Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


It has dick to do with art,” muttered an angry male faculty colleague as we left a tense meeting of Toronto’s Ontario College of Art Faculty Association on October 31, 1989. The subject of the meeting had been the employment-equity proposals being debated by the college’s governing council. The faculty present had voted 39-23 in favour. It was an important vote for those of us who support equity because all six faculty seats on the nineteen-member governing council were then occupied by men, at least five of whom, it was clear, would vote against the proposal. We wanted to let the other members of council know where the majority of the faculty stood.

Even at the best of times, OCA is a fractious place. You can’t bring together that many creative people — 262 faculty and approximately 2,800 full-and part-time students — without having sparks fly. Frequently the sparks are the result of the never-ending war between the college’s traditionalists and avant-gardists and their constant fears that if they relax their guard the other side will gain the upper hand. In the early 1970s, for example, during my first year at the college, one sculpture teacher smashed the copies of well-known works used by another sculptor in his teaching. He argued that “no creative ability is developed through copying.” The then president, Roy Ascott, agreed, saying that he believed the use of copies was “a form of brainwashing.”

Ascott was fired several months later with the college’s avant-gardists and traditionalists lined up for and against him. As soon as he was gone, OCA reorganized itself. (Among his many changes, Ascott had abolished departments.) Those who favoured traditional — i.e., mostly realistic — approaches to drawing, painting, and sculpture set up a fine arts department; those who favoured more avant-garde approaches to those media formed an experimental-arts department. No other art college in Canada, and none that I know of anywhere, has two drawing, painting, and sculpture departments. The decision to have two had nothing, of course, to do with the best interests of the students — only with the philosophical differences and the antipathies between and among faculty.

OCA is the oldest and largest school of art and design in Canada. (There are only four such schools in the country.) There are more people at OCA than anyplace else in the country creating the images we see in Canada’s galleries and media. One doesn’t have to be a feminist to be concerned about how women are portrayed. It’s no small matter, therefore, that in 1989-90 male faculty outnumbered female faculty four to one and taught eighty-seven per cent of the periods. (A period is a twenty-eight-week course consisting of three hours a week.) Meanwhile, fifty-seven per cent of OCA’s students in recent years have been women.

In May, 1985, prodded by a student who’d conducted some independent research on the subject, the college’s governing council established a task force to examine the status of women at OCA. That September, council unanimously approved a motion indicating “its commitment to an affirmative action/employment equity programme for women” at the college; it called on the task force to advise the council on policies and strategy for implementing such a programme. OCA thus became the first postsecondary institution in Ontario to formally approve an equity plan.

A preliminary report in November, 1986, pointed out that some departments had a shockingly low proportion of women teachers. In communication and design (advertising), by far the largest department in the college, ninety-four per cent of the periods were taught by men; in fine arts, the second-largest department, it was eighty-nine per cent of the periods; in experimental arts, eighty-two per cent. (Not one women taught painting and drawing in experimental arts, although the distinguished Canadian artist Joyce Wieland had been turned down three times when she applied to do so.) The one area where there were more women working at the college than men was in life-drawing classes; sixty-nine per cent of the models were women and thirty-one per cent men. (Until 1971, male models at OCA wore jockstraps; female models posed nude.)

Life drawing wasn’t confined to the classroom. Certain women students in fine arts were persistently asked to model in private for their instructors. Michèle White, who is currently senior adviser to students at the college and who teaches courses in fine arts, was herself a fine-arts student. Being asked to model, she says, put students in a difficult position “because if you said ‘no’ several things would happen. You might not get the marks you thought you should get. You might not get the scholarship you thought you should get. You might not get the attention that your teacher was giving the other students around you who were modelling ... . If you said yes, then you got implicated in this reward system ... . That’s an impossible situation for a young woman to be in ... and it’s still going on now.”

Equity at OCA, continued > 

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