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Framed portrait of Garry Neill Kennedy in 1990 by American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner.Lawrence Weiner/Handout

When the renowned German artist Joseph Beuys first visited North America in 1970, the lure wasn’t New York or Los Angeles: He was going to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, now NSCAD University. And when the leading U.S. sculptor Donald Judd wanted to publish his complete writings in 1975, he chose the press at NSCAD.

“How did this come about in this place that was not exactly the centre of the art world?” asks the American editor and critic Roger Conover. “The answer was Garry Kennedy.”

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

“Thanks to his long-term steering of NSCAD from the mid-’60s through the ‘80s, Kennedy found himself in continual contact with many of the most cutting-edge artists, critics and historians of our time,” Kitty Scott, chief curator at the National Gallery of Canada, wrote in an e-mail. “He was a leader within Canada whose impact, as an artist and as an academic, extended worldwide.”

Mr. Kennedy was born in Port Dalhousie, Ont., 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 as he followed work to Shelburne, N.S., and Montreal before settling back in St. Catharines.

Mr. Kennedy attended high school there, excelling at athletics as well as art, and met his future wife Jayne Whitty when they were teenagers. They married in 1959 while he was still a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University.) He continued his studies at the universities of Buffalo and Ohio, before he took a job leading the art department at Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

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

“There were so many people they had interviewed for the position who thought it wasn’t a very good school,” Mr. Kennedy told an interviewer in 2017. “I thought it was the chance of a lifetime, and I took it and made it into this great place. No one in Canada or the U.S. was dealing with contemporary art. The artists were, but not the educational institutions.”

Mr. Kennedy with assistants and former students working on the Quid Pro Quo paintings in Vancouver in 2016.Cathy Busby/Handout

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

Jayne Kennedy organized hospitality for a parade of visitors while students were encouraged to keep up correspondence and phone calls with prominent professionals.

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

Mr. Kennedy was known as kind, generous and, most of all, lively – “He was twinkly; he had a light inside him,” Mr. Conover said – and students loved the energy at the school, including the president’s distaste for grading.

At the start of a course he would say “Okay, you have all got As. Now that we have got that out of the way, let’s get down to work,” Ms. Busby said, recalling Mr. Kennedy’s signature critique for student work: “That’s really good and it could be better.”

While running the school, Mr. Kennedy never stopped teaching and making art: He was equally well known as a conceptual artist, taking over 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 humour and technical rigour.

In the postwar years, conceptual art had redefined the artist from a maker of aesthetic objects such as paintings or sculptures into someone responsible for a much wider range of visual experiences that could offer multiple meanings, Ms. Scott said. Mr. Kennedy was recognized as the movement’s chief proponent in Canada – although he didn’t always like the term.

“Kennedy’s grudging acceptance of the term perhaps relates to the common misperception that conceptual art replaced material objects with disembodied ideas,” Ms. Scott said. “He remained an object-maker and someone finely attuned to the physical encounter between viewer and artwork.”

In the 1980s, he began what would become a continuing series of floor-to-ceiling texts rendered in Superstar Shadow, a favourite typeface. In versions created in Calgary in 1986 and Toronto in 1987, he used his own name for the giant text and now Superstar Shadow became a pun, as Mr. Kennedy satirized the rise of the so-called art stars whose careers were driven by their celebrity as much as their work.

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

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

In more recent wall works, he used the words “tit for tat” and “quid pro quo,” evoking the social and political tensions beneath common phrases.

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

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

After Jayne’s death, Mr. Kennedy married Ms. Busby, who had worked as the director of the Anna Leonowens Art Gallery at NSCAD in the 1980s. Ms. Busby was offered teaching work at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver in 2012 and the couple moved west permanently in 2015, team-teaching together at the University of British Columbia.

Since the 1970s, Mr. Kennedy had occasionally done text projects where he attempted to name all the people from a chapter in his life, such as contacts from his days in St. Catharines or the other children in an old class photo. 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 recall all the people he had ever known. Using pencil, he produced long wavering lines, recording hundreds and hundreds of names on the gallery walls. This would be his final show.

Memorial celebrations for Garry Neill Kennedy will be held at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m.; at Art Metropole, Toronto, on a Saturday in November to be determined; at Western Front, Vancouver, Jan. 8 at 2 p.m.