDG, sees a harsh divide between the administration and student groups.
“There’s definitely a web, but there isn’t really a connection between the two, and it’s something that I struggle with,” Barnao-Seward said.
The gap between students and the administration makes it hard to create lasting initiatives. Dorothea Stefanou, U2 Arts and director of the VAS, had not heard of McGill’s Visual Arts Collection or Artist-in-Residence program until the near-end of her degree and will graduate from McGill before she has a chance to collaborate. If the administration introduced its initiatives to students in the early stages of their degrees, this would increase their chances of forging lasting relationships.
If they are lucky, some students are able to uncover the artistic networks at their disposal. Kaylina Kodlick, a painter and U3 Arts, is grateful for the recognition that she has gained through student-run initiatives.
“I’ve been able to […] continue my painting,” Kodlick said. “You find out [that your art will be showcased], like, in tears, as how I found out about F-Word and the Fridge Door and so on.”
In this way, the student body has helped to fill the artistic void at McGill.
“Maybe the school is lacking where students pick up, [through] all of the niche scenes and organizations,” Kodlick said. “There is a pretty thriving art community within McGill.”
As participation in McGill’s student-run groups grows, there is an increased need for support. Because the student network is fragmentary, seeking institutional help has become difficult, particularly when students typically enter and leave the McGill community after three or four years.
Designing lasting initiatives is a challenge for Artists-in-Residence, students, and professors alike, as the intense expectations of academia and students’ daily routines hardly foster extracurricular collaboration. McGill’s first Artist-In-Residence, Maria Ezcurra, created MAHI, in part to build a relationship between McGill’s students and staff. Student enthusiasm for MAHI motivated her to continue it as a long-term project.
“We were surprised with how creative and engaged these students are, but we don’t have enough opportunities to bring art into academia,” Ezcurra said.
Meanwhile, certain full-time staff like Molnar try to find ways to share creative spaces between students and staff. The Artists Among Us exhibit, for example, runs once a year.
Osterweil, a painter and professor at McGill, has managed to incorporate creative practices into the classroom. Osterweil designed her graduate seminar, Image, Sound, Text, as a hybrid course in contemporary art, critical theory, and creative practice. Students are invited to make art in response to their engagement with established artistic texts. She feels that the course has helped her as much as it has helped students by filling the void of artistic creation in her academic career.
“I’ve made it a goal to try to integrate my artistic life as a creator more thoroughly with my role as a professor because I need it,” Osterweil said. “I need these two lives to be connected, but, also, because I feel that my students are really hungry for that.”
The course format is so popular that there are more students trying to enroll than there are seats in the class.
The Faculty of Education also offers a handful of visual art classes, but it is rare for students from other faculties to enroll in them. Gloria Francois, artist and U2 Arts student, was interested in the course, but was discouraged by the limited number of seats.
“I saw that this class was restricted, that I had to get an advisor’s note, and that it was nearly impossible to get in,” Francois said. “So many things [...] become inaccessible because you try once, fail, case closed, [and] move on.”
Students can also resort to student-run art initiatives on campus such as the VAS, which now has over 1,000 members on Facebook. Sadaf Farookhi, project coordinator at the MAHI, argues that permanent space is a key component for growing art initiatives—this was the key to the Art Hive’s success. The lack of a shared space for McGill’s numerous art initiatives is striking.
“It’s not really the steadiness of students that is necessary, but, rather, the steadiness of the space,” Farookhi said. “The system is not really designed for students to stay, but the space is really what must be permanent.”
Artists and art facilitators on campus agree that it is strange for a university with such an extensive visual arts collection not to showcase it to its entirety. As such, there is no gallery space to unify all of McGill’s varied art communities.
“There’s something so valuable about showing art in a permanent space because it makes the artists feel as though you are taking them seriously.”
“[Most] universities have a permanent collection and a space to hold them, and what differentiates McGill is that we do not have a permanent space,” Barnao-Seward said. “There’s something so valuable about showing art in a permanent space because it makes the artists feel as though you are taking them seriously.”
Lori Beavis, P. Lantz activities coordinator of the MAHI, believes that students should claim their rights to a space and stand up for themselves.
“There’s no venue,” Beavis said. “There’s no gallery, there’s nothing here. It gets me thinking [about how] years and years ago at OCAD, they just decided that there should be a student space, and they just used a hallway. They were so persistent, and they were a pain in the ass to the administration, and finally they got a student space.”
Wendy Owens, director of the Visual Arts Collection (VAC), sees the merits in creating an area to house McGill’s artworks, which currently remain scattered around campus.
“If you’re busy at McGill, you may never even have the time to visit the galleries which exist nearby,” Owens said.
Recently, after the VAC was incorporated into the McGill Library, Owens and the administration initiated plans for McGill to build its own art gallery, which will be accessible for all staff and students to visit. But, until the gallery’s construction, the VAC will remain dispersed in different corridors, classrooms, and outdoor spaces, and students will continue to struggle to find space.
It has become clear that students deserve and require a permanent space to continue to build and sustain the visual arts community at McGill.
“It’s a big thing that admin can do,” Barnao-Seward said. “It’s sort-of seeing that void and seeing that students work for it for free.”
Whether it be in classrooms, a new gallery space, student-run initiatives, or in the Art Hive, art movements are growing on campus, and they are here to stay.
“It’s growing. I think that, for artists, to be able to say that [an exhibit at McGill] has shown [my art], that’s a big part of it,” Barnao-Seward said.