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Campus art boom

Take a tour of some of the new works of art that Canadian universities have commissioned for the public to enjoy.


A tree sprouting up in a tunnel. Two-storey students leaping to action. A founding father gleaming in bronze.

These are some of the public artworks that have appeared on Canadian campuses over the past year. With the surge in capital projects across the country, many universities are commissioning public art to enhance new buildings and facilities. While these works are changing the view around campus, they remain rooted in the history and community of the places they call home.

“The campus at Scarborough has such an interesting architectural history and legacy,” says Christian Giroux. He’s half of the artistic duo selected to create the first-ever public art commission for the University of Toronto Scarborough. He and collaborator Daniel Young will produce a 40-foot sculpture for UTSC’s Instructional Centre, a state-of-the-art building scheduled to officially open in September. But although their sculpture will reside in the newest facility at UTSC, the two looked to its founding building for inspiration.

“Their piece is like a contemporary glance over the shoulder to the Andrews Building,” explains Ann MacDonald, director and curator of the Doris McCarthy Gallery at UTSC and head of the selection committee that chose the artists.

An architectural landmark, the Andrews Building is renowned for its distinctive stacking of quadrilateral forms. Mr. Giroux and Mr. Young decided to play off of those forms in their work, proposing a series of geometric volumes that jut out from the Instructional Centre’s four-storey atrium wall.

The resulting sculpture, tentatively titled Interregnum, will suggest elements of the older building are “protruding” through the new one, explains Mr. Giroux, who also teaches in the studio art program at the University of Guelph. He says the piece, constructed of powder-coated aluminum tubing, will simultaneously evoke the crosshatching of a “quick architectural drawing.”

“It felt like Giroux and Young understood the energy of what was going on at the campus,” says Ms. MacDonald, referring to the architectural references in the duo’s work and UTSC’s own development. “We’re in full-on growth mode right now.”

Although Interregnum is the first commission for UTSC, public art on university campuses isn’t a new phenomenon. “Like most public art, it is related to economic trends,” says Lora Senechal Carney, an associate professor of art history at UTSC. “When there is money for capital projects, very often public art goes along with it.”

Professor Carney, who specializes in Canadian modern art and contemporary public art in social and political contexts, says other factors can also influence a university’s decision to commission public art. They include an active gallery on campus, supportive donors, public funding and government policy.

Provincial policy has certainly influenced the approach to commissioning public art at Concordia University. The Quebec government has a policy on public art (Politique d’intégration des arts à l’architecture et à l’environnement) that requires that one percent of the budget for publicly funded buildings be allocated to art.

For Concordia, the policy represents an opportunity “to celebrate the importance of arts and culture in its own institution,” explained Clarence Epstein during a lecture on public art. As Concordia’s director of special projects and cultural affairs, Dr. Epstein oversees the university’s public art program and its collection of 40 works.

A recent addition to that collection, Acer Concordiae, was made possible through the percent-for-art policy. Installed last March in an underground passageway linking the university’s main downtown buildings (de Maisonneuve Boulevard tunnel), Acer Concordiae consists of 52 laser-engraved stainless steel panels.

Created by artist Kamila Wozniakowska, the panels portray a fictitious history of Concordia within Montreal. Ms. Wozniakowska chronicles the parallel growth of an imagined species of maple tree and Concordia’s two distinct campuses that stemmed from two distinct universities: Sir George Williams in the downtown core and Loyola in the city’s west end. Her series culminates with nature and Concordia’s iconic buildings coming together against the backdrop of Montreal’s beloved Mount Royal.

Dr. Epstein estimates that Acer Concordiae will be seen by up to 10,000 people a day, depending on the time of year. If passers-by look at the last three panels, they might even spot another artwork.

“Very often, the artists are inspired by the artists that precede them in the public art collection,” says Dr. Epstein. Ms. Wozniakowska is no exception. Her series includes a depiction of LEAP, a new commission at the Loyola campus.

