Emily Carr President Ron Burnett on his knighthood, parents, and the ideal school
Behind the steady stream of progress at Emily Carr University of Art + Design is its President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Ron Burnett, who has been leading the university for the last 16 years. Born in England to parents who escaped The Holocaust, Burnett has led an illustrious academic career spanning over forty years. As one of the founders of film studies as a discipline in Canada, Burnett was named Educator of the Year in 2005 by the Canadian New Media Association and recently knighted by the French government for his contributions to the arts.
Soft-spoken but bold and forward thinking, Burnett has kept the school on the cutting edge of technology, design and art. The Vancouver Observer sat down with the president for a talk about his life and influences, as well as what lies ahead in the realm of education and media.
Here are key excerpts from our conversation:
VO: You recently won a big award in France. They made you a knight?
Dr. Ron Burnett: Yes, well they call it a ‘Chevalier de l’ordre de des arts et des lettres’ which means a ‘knight of the order of the arts and the letters.’ France is the only country in the world that celebrates artistic and creative work with that kind of honour, which is really quite unusual. But they spent about four years doing a forensic on my life and career.
VO: When you were growing up, what were the values of your family?
When you are an immigrant, you have a different perspective on daily life and its challenges, so I think hard work and honesty are crucial values to me. It may sound somewhat clichéd, but this is very important, and that is to have a deep sense of history. History was very important to my family both from a personal perspective and with respect to what happened in World War Two.
I grew up in a household full of books and newspapers. I started reading when I was very young, and it was a very European environment, much less Canadian than European.
VO: As a child, ever did you have a moment of awakening?
RB: I was always involved in writing and the cinema. I had a little movie camera and I shot constantly. We lived outside Montreal initially, in a very immigrant-based neighbourhood – new houses, but cheap. And I think a lot of my pictures, if my memory serves me right, were of friends and landscapes and houses and streets.
I think that there was a certain point when I realized something important about sight and seeing. I commented on this in one of my books that I published, which was about the act of seeing as a highly self-reflexive act... Seeing is very much a deeply self-aware act. You’re constantly scanning your own sight – constantly looking at what you see.
VO: So you’re saying that we’rechoosing what we see?
RB: No, you’re not choosing all the time. But when you realize what you’ve chosen, you’re thinking about what you’ve chosen...you are constantly in this process of evaluating, thinking and seeing. And at some point, I realized here was a really powerful metaphor, for human beings and what we do and how we understand ourselves.
What were your parents like? Did they expose you to the arts?
Yes. They were very cultured. Opera was on in the house all the time, and we’d go to the theatre and to films. Very early on, I had a strong interest in photography and the cinema, which then became my major passions. They were very supportive in all accounts and my father is still alive and continues to read three or four books a week.
Who was the bigger influence, your mother or your father?
They both were strong, but in different ways. My mother was a very powerful influence because she was a very kind, generous person. She was traumatized by her experiences on the kindertransport, trains,which the Nazis used to let children leave Vienna – but without their parents. And the children were not given any details about their trip; they just travelled through Europe to England without knowing whether they would be killed along the way.
And how old would she have been?
She would have been 14 or 15.
Had your father avoided the camps also?
My father’s family got out in 1936. But, most of the other members of his family perished in concentration camps.
Coming from parents who had been through something like that, did that give you the sense that you had to do something that really mattered in life?
Absolutely -- I think the fact that I’ve spent close to 40 years in the public post-secondary area was largely a function of the desire to have an impact, combined with my deep love for Canada.
I think a great deal about change in the context of history, both personal and public. All of the influences we are discussing have contributed to the ways in which I see the world and my job.
On Emily Carr's future
VO: What are you proudest of at Emily Carr?
RB: The community, that makes it up, honestly. The faculty, staff, and at an equal level, the students...
They're a remarkable group of people and very deeply and profoundly dedicated to the mission here. People work at Emily Carr because they love the place, and because they are passionately dedicated to the arts.
VO: What do you think your strongest department might be?
RB: Well, a good arts school of this kind, with its history – it is an 87-year old institution, so it's the second-oldest post secondary institution in B.C. – the strengths are actually across the curriculum, and I would say that we are as strong in digital media as we are in painting or design or illustration and 3D filmmaking.
We are very strong in design, and equally as strong in an area like ceramics... So it is very much is a cross-disciplinary space with strengths evenly distributed across many areas.
VO: What is your ideal school? What's the university of the future?
RB: The university of the future -- the best way to think about it is a place largely defined by conversation.
Conversation is not limited to formalities of the classroom, or the formalities of lectures – but conversation that has a narrative built into it. Emily Carr has a core narrative that structures our conversations around creativity and provokes us to have substantive links between what we do and the communities we serve. Our strength comes from our connections to so many different constituencies.
The structure of the university has to be permeable to allow for community, industry, education to mingle and learn from each other. Right now, we are doing a lot of that, but it's still very difficult because that permeability is hard to manage, as well as generate and sustain. So things have to be much more open and the accountability factor has to be defined by goals that are not just related to outcomes, but are also about quality and richness of experience.
VO: And you've outgrown this space on Granville Island.
RB: We have, completely.
VO: What can we expect in the future?
RB: Well, at a recent meeting I challenged the architects we were meeting with to think big. I asked them: 'What would you do if you could forget about costs for now?
If you were to build a campus that was, in metaphorical terms, a reflection of what Twitter does for conversation...and it isn’t just about cross-conversation, or bits of information. It would be really about social spaces where people come to realize what their strengths and weaknesses are through designed and spontaneous interactions. What would this building look like?'
