Tucked just below the complex of towering buildings that is the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) campus on 16th Avenue N.W. in Calgary, sits the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD). As one of the province’s only art and design colleges, ACAD is the main provider of visual arts degrees in the province. Owing to many factors, including an aging building, lack of extra revenue sources and the Alberta government’s post-secondary funding model, ACAD is in trouble.

“That’s the triple whammy for us,” says Daniel Doz, ACAD’s current president, referring to the combined effects of the college’s shrinking operating grants, lack of ancillary revenues and lower-than-average tuition.

Doz looks more the part of a CEO than an artist with a doctorate in Cinema studies from the Universite’ de Paris VIII, his crisp blue suit and neatly trimmed beard serving as a stark contrast to his creative side. It’s clear by the mess of paperwork and statistics he brings to the table that some of ACAD’s problems, such as the inevitable failure in the near future of key utilities in its aging building, are complex and taxing on the college administration.

ACADDozWhile recognizing the tricky situation ACAD is facing, college president Daniel Doz is confident their plans to increase student numbers and put a renewed focus on fundraising will help bring about a sense of stability. Photo courtesy of Andy Nicolls

Having studied theatre, photography and visual art and holding an architect’s license from the French government, Doz has a wealth of experience in the artistic world. He has also worked as a professor at Norwich University in Vermont and Ball State University in Indiana. Doz served as the Dean of Communications and Design at Ryerson University for five years before taking the job as president of ACAD in 2010, inheriting the college’s problems that have been slowly compounding for many years.

The college was founded in 1926, and 90 years later continues to offer education in the arts and design fields to around 1,200 students on a yearly basis. As Alberta’s only dedicated arts college, aside from the Banff Centre, which focuses more on research and master’s programs, ACAD plays an important role in nurturing creativity and driving innovation in Alberta. However, some at ACAD feel they are at the bottom of the list when it comes to funding from the provincial government.

ACAD is in a unique situation that makes it especially difficult to cope with the reduced funding and constantly renovated that have affected colleges and universities across Alberta in recent years. Their building is closing in on 45 years old, with very few updates or major restorations undertaken in the past, meaning it is struggling to balance the need to repair or update their facilities with the need to provide students with additional support and resources. Major overhauls to building infrastructure are extremely expensive, eating away at their budget year after year.

ACADStairwellThe student body of ACAD enable artistic expression in all its forms through the display of student work throughout the interior of the college as well as around the grounds. One of the more unique features is the graffiti stairwell, a no-man’s-land of colorful paint where any student can set about making their mark on the wall, stairs or ceilings made available to them. Photo by Jodi Brak

It’s a modest brick building on the outside, but the halls within are far more colourful. With 1,200 students studying visual arts within the college, there is no shortage of art to adorn the walls, display cases and tables of the college. From traditional portrait paintings of beautiful human figures to abstract compositions on a black canvas and sculptures from the bizarre to the mundane scattered on shelves throughout campus, the student spirit of creativity is literally hanging in every corner.

Unlike many other institutions, ACAD does not own the land or the building they inhabit, meaning they receive no revenue from student parking or from public use of their facilities. To top it all off, they have one of the smallest student bodies in the province and below-average tuition rates. All of these factors create a situation where the college is forced to make a decision whether to provide students with resources such as 24-hour studio access, student counsellors, tutors and computer labs, or ensure their buildings will remain open for the foreseeable future.

The simplicity and modesty of the ACAD campus is a stark juxtaposition to the facilities around it. The state-of-the-art campus of SAIT, built to the highest specs of engineering is constantly renovated to keep up with the ever-evolving need for tradespeople and engineers in the Alberta economy and stands as a shining example of what ACAD could look like if the proper funding was in place.

“It’s the only art school in Alberta where you can get a four-year degree in things like ceramics or sculpture,” says Chase Key, a visual arts student, and former ACAD Student Association president. “You would think because we are sort of the only place to go [in Alberta], that would justify our need for newer equipment or renovated studios.”

Key’s studies focus on sculpture and ceramic art, meaning he depends enormously on the use of ACAD’s studios for his work. Making ceramics requires a throwing wheel to spin the clay, along with a kiln to fire the clay and add glaze to give the piece a visually appealing finish. These are nearly impossible for a student to acquire and use in their own space, especially the kiln, which can burn upwards of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and requires special storage, maintenance and ventilation.

