What’s the value of an art school?

Celebrating its 125th anniversary next year, The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is the oldest of Canada’s four dedicated art universities. With slightly over 1000 full time students and spread across three campuses in downtown Halifax, NSCAD is widely recognized as a key catalyst for the Atlantic city’s cultural community. Over the past two decades, NSCAD’s financial situation has deteriorated dramatically, thanks to a number of factors. Today it is roughly $20-million in debt with a $2.4-million deficit.

This situation has prompted the provincial government, a first term New Democratic Party majority (the first in the province’s history), to consider NSCAD’s fate as part of a sweeping review of post-secondary education in the province aimed at saving costs, as part of their commitment to balance the Province’s books by the time they seek reelection.

After commissioning a banker to prepare a report on the education system (which, among other things, recommended steep tuition fee hikes and the merger of NSCAD and other small universities into bigger institutions), in October 2011 the government initiated an inquiry by a former deputy cabinet minister to investigate the sustainability of NSCAD as an independent institution. The report was release in mid-December, and while the government has indicated its support for the venerable institution, many fear the end of NSCAD as we know it.

Other articles exist that spell out the particulars of NSCAD’s current financial crisis, and others still that assess the political crisis that threatens NSCAD’s survival as an independent institution in Nova Scotia.

NSCAD is a very small but important part of answering the broader crisis of values in a global society.

This article tells a story about how NSCAD’s crisis is part and parcel of that “other” crisis: “the big one” that most people became aware of in the fall of 2008 when major US investment banks collapsed, when governments around the world borrowed trillions of dollars to plug a gaping hole in an overinflated paper economy, and when, subsequently, these same governments mournfully declared the birth of the “age of austerity” and began to devise dramatic cuts to health, education and social services to pay for the capitalist system’s excesses.

Of course, the crisis began before that. Since throwing off the shackles of colonialism, most countries in the global South have been in a half-century financial crisis, largely thanks to the oppressive weight of loans (and interest) incurred by Western-supported dictators to pay Western corporations for corrupt “development” schemes that didn’t work.

Add to this the global food crisis, the global water crisis, the global climate crisis … Add to this the “grassroots” financial crisis that has seen “real wages” (wages adjusted for inflation) fall and Canadians’ debt-to-income ratio skyrocket to over 150%. Add to this the epidemic social crisis of stress, financial insomnia and existential loneliness that has come of 40 years of unrelenting war by the market on society.

The financial crisis, the one the bankers complain about and that is used to justify a renewed wave of that war, is only the most refined expression of a whole variety of deeper, more pervasive crises. The objective of this article is to locate NSCAD’s crisis among these, and to argue that NSCAD is a very small but important part of answering the broader crisis of values in a global society.

NSCAD versus neoliberalism

NSCAD was founded in 1888 with a very specific set of values in mind. The first art school in Canada, it was the brainchild of Anna Leonowens, an influential member of the East Coast intelligentsia and an early Canadian feminist. The school, originally named the Victoria School of Art (after the Queen), was intended to bring culture and civilization to one of Her Majesty’s wayward dominions.

At the time Halifax was not known for culture, as it is today. It was a garrison town, a navy port, and a key hub of an often shifty transatlantic economy. The college justified its presence by an appeal to the values of British imperial civilization, pointing to art as a refined and dignified pursuit necessary for the moral and spiritual uplift of colonial life.

Over the following century, the values that animated NSCAD shifted. As Canadian art and culture came into its own through the twentieth century, NSCAD became a government-funded public institution with a mandate not only to educate a broad cross-section of society, but to contribute to national culture.

Arts, it was believed, were valuable because they contributed to society’s ability to recognize itself. The value of art and art schools was that they were deemed a necessary part of a full and robust democratic nation. This was a time of great creative foment at NSCAD, leading to its legacies of conceptual and feminist art.

Under neoliberal logic, art and culture are worth only what people are willing to pay for them.

But much has changed over the last forty years. For one, as communication and transportation technology has advanced, it has facilitated corporate globalization, playing havoc with the Canadian economy and opening up the cultural sphere to greater international competition (largely, American market domination). We refer to this period as the neoliberal era because of the dominant government ideology that cuts across it: the idea that government should get out of the way and let the market determine what’s best for society.

