Garry Neill Kennedy turned NSCAD University into a cultural hub

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Garry Neill Kennedy in 1990.

Rachel Topham / Document

When famous German artist Joseph Beuys first visited North America in 1970, the draw was not New York or Los Angeles: he attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, now the NSCAD University. And when the great American sculptor Donald Judd wanted to publish his complete writings in 1975, he chose the NSCAD press.

“How did that happen in this place that wasn’t exactly the center of the art world? asks American editor and critic Roger Conover. “The answer was Garry Kennedy.”

Garry Neill Kennedy, the Canadian conceptual artist and teacher who transformed a small conservative art college into an international cultural center during his tenure as NSCAD President, died August 8 in Vancouver of complications from dementia. He was 85 years old. He was predeceased by his first wife, Jayne, who died in 2000, and leaves behind their three children, John, Ainslie and Peter, as well as his second wife, Vancouver artist and instructor Cathy Busby.

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“Through his long-term leadership of NSCAD from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, Kennedy found himself in constant contact with many of the most avant-garde artists, critics and historians of our time,” Kitty Scott, Curator chief at the National Gallery of Canada, wrote in an email. “He was a leader in Canada whose impact, as an artist and as an academic, has spread around the world.

Mr. Kennedy was born in Port Dalhousie, Ontario, now part of St. Catharines, in 1935. His parents were Charlotte Neil. and Jack Kennedy, immigrants from Northern Ireland who had met in Toronto. His father worked in the shipbuilding industry and moved the family several times during Mr. Kennedy’s childhood while working in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and Montreal before settling from new to St. Catharines.

Mr. Kennedy attended high school there, excelling in athletics as well as art, and met his future wife Jayne Whitty when they were teenagers. They married in 1959 while still a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University). , Wisconsin.

In 1967, he was only 32 when he applied for the presidency of NSCAD. Like most Canadian art schools in the 1960s, the institution was very conservative, teaching conventional technical skills but not keeping up with developments in modern art.

“There were so many people they had interviewed for the job who thought it wasn’t a very good school,” Kennedy told an interviewer in 2017. “I thought it was lucky to be ‘a life, and I grabbed it and made it in this great place. No one in Canada or the United States was dealing with contemporary art. Artists were, but educational institutions were not. .

Mr. Kennedy with assistants and alumni working on Quid Pro Quo paintings in Vancouver in 2016.

Cathy Busby / Document

Happenings, performances, minimalism and conceptual art became the order of the day as well as visits with the biggest international stars of art including the German painter Gerhard Richter, the American conceptual artists Lawrence Weiner and Dan Graham, the artist. environmentalist Robert Smithson and the pioneers of feminism. art like Miriam Schapiro and critic Lucy Lippard.

Jayne Kennedy hosted a parade of visitors while the students were encouraged to maintain their correspondence and phone calls with prominent professionals.

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“He did what very few institutional leaders do, he brought artistic thinking to administration,” said Mr. Conover, former editor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press who commissioned a book from Mr. Kennedy. on the NSCAD experiment. “He applied creative practice to bureaucracy and administration.

Mr. Kennedy was known to be kind, generous and above all lively – “He was bubbly; he had a light in him, ”Mr. Conover said – and the students loved the energy of the school, including the president’s distaste for grading.

At the start of a class he would say “Okay, you all have aces. Now that we’ve got that sorted out, let’s get down to business,” Ms Busby said, recalling Mr Kennedy’s signature criticism for the student work: “It’s really good and it could be better.

While running the school, Mr. Kennedy never stopped teaching and making art: he was also known as a conceptual artist, occupying galleries with giant texts applied directly to the walls. And if he was sympathetic and soft-spoken in person, his art showed a sharper side, driven by ironic humor and technical rigor.

In the post-war years, concept art had redefined the artist from a maker of aesthetic objects such as paintings or sculptures into a person responsible for a much wider range of visual experiences that could offer. multiple meanings, Scott said. Mr. Kennedy has been recognized as the main promoter of the movement in Canada – although he did not always like the term.

“Kennedy’s reluctant acceptance of the term may have been related to the mistaken perception that conceptual art has replaced material objects with disembodied ideas,” Ms. Scott said. “He remained a creator of objects and someone finely tuned in to the physical encounter between the viewer and the work of art.”

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In the 1980s, he started what would become an ongoing series of floor-to-ceiling texts rendered in Superstar Shadow, a preferred typeface. In the versions premiered in Calgary in 1986 and Toronto in 1987, he used his own name for the giant text and now Superstar Shadow has become a play on words, as Mr. Kennedy satirizes the rise of the so-called art stars whose careers were driven by their fame. as much as their work.

In 1991, he created An American History Painting (The Complete List of Historic Pittsburgh Paints Color Series), a work for which he painted all the shades and their names. He ordered them by word length to create a giant obelisk on the wall, revealing that many (Gunstock; Soldier Green) had military overtones.

“I was trying to say that the United States is a country of guns and money,” he said.

In more recent murals he has used the words “tit pour tat” and “quid pro quo”, evoking social and political tensions in common phrases.

Mr. Kennedy retired from the NSCAD presidency in 1990 after 23 years, but continued to teach at the college until 2005. Shortly after his departure, Mr. Conover commissioned the book The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design 1968-1978, which Mr. Kennedy built around images of the works of artists created in school rather than from text.

“Page by page, we see the process by which the great minds and talents of a generation… have been brought to the center of the educational experience,” artist AA Bronson said when the book was published in 2012.

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After Jayne’s death, Mr Kennedy married Ms Busby, who had worked as director of the Anna Leonowens Art Gallery at NSCAD in the 1990s. Ms Busby was offered a teaching position at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver in 2012 and the couple moved permanently west in 2015, to teach as a team at the University of British Columbia.

Since the 1970s, Mr. Kennedy had occasionally done text projects where he tried to name everyone in a chapter of his life, such as contacts from his days in St. Catharines or the other children in an old photo of class. In 2018, now suffering from dementia, he did a final iteration of the project. At the CSA Space Gallery in Vancouver, he set out to remember all the people he had known. Using a pencil, he produced long flickering lines, recording hundreds and hundreds of names on the gallery walls. It would be his last show.

Garry Neill Kennedy’s commemorative celebrations will take place at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax on October 2 at 2 p.m. at Art Metropole, Toronto, on a Saturday in November to be determined; at the Western Front, Vancouver, January 8 at 2 p.m.

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