The Ring

The fine arts count(down)

Wed, 2012-01-11 12:54

Almost all university educators have met parents who do not want their daughters, or especially their sons, to pursue a career in the arts. Why? Because most parents want to see their children well established in the world, and they have heard all the tales about low wages and uncertain futures in fine arts as opposed to more stable and lucrative careers in the sciences or law.

And yet, we have just emerged from a holiday season where symphonies, plays, art shows, ballets, choirs, pantomimes and all other manner of entertainments abounded. And, again, why? Because at certain times of the year, special times, we turn to the arts to refresh and revitalize ourselves, to reflect anew our ideals and values as a society.

Even though fine arts graduates often enjoy satisfying careers—you will find them as curators, educators, critics, administrators, arts dealers, as well as creators in various media—they are often in the lowest quarter of average earnings among the more than 500 occupations surveyed by Statistics Canada.

What a strange disconnect exists in Canadian society: the arts are not a place for children to seek careers, yet they are the sites to which we want to take our children for holiday treats. The arts are both unstable yet vital. We expect them to be there for us, as long as someone else takes the risks to create them.

Certainly, whenever times get tough, the arts are designated as frills or fripperies and become the first things our society cannot “afford.” For instance, Queen’s University suspended its Bachelor of Fine Arts in November, and the University of Windsor recently consolidated its fine arts and music schools, to make economies. But Canada is part of a larger malaise: last year, the University of East Anglia cut its fine arts program. In the United States, the situation has been even more dire for the past two years.

And yet there are bright spots amid the gloom: in mid-December, the 125-year-old Nova Scotia School of Art and Design was saved from immediate closure when the provincial government agreed to cover its $2.4-million deficit. But the school must find ways to cut costs and to collaborate with other universities to offer shared programs.

In Saskatchewan, where prairie pragmatism often prevails, the University of Regina isn’t seeing enrolment plunge in the Faculty of Fine Arts. But Dean Sheila Petty said in a recent interview that’s because her program is evolving. She maintains that the traditional model of fine arts needs to change.

“At UVic the Faculty of Fine Arts has a stable budget situation for now,” says Dean Sarah Blackstone. “But we must continue to achieve our enrolment goals and work to be sure our students receive the very best education we can provide. These are challenging times, and we must be ready to respond to increasing budget pressures as they develop.”

So, change is coming, and we need to be part of it. At UVic we already have co-op programs that give our fine arts students valuable practical experience that makes them attractive to employers. We have programs such as professional writing and applied theatre that enable our students to work within the broader community.

But I’m thinking we all need to become more proactive both on and off campus. We need to speak out more for the arts in our city and across our province. And we must work to find ways to take more of our programs off campus. And when our former students are successful—and many are, in many fields—we need to brag a whole lot more. Making our achievements and our students visible is the best way to counteract that mentality that believes “the arts don’t count.”

Dr. Lynne Van Luven is associate dean of fine arts and a faculty member in the Department of Writing.

Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of The Ring or the University of Victoria.