This led to decades of systematic cuts not only to arts and culture but to health, education, social services and public institutions like universities, libraries, museums and funding agencies. Under neoliberal “logic,” art and culture are worth only what people are willing to pay for them. Cultural and artistic expression that isn’t palatable to consumers should not exist, or should be funded by the charitable donations and personal investments of the wealthy, not by the government.

The same goes for education — it’s no longer a public good intended to develop the critical capacities of our next generation of citizens, it’s an individualized “investment in the future.” As such, a fine arts education is a dubious investment at best (maybe you could even sell it as “sub-prime” on Wall Street), unless you’re pretty sure you’ll be the next Damien Hirst and be able to sell a pickled shark for $12 million.

In an age where grants and support for artists, galleries and museums has atrophied, and where the growing gap between rich and poor and declining real wages has seen most people’s discretionary spending (for things like art) dwindle, the possibility of making a decent living making art is indeed very slim.

But this is all part of something even more insidious. Neoliberalism is not just a free-market-fundamentalist political ideology, it is also a cultural idiom. It gets into how we think and relate to one another. At its most basic, neoliberalism insists that anything valuable in this world can and should be measured by money. It has seen all other ideas of value in our society (aesthetic values, moral values, environmental values, political values) bow down before money as the ultimate definition of what is valuable.

It’s not just left-wingers who believe this. Watch any Christian televangelist and they’ll tell you that “family values” and “religious values” too have suffered in our economy. It’s no secret — the discovery that “you can’t buy happiness” is the theme of an uncountable number of sentimental Hollywood films.

In the neoliberal period NSCAD’s fate, like the fate of all fine arts institutions and schools, became increasingly precarious. Through the 80s and 90s, federal funding for post-secondary education was first frozen, then cut. With the collapse of the fishing industry and the decline of most of Nova Scotia’s industrial production, the province became poorer and poorer. With an aging population, the pull of healthcare on government coffers became greater. And with the most universities per capita of any province in Canada, little old NSCAD’s ability to secure sufficient government funding was jeopardized.

Unlike other universities, who graduate alumni who become rich or who can attract large corporate partners, NSCAD was particularly poorly suited to do what other schools in the province and country did: shore up dwindling revenue with donations and dubious partnerships (which, in many cases, imperiled and undermined the autonomy of those universities and their teaching and research communities).

Any way you slice it, a fine arts education costs more than a general arts or sciences education.

But like other institutions, NSCAD helped make up the shortfall by cutting programs and funds (for things like visiting speakers, materials and student assistance) and by increasing students’ tuition fees. And like other institutions, NSCAD participated in a shift towards increasingly “precarious” labour: part-time and temporary teachers, janitors and administrative staff. It also abandoned the medieval model of the university, where the Masters (professors) ran the show and replaced it with an increasingly corporate-style management structure, complete with highly paid executive officers.

All this, however, did not save the institution. Successive provincial governments have solicited reports aimed at figuring out what to do about a problem called NSCAD. The problem is this: any way you slice it, a high caliber fine arts education costs more than a general arts or sciences education. You can’t pack as many students into a lecture hall, you need to hire highly specialized teachers, and you need to create a much more flexible incubator for ideas than most universities choose to afford.

At the same time, as neoliberalism intensifies, it has become harder and harder to convince governments, and, ultimately, people outside the fine arts community, that the “investment” is worth it. As all values come to be subordinated to the market, and as workers increasingly feel the pinch of lower real wages (i.e. adjusted for inflation) and fewer reliable government services, making the case for a place like NSCAD has become increasingly difficult.

The promise and the peril of the “creative economy”

It was with a great sigh of relief that many in the arts community became aware of the growing popularity of “creativity” in the past decade. Many had all but given up hope that they could convince policy-makers that their institutions were worth the “investment.” Old arguments about the civilizing, uplifting power of the arts were falling on deaf ears. When American professor Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class skyrocketed onto the non-fiction best-seller list, many in the fine arts community were overjoyed.

