(Yukon News file)

SOVA’s school of hard knocks

It’s not exactly clear that Yukon College is even interested in saving Dawson’s art school

If there’s a weird beating heart of the Yukon, it’s Dawson City.

The Klondike’s status as an arts hub has been a long time in the making. There is, in the view of this former resident, no better place to put the Yukon School of Visual Arts than a town where the rough-edged history of the Gold Rush combines with the revival of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in culture and a rag-tag band of Outside misfits.

This why SOVA’s free-falling enrolment figures are such a shame. (Full disclosure: My wife is a SOVA alum, having completed the program in 2014-15.) The school’s ideal size of 15 to 20 students would be, with a little planning, both attainable and sustainable.

But it’s not exactly clear that Yukon College, which manages SOVA, knows what it’s doing or is even interested in saving the school.

When enrolment began sliding, the college did very little to reverse the trend. Recruitment drives were ineffective and poorly funded, according to multiple sources. Perhaps a good way to boost enrolment would be to actually try looking for students.

The lion’s share of SOVA students come from outside the territory. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and more than a few have stayed in the Yukon. But the prime target for recruitment should be northern students who are considering art school. SOVA’s aim should be to recruit students from the Yukon, N.W.T., and Nunavut, plus Alaska and northern B.C. who could use a foundation year closer to home before taking the plunge at a southern art school.

Premier Sandy Silver — the Klondike’s MLA, lest we forget — made the establishment of a SOVA stream for Indigenous artists part of culture minister Jeannie Dendys’s mandate. This would be a great way to boost enrolment and help develop homegrown artists at the same time.

A third possibility is to make SOVA a place for Outside students pursuing master’s degrees in fine art to complete their final year of study. Students finishing their degrees could mentor first-year students and would be more likely to stay in Dawson and further build the town’s thriving cultural scene.

The matter of housing remains a serious concern, although some new housing stock has come on the market and more is planned. There are signs that the Yukon government is hitting the brakes on the demolition of McDonald Lodge, which several Dawson residents have suggested would make a good residence for SOVA students.

Of course, there’s not much point in putting students in an uninhabitable building. It may make more sense for YG to investigate other options, but it should definitely pursue the creation of dedicated student housing to help draw students to SOVA.

Unfortunately, it is not clear what the college plans to do to help boost enrolment. The college has refused to answer questions about SOVA’s future in any meaningful way. When our reporter attempted to seek comment for last week’s story, a spokesperson responded with the same information-free boilerplate statement over and over again.

If Yukon College has plans for SOVA, it seems at this point that college officials have no interest in informing the public what they are until after the fact.

To her credit, Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, who was involved in crafting the initial response to our reporting, has since made herself available to answer questions about this story. She has, crucially, stated flat-out that the Yukon government is not considering moving SOVA from Dawson to Whitehorse.

But it’s still not clear if there will be a school year for SOVA this fall. There are apparently six students enrolled for September. Other media have interpreted this as meeting the threshold to run the program, but it’s important to note that McPhee has never actually said that.

What this means is that there are students planning to move to Dawson City who don’t know there will be a school to go to. SOVA has extended its registration deadline to August 22, which seems extremely late for an academic year that is scheduled to start on Sept. 5. It’s unfair to leave students in the lurch and they should be informed as soon as possible whether they have a school to go to.

The college is said to want to conduct a program review of SOVA. At this point, it’s clear that is badly needed, but it cannot take place behind closed doors. The college needs to be frank with students, staff and Dawson residents about SOVA’s challenges. It needs to consult — in public — with the community about ways to make the school better.

SOVA is a unique institution that’s part of what makes Dawson great. It deserves more than the college’s preferred approach of secrecy. Most importantly, SOVA deserves a future.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com