Nova Scotia

Garry Neill Kennedy, artist who transformed NSCAD, remembered for dedication to the industry

Garry Neill Kennedy, the conceptual artist who is credited with putting the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design on the international art map, is being remembered for his dedication to the industry and changing the lives of his students.

Kennedy is credited with putting the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design on the international art map

Garry Neill Kennedy is seen at Gallery 101 in Ottawa in 2002. Jen Budney was the artistic director at the time and she invited Kennedy to paint his Somolia installation on the building. (Submitted by Jen Budney)

Garry Neill Kennedy, the conceptual artist credited with putting the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design on the international art map, is being remembered for his dedication to the industry and changing the lives of his students.

"My relationship with him was not unique," Jen Budney, a friend and former student of the artist, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Tuesday.

"There were so many students that came from NSCAD who graduated before me and after me, who have kept up relationships with Garry and really credit him with having changed the course of their lives and careers."

Kennedy died in Vancouver on Sunday. He was 86.

The artist, who was originally from Ontario, became a renowned figure in the Halifax arts community in 1967 when he was appointed president of the post-secondary institution now known as NSCAD University.

Kennedy is credited with transforming the small, conservative arts school with a "very Victorian sensibility" into an international hub for conceptual art.

The school even became the first degree-granting art school in Canada.

"With Kennedy at the helm, NSCAD ... evolved from a regional art school into one of North America's leading visual arts universities," a Facebook post from the school said Tuesday.

Kennedy remained in the position for 23 years, before stepping down in 1990. He continued teaching there until 2011.

'Exciting place for art-making'

Budney, who is now an arts writer, curator and instructor at the University of Saskatchewan, attended NSCAD in 1991.

She said as a professor, Kennedy was a quiet and intelligent man who still "has this air of being up to some mischief."

"Although he was president of an institution of higher education for a number of decades, he was really opposed to the bureaucratization of organizations and of life, and so he looked for ways to poke holes in bureaucracy all the time," she said.

One way he did that was by removing letter grades from assignments. Instead, he encouraged students to rely on their own judgment and motivation.


"He didn't really have any stated rules about what was going to be a successful work of art and what wasn't," Budney said. 

"He didn't give very strict parameters in any of his assignments, but he would let you know when something you did wasn't really, I guess, authentic or well-thought-out … that was a really important lesson for all of us."

Jen Budney, left, and her colleague Stefan St. Laurent, right, are seen pretending to paint a mural created by artist Garry Neill Kennedy. (Submitted by Jen Budney)

Budney said Kennedy also showed his students that being in a small place like Halifax can provide more opportunities to be innovative and experimental.

"That's what Garry and all of his faculty and visiting artists and the students brought to NSCAD. Halifax was such an exciting place for art-making during the late 1960s and 1970s and '80s," she said. 

"And when I got there in 1991 ... we were still sort of living off of the vapours of that time and it was a really fun place to be."

'Never stopped making art'

Kennedy lived in Halifax for more than 45 years. In 2014, he and his partner, artist Cathy Busby, moved to Vancouver to teach at the University of British Columbia.

At the time, Kennedy told Budney that the move wasn't going to change anything.

"He lived his life as an artist and he did that while being president of NSCAD and he did that after he retired, as well. He just never stopped making art," said Budney.

Artist and educator Garry Neill Kennedy died Sunday at the age of 86. He's credited with having made the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design recognized around the world. Jen Budney is an arts writer, curator, and NSCAD grad. She was also a friend of Mr. Kennedy's. 11:21

Even when he was diagnosed with dementia, he continued doing what he loved. He revived a project he had started in the 1970s, trying to recall and record the names of everyone he'd ever met.

His exhibit, Remembering Names, was held in Vancouver in 2018.

Budney said when Kennedy first started working on the project, it was about "the essence of things lost through time as they become inconsequential to the present."

The project became more than just a philosophical piece of art, she said.

"When he took this up again after his diagnosis, it was the same project, but it became also therapeutic," she said. 

"And it was also ironic in some ways that he was returning to an early work, but it was serving this other purpose in the end."

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet


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