You ask me about the future. Emily Carr is developing models of mentorship and teaching that reflect the realities of student’s needs. As opposed to the traditional model that always says 'we, the institution know better', it should be, 'we know a lot, so come and join us and lets share our stories and learn new things together.' Learning is the most exciting thing you can do in life. Learning how to bring your creativity to bear on making art or solving problems is even more exciting.
Walking in here – it's like walking into another world.
RB: The thing I love about Granville Island, the location, is that it's open to the public. So the Concourse Gallery -- the big gallery -- gets maybe thousands of visitors every year.
RB: Granville Island is the second most visited area in Vancouver after the airport, and at least a third of the people who come to the Island drift east from the market and walk into Emily Carr. Sometimes they're just walking through to use the bathrooms, but many times they're walking through and they stop and say, 'What is this?', 'What's happening here?'
VO: What are your challenges and what can we look forward to from Emily Carr?
RB: Right now, it's extremely challenging to be a university president. Public funding is declining, (but) the actual cost of providing high-quality education is not declining – it's increasing.
So institutions like Emily Carr have had to rethink their entire mode of operation and develop new sources of revenue and begin to think much more about what they spend, and how they spend. We've done this and have been successful in a large measure because the entire community has contributed to making this place work even though we have less money than most universities.
We're a passionate group of people who work here and they just always make things happen...We have more international students than any other art school in Canada. Probably around 20 per cent of our total population, from 60 countries – it's quite remarkable. And we have a research unit that is gathering in more research than we could ever imagined, in all sorts of areas from health, right through to digital media.
So, meeting the challenges today is about balancing the relationship between where your money is going to come from to operate and, and trying as much as possible not to burden the students, but at the same time, trying to figure out a revenue-expense model that will allows (us) to retain and grow the quality of the learning and teaching environment.
VO: What kinds of solutions are you experimenting with?
RB: We're experimenting with everything, actually from new classroom models right through to lifelong learning. We had a symposium that brought a large number of people from around the world just to discuss many of these issues. It was a leadership symposium that was co-managed by the European League of Institutes of the Arts and Emily Carr, and brought in people from about 20 countries, and 50 or 60 different institutions. We spent three-and-a-half days really exploring precisely how we can manage all the complexity surrounding change in art and design education.
Simultaneously, masters students created the QR_U Open School. This was an environment of open discussion, classes, exhibitions and other activities held over a ten day period.
It was an experiment in the Concourse gallery– a really transformative way of providing context for debate, classes were held there...It became a place where people stopped and listened, and it's actually a model of the art school that I'd love to create.
The digital era
VO: What are your art students like, in this digital age?
RB: It might hearten you to know that the vast majority of so called digital students, or the generation that is supposed to be the most digital, are actually very interested in analogue crafts like painting.
They (the youth) want materiality and they want the virtual including social media, so it's a little bit different than the press is categorizing it...the digital generation moves fluidly between different forms and media.
The design students are sophisticated in their use digital tools, as you can imagine, but they also love books. They love creating them. They love typography. Typography is the key to the screen culture we now share, but they understand that that's also the key to ways in which web pages communicate]. So they get it, you know, it's so fascinating. The students at Emily Carr are just fantastic.
VO: That's heartening to hear about the kids who come to art school.
RB: Yes. I've taught at places like McGill and other universities and you can't compare – it is definitely a different kind of group.
In general, artistic people are the canaries in the mine. They're the ones that tell you a lot more about what's coming in the future than anyone else. And if you can sense that, if you can feel it, and look at it carefully, and discover where they are going, you will recognize the future as well as the present in a different way.
Art school students are moving out into the world and creating employment for others because they are so entrepreneurial. The students at Emily Carr University graduate with the tools they need to be successful at creative endeavours. They contribute to the economic and cultural well being of our society.
VO: You were expressing concern in one of your blog entries about how people are less and less able to write...
RB: There is an issue with writing: I'm concerned about it because we are being too reductive about the challenge in our public discussions. Yes, there are a lot of young students who cannot write, in my terms. They cannot write in the way that I think they should.
But is it my right to say, “You should write like this?” No, I don't think so. If writing and speech are about communication and interaction, if the purpose of writing is communication and contact, and sharing, then we have to allow every generation to define the best possible approach they need to expressing themselves and communicating with each other.
Twitter is very interesting. Anyone who knows about the history of poetry should know that we're looking at a poetic form (in Twitter). Anyone who knows the history of culture should know that hip hop and rap are very closely related to older forms of theatrical culture, opera culture...If you look very closely at Facebook, it is a lot like old style bulletin boards. Writing is crucial to all these activities and they are about presenting yourself to the public, which is not unusual, because that's what people do. But a lot of the sharing stuff is very conventional and we have been doing it for millennia.
Where it gets interesting is when people start to have debates about important issues, and when these new forms become an interesting point of contact for people who share things they didn't know they shared or people who discover that they know and understand something that someone else doesn't.
If you look at it even more closely, it is only possible for Wikipedia to exist in a world where Facebook exists. And what is Wikipedia? Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia ever created, literally, and it can compare favourably to any of the great projects in history that have required collaboration and vision. Keep in mind that Wikipedia is a series of written texts. So, when we talk about writing in this period of history, I see it everywhere.
Think about Twitter. It is this constant flow of exchange and information and ideas. Some are trivial, but how can all of this activity lead you to the argument that the digital generation is illiterate? They are using different forms of literacy to talk about their fears and hopes and dreams. They may be the most literate group, ever in our history. It's just that they may have a different form of literacy. And so we must not make the mistake in our schools of disempowering them and saying that they're illiterate – that's silly.
Our cultural tendency is to see things through one perspective and I would characterize this as a major cultural fault. Why limit, reduce and simplify all of this complex activity? Why characterize our own children as somehow disturbed or faulty because they see the world differently than we do? Why can’t we just celebrate all of these differences between generations and learn from each other?