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visual arts

Ken Lum initially turned down the offer but reconsidered at his wife’s urging.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Ken Lum, the Vancouver-born artist whose work is closely associated with the city, has left for Philadelphia, and a position at an Ivy League university. Lum, 56, has been named director of the Undergraduate Fine Arts program at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and will begin teaching as full professor in September.

While Lum emphasizes that his decision to leave Vancouver should in no way be taken as an affront to the city, it will no doubt be perceived as another cultural loss during a tough year that has seen the departure of high profile arts figures including visual artist Sonny Assu (now in Montreal) and choreographer Joshua Beamish (who left for New York) – as well as the demise of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company.

Lum – who quit a tenured position at the University of British Columbia seven years ago and since turned down an offer from Yale University – was headhunted for the position at PennDesign in April and initially declined the opportunity. Eight days later, following the urging of his wife ("she hit me in my Achilles heel – 'think of our son, Linus'"), he "sheepishly" called the university back and asked if the offer was still on the table. It was.

He officially began his new position on July 1, Canada Day.

"I think the path to change is always hard," Lum said from Philadelphia. "That said, if you don't have change, you don't have any pearls either. So it's kind of a painful paradox."

The opportunity to interact with students once again, while working for a research-oriented institution that allows ample time away from academic duties to focus on making art, was ideal, he says. The program is prestigious, attracting high-calibre guest speakers such as architect Frank Gehry and filmmaker Werner Herzog.

Lum's works – locally and internationally – are too numerous to list here, but in his hometown, his Monument for East Vancouver (colloquially known as the "East Van Cross") remains a favourite work of public art.

During a conversation last year, before the opening of a career survey at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Lum told The Globe and Mail: "Vancouver is the source of all my reflections. It's not just a fountain of all my ideas, but it's actually constantly feeding back towards my art. ... And I think I make the work I do because I think about this city a lot."

Lum has kept his studio in Vancouver, but will also be looking for a studio space in Philadelphia.

"I'm not leaving Vancouver in a huff," he stressed. "I've lived in other places throughout my life, so I'm sure maybe in five years, I'll come back to Vancouver. I don't feel like I ever leave Vancouver anyway. Even if I wanted to, Vancouver's always in me."

As for Linus – now 20 months old – his father's move to Penn could indeed be of tremendous benefit. If Lum stays in the job for three years, Linus will be eligible for free tuition at Penn, and a significant tuition discount at other Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

PennDesign's dean says she's "thrilled" Lum reconsidered the position.

"I can tell you by the time he had met with faculty and students and walked into my office as a person rather than as a resume and a portfolio, I think it took about one minute and 30 seconds for each of us to say there's really something here that we'd like to pursue, and we're thrilled it worked out," says Marilyn Jordan Taylor.

"I promise you we'll take very good care of him, and that he'll take very good care of us, I'm sure."