ACADKeyChase Key, former ACAD Student Association president and fourth-year ceramics major says his biggest worry is that the college may be unable to afford repair of any major breakdown in the school studio spaces. Ceramics and glassblowing students depend enormously on the studio spaces ACAD provides, as the specialized equipment and workspaces are vital to the projects they undertake. Photo by Jodi Brak“Probably the hardest thing for me to adjust to isn’t working with older equipment, you can get past that,” Key says. “What really gets me is that our studios aren’t open 24-hours anymore. I know it seems ridiculous to be making pots at three in the morning but for some of us that’s our only free time, or it’s when we work the best.”

That’s not to say that ACAD can’t provide its students with a proper fine-arts education: this is the top priority of their budgeting decisions. However, there is an inability to preemptively act on issues with things as basic as building infrastructure due to inadequate government funding and less-than-stellar donation and fundraising rates that led to a $738,000 deficit in the 2014-15 academic year. This can put restrictions on a student’s ability to access resources or facilities on a round-the-clock basis, and could also create an extremely complicated situation should there be a major breakdown in the infrastructure where they need to stretch their resources to fix the issue.

“What happens if our kilns break down, or if we lose ventilation to our studios? Where am I supposed to keep these 50-pound bags of clay if the ACAD studios need to close for a semester for repairs?” Key asks, “do I drive to Medicine Hat to use their pottery studio at MedAlta? Do I end up throwing half of this stuff away because I can’t sleep while breathing clay dust in my room? I’m constantly on edge because it’s all just one bad thing away from being shut down for repairs for who knows how long”

Doz says this is front of mind, and ACAD administration has been actively considering how to be preemptive about their situation.

“We have to start thinking about this because if the building shuts down and I need eight months to repair it, I don’t have a space for the students,” Doz says. “I could rent out some generic classrooms but all these things: the studios, the glass kilns, the ceramic kilns… where do we find these? Do we stop all that we do? So instead of waiting for the end of the world, we should start to prepare and to look at that issue.”

In most provinces, funding for a college or university is calculated per-student. While no system is perfect, this offers some form of consistency to their funding. So long as admissions do not dip or spike year after year, a college or university will know roughly how to plan their budget around costs such as building renovations. In Alberta, however, funding is provided as a lump-sum, with the main determining factors being whether the institution ran a deficit in the previous year, and where they sit in Alberta’s six-sector funding model for post-secondary.

ACADKilnSign2Equipment such as this ceramic kiln, which requires a dedicated space for storage and operation, as well as technicians to ensure safe operation and maintenance, are part of why the ACAD studio space is so important for students. Without this equipment, ceramics students can’t do their work, making it vital to their education. Photo by Jodi BrakThis model, according to the Alberta Post-Secondary Learning Act, defines an institution based on the programs offered to students and research conducted by staff. At the top of the list are “comprehensive academic and research institutions,” such as the University of Alberta which offers doctorate programs and conducts life-saving medical research within their walls. “ Polytechnical institutes” like SAIT fall in the middle of the spectrum and “specialized arts and culture institutions” such as ACAD (the only institution offering four-year fine arts degrees in the province) sits at the bottom tier.

While it is not explicitly stated that an institution’s position in the six-tier system affects its funding, the data shows a trend in this direction. For example, according to their annual reports U of A received an operating grant of $568 million from the provincial government in 2015, SAIT received $156 million and ACAD received just shy of $12 million. This is $400,000 lower than ACAD’s budget for 2014, which ran a $738,000 deficit. This number triples their deficit from 2014, hinting the books may go further into the red in years to come unless something changes.

Michael McKinnon, press secretary with the Alberta Ministry of Advanced Education, says “It’s important to note as well that although the government is a major funder of post-secondary institutions, our institutions also generate revenue through other enterprises such as alumni or public donations.”

However, ACAD has seen difficulties putting on effective donation or fundraising campaigns. In part because they only have the budget to hire one fundraising director, but also because they have less obvious ties to Alberta’s primary industries in comparison to other institutions. For example, SAIT and U of A receive enormous support from the oil and gas sector due to the direct link between their graduates and an effective workforce in those industries.

