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Brian Bradtsreet, Tom Campbell and Aldo Cundari are involved in plans to resurrect the venerable Toronto School of Art. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Brian Bradtsreet, Tom Campbell and Aldo Cundari are involved in plans to resurrect the venerable Toronto School of Art. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

EDUCATION

Behind art school’s rebirth, three renaissance men Add to ...

Little did Aldo Cundari, Brian Bradstreet and Sol Roter know what lay ahead for them four or five years ago when they enrolled in a Saturday-morning sculpture class at the Toronto School of Art. They were just three successful businessmen in late middle-age, who, in their separate ways, were looking for a little artistic self-expression, a little meaning, and thought they might find it at the TSA’s third-floor “campus” in an office building on Adelaide Street near Spadina Avenue.

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The TSA seemed the perfect place. Incorporated in 1969 with the motto “for artists, by artists,” the school prided itself on its accessibility to almost all ages and skill levels, offering courses in painting, sculpture, photography, drawing and other idioms in small classes with almost one-on-one instruction. As a private career college, it offered a smattering of diploma and certificate programs, but couldn’t grant degrees, with the result that its enrolment was made up mostly of folks like Mr. Cundari, Mr. Bradstreet and Mr. Roter.

The three thrived under their instructor, Florian Jacot, enrolling season after season. “I never actually knew what they did for a living the entire time I was there,” Mr. Cundari, an advertising executive, said recently. When he and Mr. Bradstreet, an investor, would take a coffee break during class, “the talk was never about business. It was about art or the trips we’d taken or the galleries we’d visited when we were away.”

Then suddenly, the magic seemed about to disappear. In late November, the TSA board announced that the school was bankrupt, hobbled by expensive rent and declining enrolment, and that after 43 years as the city’s longest-runnning independent art school, it would close. The three businessmen/students couldn’t believe it. Mr. Roter, an investor by day, stormed into the Adelaide Street location to retrieve his wares. Encountering Mr. Bradstreet doing the same thing, he proclaimed: “This isn’t right. We’ve got to do something about this.”

Which they have. Thanks to their efforts (and money), the TSA is on the cusp of a resurrection. It is set to offer 65 courses starting on May 4 taught by pretty much the same people who lost their jobs last fall. Moreover, the classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, collage and digital media will be taught Monday through Saturday, not at the premises the TSA had rented since 2000, but on the second floor of a vacated Dufferin Street high school south of Bloor Street West.

Mere days after the school closed, the trio reviewed the bankruptcy trustee’s report, which, according to Mr. Cundari, 54, showed the TSA “had $125,000 in cash still in the bank.” Convinced the school was viable, they decided to buy the assets from the landlord – a deal completed just before Christmas – and restart it on a good footing. They met with the instructors to present the plan and to get commitments from them that they would teach if the TSA were resurrected.

Among the first to agree was painter Tom Campbell, who had taught at the old TSA since 1989. He’s now one of three teachers on the newly formed faculty steering committee that, with Mr. Cundari, Mr. Bradstreet, 65, and Mr. Roter, 61, will govern the school as a not-for-profit charity for the immediate future. “The faculty’s very happy with these guys,” Mr. Campbell said in an interview. “We call them the Three Wise Men, coming at Christmas like they did.”

Recently, the trio bought naming rights and a 10,000-name database from the receiver, sent e-mails to about 4,000 former students and got the TSA website revamped and running to permit online registration. Also, after scouting eight or nine possible locations, they inked a five-year lease with the Toronto District School Board for almost 800 square metres of space in the former Kent Senior Public School.

The venue, opened in 1908, is a funky universe of distressed linoleum, beat-up lockers and graffiti – but the ceilings are high, the light ample, and soon its spacious rooms will be filled with the easels, printing presses, tables and paint supplies that have been in storage for the past four months. Mr. Cundari and crew also have an option to take more space if enrolment soars to, say, 1,200 rather than the 500 the old TSA claimed late last year.

And since big dreamers never sleep, they’re thinking of the day when the TSA will have a purpose-built facility. “That’s long term, though,” Mr. Cundari admits. For the time being, Mr. Bradstreet notes, “we’re going to study the best independent art schools in the world and we’re going to find how they’ve lasted so long.”

Another long-term consideration is establishing the school as a diploma and certificate-granting institution. Last fall, an estimated 35 students were enrolled in such programs, but were left stranded by the bankruptcy. The new school is not seeking career-college registration for the time being, but Mr. Bradstreet agreed, “this is something we might consider again.”

 

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