Garry Neill Kennedy

Garry Neill Kennedy reflects on the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design

Gerald Ferguson, Choral Reading of the Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage Arranged by Word Length in 20 Units for a Chorus of 26 Voices, 1972/2016. Performance view, January 16, 2016,  Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

From 1967 to 1990, artist Garry Neill Kennedy served as the president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. It was a tenure that in many respects has become the stuff of legend—not only for the radical experiments in the institution and the classroom that Kennedy endorsed, but also because of the pivotal role NSCAD came to play as a far-flung focal point in the rise of Conceptual art. Kennedy captured much of this in The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968–78 (MIT Press, 2012), a chronological look back at the artists, projects, and events that marked his first decade at the school. A major survey exhibition of the same name, featuring NSCAD-related works by Joseph Beuys, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Yvonne Rainer, Dan Graham, and Hans Haacke, among others, is on view through April 3, 2016 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Here, Kennedy reflects on that heady era.

I ARRIVED IN HALIFAX in June 1967. I’d finished graduate school at Ohio University a couple of years earlier and had been teaching at Northwood College in Ashland, Wisconsin. I’d heard of a job opening at a school in Halifax and I thought, Let’s go for it. I got the job—as president. I was thirty-two. At the time, the Nova Scotia College of Art was located in an old church hall. It was an extremely conservative place with a very Victorian sensibility, drawing from plaster casts and that sort of thing. In Wisconsin, my students had been doing Minimalist work and Pop art. The difference was amazing. The first year we graduated fourteen students, and I didn’t renew the contracts of four faculty. All hell broke loose. There were all kinds of phone calls and serious protests with students in the streets. I’m not sure they quite understood what they had gotten themselves into when they hired me. I mean, Color Field painting was, you know, far out in Halifax, let alone Conceptual art! So I landed with a bang.

The next year I appointed a good number of friends. Some of them were from the Kansas City Art Institute, like David Askevold and Gerald Ferguson, both of whom had ties to New York, and Jack Lemmon, who packed up his lithography workshop and moved it to Halifax. We were all teachers and active political artists. CalArts was experimenting with the same sorts of things that we were doing at the time, but there was no specific model for how we wanted to run the school. Whatever we wanted to do, we did it. And as the president, I had the authority to make those decisions. This was the time of the Vietnam War and there were a lot of artists avoiding the draft by coming up to Canada. Students wanted answers to their questions. It was all about relevance—that’s an important word—we made the school relevant.

And it just so happens that, as a port city, Halifax is perfectly located between New York and Europe. The Italian Line stopped in there, and I remember Larry Weiner in 1969 got a first-class ticket for him and his wife for fifty-two dollars on the way to New York. It’s unbelievable. As word got out, people like Daniel Buren, John Baldessari, and Dan Graham came along—he recommended Kasper Koenig for the director of the school’s press. Kasper did very important books on Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, which became the model for Roger Conover at the MIT Press. He has every one of the books we made. And then there was the Projects Class that David Askevold came up with and the envelopes with all of these projects that were suggested by amazing Conceptual artists. So you felt like anything was possible.

In 1969, we renamed the school the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and in 1970 there was the Halifax Conference. It was Seth Siegelaub’s idea to have these well-known artists come to Halifax and talk about issues in contemporary art. Joseph Beuys, Carl Andre, Mario Merz, Richard Serra, Michael Snow, Robert Rauschenberg—all of these people were in the boardroom right next to my office. Robert Smithson and a couple of other invited artists were demonstrably angry that the college was going to make all of this money out of the transcriptions and tried to break up the conference. The other artists didn’t agree. It was so interesting. I think it was Lucy Lippard who wrote and said, There are no women artists in this gang! What’s going on? She was right and we got the message, even if those weren’t the issues that the conference started with. We all became smarter. That is a really important part of the NSCAD legacy in general: It was a wake-up call.