Opportunities in Fine Arts: An exclusive interview with York U faculty dean
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Opportunities in Fine Arts: An exclusive interview with York U faculty dean

One of North America’s leading schools of performing and visual arts, York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts is internationally recognised for its outstanding professional training and extensive research in the field. The Canadian institute boasts the largest and most comprehensive programs of its kind in the country and is home to almost 3500 students and more than 250 faculty – both from Canada and across the world.

With the aim to expand its international relations, a team from York U Faculty of Fine Arts has recently returned from a trip to India. Spanning a duration of almost 3 weeks (Jan 1- Jan 18 2012), senior academic and administrative staff from the School visited the Indian cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai, making stops at some of the country’s leading universities, Fine Arts institutes and cultural centres.

Leading the team was Faculty Dean Dr Barbara Sellers-Young, who was accompanied by Research Professor of Linguistics and lead architect of York University’s India Strategy, Dr Sheila Embleton. Dr Embleton also served as York’s representative at the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute for the past decade. Others on the team included the Faculty’s Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research and Design Professor Michael Longford; Film Professor Ali Kazimi; and the Faculty’s International Relations and Development Officer Ina Agastra.

The delegation visited leading Indian institutes such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi and the University of Madras in Chennai, both of which have existing partnerships with the Canadian university. Other prominent visits by York included the National Institute of Design (R&D Campus) and the National Institute of Creative Communication India in Bangalore; the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, Jamia Millia Islamia Faculty of Fine Arts, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and the National School of Drama in New Delhi; Whistling Woods International and Tata Institute for Social Sciences in Mumbai, among others.

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York U Faculty of Fine Arts Dean Barbara Sellers-Young

Dean of York U Faculty of Fine Arts, Dr Barbara Sellers-Young, is a renowned Fine Arts researcher with strong professional links in Asia. Barbara has a BS in Sociology, MS in Dance and a PhD in Theatre from the University of Oregon. She has also taught at universities in England, China, and Australia and conducted research projects in several countries around the world, including Nepal, China, and Australia. Barbara is the recipient of the 2011 Dixie Durr Award for Outstanding Service to Dance Research and the 2008 Distinguished Alumni Award from the School of Music and Dance at the University of Oregon.

She speaks exclusively to Asian Correspondent about the Fine Arts industry, career prospects, the faculty’s successful trip to India, and what makes York U stand out internationally as a hub for tomorrow’s leaders.

AC: Barbara, you’ve got quite an interesting research profile yourself – dance, theatre and performance theory. What urged you to pursue the Fine Arts?

Barbara: According to educational psychology, each of us has conceptual modes that are stronger than others. I am someone who conceptualizes the world kinaesthetically.  It was not something that actually came to fruition until I went to university where I started taking dance classes for the first time.  From here and the opportunities to study dance in specifically Africa and Japan, I became fascinated with the variety of movement vocabularies that exist across the globe and how they are tied to their cultural context.

AC: What is the scope of research in Fine Arts? How is it different to more traditional subjects and what are the unique opportunities prospective students can expect?

Barbara: Research in Fine Arts encompasses the study of the history, theory and context of the arts contribution to society integrated with the technical vocabulary of the artistic discipline.  Thus, a student is taught to critically reflect on the world through an artistic medium and to create that reflection in the style of that medium.  As such, it is a combination of theories about how the world operates and a means to disseminate interpretations of that world.  In that regard, it is no different from other subjects…. The only difference is in the medium of expression is in visual, aural, or kinaesthetic means rather than written.

AC: Could you tell us about the emerging Fine Arts industry in Asia?

Barbara: The trend in the last century has been complexity in a continuation of deeply embedded contextual aesthetic attitudes in interaction with global discourses.  For example, in Japan there have been the evolution of new forms of performance from the work of directors such as Tadashi Suzukii, playwrights Shogo Ohta, to dance forms such as Butoh—that integrate movement vocabularies from Noh and Kabuki with questions regarding the changing visual dimension of performance or the position of individuals in an increasingly urbanized environment. There have also been individuals such as director Ong Keng Sen from Singapore who have used Shakespeare’s stories and multi-Asian performance traditions to examine the position of Asia with regards to western texts.  Beyond this, there are sites such as Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi that work with visual artists in Asia and India to explore the traditional crafts of India with the framework of contemporary representations.