Florida argues that cities that thrive with creativity attract global business because their employees want to live in and be inspired by creative communities. Creativity, he argued, was key to transforming cities to meet the challenges of globalization and, by extension, the fine arts were not a useless draw on dwindling government coffers but a sound investment with solid returns.

The outlay of cash in a new arts centre or a creative zone would multiply into both economic and social spin-offs: the seduction of global firms, the incubation of small business, and, more magically, “social cohesion” — people would be happy again! Creativity would get kids off the street, offer opportunities for underprivileged urban groups, and break down picket fences between neighbours. Florida has provided a vast array of compelling statistics to prove his case.

I am deeply skeptical of Florida’s claims, and the claims of his many adherents who trumpet the virtues of the “creative economy.” First, I think it’s a cop out. Obviously creativity is a great thing, but it can’t solve all our problems — the problems are systemic and can only be “fixed” by systemic change.

Creativity-hype offers government politicos a cheap way to appear to be doing something.

Creativity-hype offers government politicos a cheap way to appear to be doing something. It’s relatively inexpensive to throw half a million dollars into an arts centre which may create thirty jobs. It’s another thing entirely to help midwife the birth of a manufacturing plant that will create 5,000 (or 10-20,000 if we count spin-off industries).

We are told that creativity is key to the “post-industrial” economy, but our economy isn’t “post-industrial,” it’s just that the industry has been allowed to move where it can pay workers less: China, Brazil or Mexico. In fact, the economy in Canada or Nova Scotia can’t survive on primary (extractive and agricultural) and tertiary (service and retail sector) industries alone — it’s missing the middle.

Governments don’t want to take action because it would mean challenging the neoliberal agenda by imposing restrictions on global trade to protect local industries and subsidizing, seeding or downright owning the industrial production of actual stuff, which would fly in the face of the neoliberal idea that governments should get out of the economy altogether.

Further, not every city will get to be a “creative city” and which cities do get this celebrated status is, in my opinion, more luck than anything else. Some cities still have to be boring, or they have to be boring if “creativity” is imagined in the limited sense that the creative city boosters imagine: big-budget arts institutions, high-tech companies and a Starbucks (or it’s “quirky” local facsimile) on every corner.

We are not talking about what we might call mass creativity, or creativity for everyone. That would require commitments governments are no longer willing to make, such as fully funding school arts programs, establishing community-level centres for free arts education, taxing the wealthy and the corporations to pay for it all, and ensuring workers get a living wage for a reasonable quantity of rewarding work so they actually have the time, energy and resources to “be creative” once and a while. It would also demand the reconfiguration of urban space away from a consumerist / car-centred / suburban model and towards one that brought people together in transactional public spheres.

Instead, what we get are creative public-private partnerships where governments, arts organization and corporations or housing developers get together to build a new arts hub, gallery complex or creative zone. The government’s contribution is usually both minimal, singular, and, effectively, a gift to the private developer who ends up owning or profiting from the construction.

Meanwhile the arts organizations get to spend 40-70% of their time fundraising to cover their operating costs from their swanky new facilities, hoping nothing breaks because there’s no money to fix it.

This has had the unintended consequence of leading to a strange division of labour in the cultural industries themselves. Increasingly arts organizations are run by people capable of fundraising, plus an army of unpaid or poorly paid interns all competing for their boss’ job, should it even exist next month.

A close look at many of the breathlessly enthusiastic economic projections for creative urban projects reveals most of the economic “spin-offs” promised come in the form of increased property values in the areas surrounding the new construction. This is good for property-owners and landlords and bad for everyone else whose taxes and rent will increase or whose landlord might evict them in order to “upgrade” their property to attract higher-paying tenants.

What could creativity actually mean if we allowed ourselves to imagine it more broadly?

This is part of what is emerging as a tradition of “creative gentrification”: artists, eager for low rent and studio space move into poor neighbourhoods; the neighbourhood develops a “scene” which attracts attention; richer people start moving into the neighbourhood to be in the scene, or people in the scene grow up and get “real jobs”; property values rise, attracting landlords and real estate speculators; new structures go up and, low and behold, the original inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who are often poor and/or racialized, can no longer afford to live there, or are perceived be their new wealthier neighbours as dangerous, unsightly or bad for property values.

