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Why Canada's most illustrious art school is in crisis – and why we need to save it

It's 18 metres long and these days it's hanging from the rafters at Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Mass., the signature work in the sprawling Oh, Canada exhibition, which winds up just over a month from now: a latex skin that has been cast from the interior and exterior of a lighthouse in Borden-Carleton, PEI, and then reconstructed as a sculptural installation.

Its creator, NSCAD University faculty member Kim Morgan, has taken a stubborn physical object and translated it into something semi-transparent and airborne, a phantom of the original. Range Light expresses a regional specificity, and can be seen as an anti-monument to a disappearing way of life along the Atlantic seaboard.

But it also demonstrates the artist's sophisticated understanding of international contemporary art – drawing upon precedents from the latex forms of feminist icon Eva Hesse to the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and the Dada influences to which he is heir. As a culturally hybrid object, then, Range Light is equal parts salted cod and Duchamp.

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The work is also emblematic of the school where Morgan teaches, which has been, since the late sixties, Canada's most illustrious art school, and the only one with an indisputable international reputation. Almost half of the artists in Oh, Canada have passed through NSCADU's doors, either as teachers or students. "Whether you are looking at current or historic practise," says Mass MoCA curator Denise Markonish, "there's just no beating it."

Yet the school is embroiled in a crisis as it embarks on a search for a new president, facing as well the threat of a provincially mandated amalgamation with one of the region's universities – Dalhousie is looking to be the likeliest candidate – while also wrestling with a $17.4-million accumulated debt. (Dalhousie's, for the record, sits at $106-million.)

One thing should be made plain: Something very precious is at stake. Since the late sixties, when the leadership of the school passed to artist Garry Neill Kennedy and his circle of conceptual-art colleagues (many of them coming out of the trail-blazing California Institute of the Arts and other leading-edge art programs in the United States), NSCAD has functioned as a vibrant fulcrum between the U.S. and European capitals of culture.

This is where German artist Joseph Beuys came to give his famous lectures in 1976 (the blackboard he used is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario); where Los Angeles conceptual artist John Baldessari made his famous lithograph I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art at the famed NSCAD Press in 1971; where fledgling American painter Eric Fischl reintroduced figurative painting to a new generation; and where revered senior figures such as British-born conceptualist Eric Cameron, Canadian videomaker Jan Peacock and painter Gerald Ferguson have rubbed shoulders with younger talents like Micah Lexier, Kelly Mark, Susanna Heller, Steve Reinke, and the sculpture duo Hanson and Sonnenberg, to electrifying effect.

All this alongside one of the liveliest crafts programs in the country, captained by the likes of ceramicist Walter Ostrom. "Head, Heart, and Hand" is the motto of the school, and its legacy bears this out, with artists demonstrating a singular devotion to the making of things, the ethics of artistic endeavour, and the avant-garde art history they inherit.

The economic "efficiencies" that might prevail postamalgamation would likely file the edge off this excellence. A good business model can mean bad pedagogy. With fewer teachers per student comes less mentoring. With less physical real estate comes less studio space for developing ideas outside of class time. With fewer departments and course offerings comes less intellectual cross-pollination. Without much outcry, the school could become a husk as ghostly as Morton's floating lighthouse.

At last Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, another NSCADU triumph slipped by under the radar: John Kahrs's win for best animated short, for his film Paperman. A member of the college's class of 1990, Kahrs works for Pixar in Los Angeles, carrying the NSCADU creative spore to farther shores.

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The rest of Canada and the world continue to feel the impact of this rarified and singular place – a fragile ecosystem, but one worth fighting for and funding well. Let's hope the province of Nova Scotia and its leading citizens feel the same.

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