LEAP is a photo-based work on glass that shows 17 different figures walking, crouching and springing across the façade of Concordia’s PERFORM Centre. Set to open in the fall, this new facility will be a hub for health research and education. In a nod to the centre’s mission, the figures in LEAP are rendered in the bright colours of medical imagery, such as CAT scans, explains Adad Hannah, the artist who created the work.

Mr. Hannah, who graduated with a master’s of fine arts from Concordia in 2004 and is now a PhD student at the university, says he also looked to historical art and science imagery for inspiration. He was particularly influenced by Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century photographer who produced groundbreaking studies of humans in motion. With his first-hand understanding of the university, Mr. Hannah found it equally important to “tie art history and the Concordia community together,” notes Dr. Epstein. The artist recruited a diverse range of Concordia students, faculty and staff to serve as the energetic models for LEAP.

“Their response was great,” says Mr. Hannah, who has found the participants’ positive reaction to the final work particularly gratifying.

A former fine arts student is also behind a new public artwork at the University of Manitoba. Wayne Stranger, a U of M alumnus, is one of three artists commissioned to create a sculpture for the university’s Aboriginal House.

The sculptures outside Aboriginal House join over a dozen other public artworks at the U of M.  “Art is part of the intellectual and academic fabric of the university,” says David Barnard, president of U of M. “We have very creative people who work here and students who come here to study art, so it’s appropriate to have good art visible on campus.”

Scott Watson takes a similar view. The director and curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia says contemporary visual art encourages a unique kind of critical thinking that contributes to the “overall conversation” at a university.

One of the public artworks that sparks conversation and curiosity at UBC is Millennial Time Machine, a 19th-century horse-drawn carriage converted into a camera obscura. Housed in a glass-walled pavilion, the work by acclaimed Vancouver artist Rodney Graham was installed in 2003. It’s one of 30 outdoor artworks at the university and among the most recent commissions.

In 2009, two sculptures by aboriginal artists were installed outside UBC’s redeveloped Thunderbird Arena, a site for hockey events during the 2010 Winter Games. Thunder by Musqueam artist Thomas Cannell is a cedar welcome carving. Take Off by Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is a playful sculpture of a bird made from recycled car parts. Both were commissioned as part of a Vancouver Olympic Committee program to showcase aboriginal art.

Mr. Watson – who is also a professor in UBC’s department of art history, visual art and theory – is optimistic that the outdoor art collection at UBC will continue to grow. He notes there are plans for public art at UBC Okanagan, and recent building activity has prompted discussions about a public art policy for the university.

But will the current wave of public art commissions continue over the long term? Professor Carney, the UTSC art historian, says this is difficult to predict, as it largely depends on funding. Still, recent activity is encouraging. At UTSC, Ms. MacDonald is advocating for a public art policy and hoping to add to their first commission. At Concordia, four more public artworks will be unveiled in the next few months. As Dr. Epstein observes, “We have a lot going on.”

Storytelling through art

Aboriginal House, whose spirit name is Migizii Agamik, is a gathering place for more than 2,000 aboriginal students who study at the University of Manitoba. Opened in 2008, the building’s eastern side is now graced by bronze sculptures representing different expressions of aboriginal experience.

A portrait of Louis Riel the scholar by Métis artist Miguel Joyal pays homage to Manitoba’s founding father and the Métis people. Inuvialuit artist Abraham Anghik Ruben symbolizes Inuit culture through the undulating animals and mythical figures of Shaman’s Dream. Rounding out the trio is Wayne Stranger’s depiction of The Buffalo, a piece that reflects First Nations’ ways of teaching and learning.

“I’ve always wanted to tell stories,” says Mr. Stranger, an artist and educator of Cree and Ojibway descent who expresses aboriginal traditions through his art. The Buffalo duplicates Mr. Stranger’s own ceremony experiences where an image can appear as a fog and slowly “take shape in front of you.” The sculpture’s base is accordingly shaped like a split hoof that grows into two buffalo facing opposite directions.

Robyn Jeffrey is an award-winning poet who often writes about art. She lives in Wakefield, Quebec.

Robyn Jeffrey
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