This pattern has been repeated over and over, in city after city. Halifax’s North End is a good example, unfortunately in large thanks to NSCAD students who, in making it their home, helped make it a highly desirable place to live for those with money. (I live here too, I’m not exempt).

In criticizing the hype over the creative economy, one risks “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” In an age where all values need to speak the language of money, this has been one of the only ways arts organizations have been able to get funding for their projects. In the campaigns to save NSCAD, as well as in the strategic vision of the last several university presidents, highlighting the school’s contribution to and catalyzing effect on the creative economy has been absolutely central. I’ve used this rhetoric myself in various political projects.

But the trouble is that in framing the value of the fine arts, and of fine art schools in the language of the creative economy, we risk forgetting what makes them really valuable.

What could creativity actually mean if we allowed ourselves to imagine it more broadly? What is the creative division of labour in our society when we imagine it locally, regionally and globally? If we truly do want a creative society, what sorts of changes might we need to make to ensure that everyone’s creativity could flourish and thrive? How uncreative are we being when we talk about creativity?

It’s questions like these neoliberalism helps us forget to ask, and that places like NSCAD can help us to remember. This is precisely why the neoliberal cultural climate is so hostile to places like NSCAD.

The NSCAD canary

The degree to which we, as a society, can resist neoliberalism and the destructive form of capitalism it represents is the degree to which we can defend institutions like NSCAD and insist that it is valuable in and of itself. NSCAD is the canary in the coal mine in a culture that is obsessed with money, or, more accurately, lack of money.

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?

NSCAD is the canary in the coal mine in a culture that is obsessed with money.

The problem is not that the country is poor, it is that its leaders are poor in imagination. Governments are content to excuse themselves from any responsibility by giving the alibi that “market pressures” effectively bind their hands. We are now entering an “age of austerity” where, in order to repay the money we borrowed from the banks and financial markets in order to bail out banks and financial markets (yes, that’s right) we are told we must abandon all our common projects including health care, education, child care, social assistants, and pensions. It’s neoliberalism on steroids.

The real value of NSCAD in this context is not that it will spur Halifax’s creative economy. (Although I have to say that this argument in the context of Halifax is actually quite compelling — NSCAD is a key part of an uncommonly vibrant cultural and creative community that does indeed add a great deal of social and economic value to Halifax and Nova Scotia.) The real value of NSCAD is that it is one of the few spaces left in our society where people can think and create outside the box.

That’s the box in which it is possible to imagine that this economic system, which has made Nova Scotia one of the poorest provinces in Canada on an average per capita basis, is desirable. A box in which it makes sense to throw money at call centres and ship building as if they are sustainable industries. A box in which cutting down and pulping forests and turning African and Indonesian rubber into tires are our biggest industries. A box in which it is feasible to import the vast majority of our food and to pay a privatized, for-profit corporation to burn coal from Columbia for our electricity. It a box in which we accept that at least ten percent of children in the province will live in poverty and still somehow imagine that things will ever get better. They won’t. But sometimes it’s easier to stay in the box then face the real world outside.

I do not want to contribute to the muttering voices that suggest the province has more important things to worry about than kids playing with paint in downtown Halifax. I want to insist that NSCAD’s crisis is part of a much bigger crisis. If we’re lucky, and the provincial government listens to the angel on their shoulder, rather than the devil, NSCAD may survive this by the skin of its teeth. This time. But only for so long.

NSCAD is a studio for developing the resources for a different world.

If we have a chance against the forces that now amass against us, the forces of corporate domination, government complicity, and mass apathy and demoralization, the ability to save this “useless” and “wasteful” institution is our test. If we cannot discover a way to convince ourselves that this is worth it, and, more broadly, that our whole reckoning of what anything (including an art school) is “worth” is fundamentally broken, we might as well give up.

At its best, NSCAD is a studio for developing the resources for a different world. It is a mine in which we can look to our youth for the raw, unpolished ore of social change. It is a work of art in and of itself — a solidification of the world’s cooperation that, in turn, teaches the world how to cooperate in ways we haven’t yet imagined. This is its real value: it disrupts, it insists on being itself, and it is both priceless and invaluable. So are lots of things. But let’s not lose this one.

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