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Future Cinema Lab at York University in Toronto. Photo by Adrien Veczan.

AC: York’s Fine Arts faculty is one of its kind in Ontario. Could you tell us more about the range of opportunities available to students on these programmes?

Barbara: The Faculty of Fine Arts is distinctive because of its integration of theory and practice in seven programs (music, dance, theatre, visual art, design, film and digital media) and BA, BFA, MA, MFA and Phd degrees in these disciplines.  Students are encouraged to explore not only their specific study but to become engaged in the arts in general. Thus, students studying music also study composing for film and theatre.  Or, a visual art student creates a set design for the stage.  This ability to work across disciplines means that students are better prepared to be involved in the complex interactions that take place in the contemporary art world.

AC: What are the programmes/collaborations undertaken by York Fine Arts in Asia?

Barbara: York Fine Arts has exchange relationships with several universities in Asia, such as Minzu University in China and the University of Madras in India.  Interestingly, we have also helped to establish the Film Program at JMI in New Delhi.

Other than that, we conducted a two year symposium on the arts with Peking University in Beijing in 2008 and 2009.  The first year at the Peking University campus included universities from across China discussing the role of the arts in a comprehensive university. The second year at York University included universities from China, Canada and the United States considering the role of art and technology.

AC: Can you tell us more about the recent delegation from the Fine Arts faculty to India this year? What was the purpose of the trip?

Barbara: The purpose of the trip was to visit post-secondary institutions in Chennai, Bangalore, New Delhi, and Mumbai to investigate the possibilities of student/faculty exchange and research partnerships as well as to visit cultural institutions such as Kaleshetra in Chennai and Sanskriti in New Delhi to expand our knowledge and understanding of India.

AC: What were your reactions during the trip and do you feel that your faculty could draw inspiration from some of India’s Fine Arts?

Barbara: I think I am still processing my thoughts on the trips. What was impressive about the arts in India is the sense of history and the relationship between all forms of art.  For example, the students at Kaleshetra study dance integrated with music, visual art and language, specifically Sanskrit.  The inclusion of nature in places we visited such as Sanskriti Foundation, Kaleshetra, and Dakshina Chitra was very interesting. The talent and technical facility of the students was inspirational.

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Pic: York University Department of Film.

AC: Can you tell us more about the hands-on training and exposure available to York Fine Arts students?

Barbara: The Faculty of Fine Arts has extensive facilities for learning, creation and presentation in the visual and performing arts, and our professors are practising professionals in their fields, who share their expertise and networks with our students. Each year, we  showcase our student talent with a full season of public events. Students have opportunities to develop and present their work in productions on four stages, including a proscenium theatre and a recital hall with an integrated recording studio; three screening rooms for film, including a 500-seat cinema with a 40-foot screen and top-of-the-line digital projection; dedicated studios and labs for a full range of media in visual, design and digital arts, and several art galleries. There are also opportunities to intern with professional arts organizations and industry placements, to exhibit in Toronto galleries, engage with the city’s lively music and dance scene, and experience a host of international festivals, such as the Toronto International Film Festival, World Stage, Luminato and Nuit Blanche, that take place here every year.

AC: And finally, what are the career prospects for Fine Arts graduates?

Barbara: An education in the fine arts is an excellent foundation for work in our globalized, information- and technology-driven world. It teaches the kind of creative, innovative, boundary-pushing thinking that’s in high demand across a wide spectrum of industries, from urban planning, public policy and  communications to sustainability, education and cultural production. Our alumni are found in leadership roles in all areas of the arts and cultural industries, locally, nationally and internationally, and many of them come back to York each year to share their experiences and contacts with our current students. The career success of our alumni is a testament not only to their talent, ambition and  hard work, but also to the value of their education in the fine arts.

Find out more about York U Faculty of Fine Arts