This funding situation has been putting strain on some institutions for years, making it difficult for them to keep up with constantly advancing digital technologies and provide students with the support and resources that are crucial to their education. For several years in a row, reduced funding from the Alberta government, that doesn’t take into account inflation and salary increases, has compounded this problem. It is creating a situation where some institutions struggle to keep their buildings open, let alone filled with state-of-the-art equipment.

While each institution has the flexibility to use this funding as it deems necessary, they are more or less unaware of the amount they will have to work with until the provincial government releases their yearly numbers. Each institution is also provided grants for building maintenance but in amounts appropriate for small yearly renovations as opposed to complete overhauls due to aging infrastructure like what ACAD is preparing for.

Ian Fitzgerald, a visual communications instructor at ACAD, says the funding situation at ACAD can make it difficult to provide students with extra support and resources such as counselors or tutors, but the core student experience is still retained.

“There is going to be situations where a student might have thought or might have expected that certain services or resources might be available to them that aren’t,” Fitzgerald says. “Maybe there are things like administration wait times or difficulties in systems that inconvenience the student, like our studios not being open 24 hours anymore.”

ACADWorkspaceWhen ACAD students and administration talks about wanting to renovate their studio space, it is not a matter of slight upgrades to already modern equipment. While students do make the best of the spaces and equipment available to them, it can be argued that students paying for higher education shouldn’t be expected to work around aging, sometimes out-of-repair, equipment and spaces. Photo by Jodi Brak

“So I guess you could say that when things are not properly funded, the student experience is changed because they either don’t get some things they thought they might, or the service levels they are provided with aren’t up to their expectations. Fitzgerald adds, “But I don’t think there are any student experiences that are denied due to funding cuts. My experience with students, particularly at ACAD, is that they work around any shortcomings they may encounter or anything they may come up against.”

Further complicating things for ACAD is the fact the college does not own the land surrounding their building. Because of this, they do not receive revenue from things such as parking lots or public use of land surrounding their campus. This money, called ancillary revenues, is an important source of funding for many colleges and universities, helping to offset the costs of things not covered under the provincial operating grant such as extra support staff and student services.

In addition, ACAD has one of the lowest yearly tuition prices in the province, with certain programs sitting at $4,500, $1,000 lower than the provincial average of $5,500 per year.

“And the government is announcing they are freezing the tuition for a third year,” Doz says. “Which is great for the students, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of not charging the students too much, that would be wrong. But at the same time, for a small institution like us, having the lowest tuition in the province as well, that doesn’t help either.”

ACADTestPlateRound-the-clock studio access allows students to practice their craft at their own pace and spend long hours working on things like this test-plate, which showcases a unique glaze and design pattern the student is working on. Practice like this develops skills and attention to detail that set a student’s work apart from generic pottery that can be found in big-box stores. Photo by Jodi Brak

While ACAD has been denied its request to raise tuition on par with the Albertan average of $5,500 per year, students have felt the economic pressure in other ways, such as a 2 per cent increase in all student fees, and the addition of 2 new fees in 2015 for all students. While the extra $148,000 in revenue provided by these fees may help to offset some of ACAD’s difficulties, it’s not nearly enough to fix their deficit or put the college on the track towards growth that they have plans for.

“The plan we presented to the government was to actually grow to 2,500 students from our current 1,200. We had identified that at 2,500 students it is the threshold where we would start reaching that critical mass where it would be quite a bit easier to operate through the extra revenue provided by having more students,” Doz says. “We’re proposing to do that over the next 12 years, and we know there’s a demand in creative industries… we’ve done all the homework and have looked at the idea that size does matter.”

A growth of the student body would help provide ACAD with additional tuition revenue along with ancillary revenues through their food courts and campus bookstore. ACAD administration sees growing the student body as an ideal solution to their financial woes, as it would offset the need for substantial increases in government funding. The growth to 2,500 students is estimated to provide the college with well over $6 million per year, over 50 per cent of their current provincial operating grant, and in addition, they will seek to become a university in coming years to further increase their funding opportunities.

However, despite being a great way to balance the books and provide extra revenue for upgrades to their building and studio facilities, there are some concerns this may lead to a crowded campus.


The editor responsible for this article is Nora Cruickshank and can be contacted at ncruickshank@cjournal.ca

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