Dawson to turn New York North

The town of 1,800 is preparing to get a little more colourful next year. Adding to its wealth of arts programs and festivals, Dawson City is poised…

The town of 1,800 is preparing to get a little more colourful next year.

Adding to its wealth of arts programs and festivals, Dawson City is poised to start producing painters, sculptors and filmmakers.

The old liquor store on the corner of Fourth and Queen, kitty corner to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, will become home to the territory’s new visual arts college.

“For a small town, it’s a big dream,” said Gary Parker, executive director of the Dawson City Arts Society, one of the project’s partners.

And with last week’s announcement of $500,000 from the territory to cover costs of developing the program’s curriculum, facilities, and staff and student recruitment, the dream is one step closer to reality.

Under a unique three-way partnership, the program will be developed and managed collaboratively by the arts society, Yukon College and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.

The trio has been working together informally since 2001, and made it official in October 2005, said Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture programs director David Curtis.

“It came out of the realization that this is a great relationship and the input, resources and specialties from each organization would make the school stronger than just one organization on its own.”

The government funds will go directly to Yukon College, but all three partners will decide how the money is spent.

The school will offer a one-year foundation course in hands-on art making, art history and theory.

The yearlong course would be fully accredited and transferable.

And would count as the first year toward a four-year bachelor of fine arts degree.

So, students could transfer to another art school — like the Alberta College of Art and Design, the Ontario College of Art and Design or the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver — to complete the degree.

In its first year, beginning in the fall of 2007, the Dawson facility plans to hire two full-time instructors plus a technical assistant and administrative position.

It will be designed to hold 40 students, but expects to start small — with 20 enrolled in the first year starting fall 2007.

The one-year course will cost the same as a year of tuition at Yukon College – just $1,500 plus fees.

And there are no plans for tuition hikes, said Curtis, who is developing curriculum for the program.

The school began with a vision in 1998.

The Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture established a gallery, a residency program and a film festival, but never lost sight of creating the arts school, said Parker.

The new program will piggyback on the rich arts and culture resources the town already offers, he said.

The school will bring more artists into the small community and create cross-pollination between its ODD Gallery, performing arts spaces, KIAC’s artist residency program and the handful of festivals — like the Dawson City Music Festival, its international film festival and its summer arts in the park festival.

“The vision is to create an arts and culture economy, and the school will be the hub of that,” said Parker.

The school will draw on the seven years of success for KIAC’s Arts for Employment program that gives 10 students skills needed to land jobs in the arts — like graphic design or working on a movie set — each year.

The program’s curriculum will draw upon the unique strengths of the northern community like its remote location, gold rush era heritage and close relationship with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.

“If we’re going to attract students from across Canada and all over the world, the program has to stick out,” said Curtis, who has developed the lesson plans as part of an advisery group.

Curtis says he’s helped design the kind of program he wishes was available when he went to art school.

Most Canadian fine arts programs use formal European standards of what is termed fine arts — like oil painting and life drawing, said Curtis.

The new school will push the boundaries of the staunch academy system and teach new media, pop culture and craft all as legitimate art forms.

It will break boundaries between traditional “high art” and “low art” forms, he said.

The school also will push beyond the “sage on the stage” approach, where the professor is the guru, and instead will embrace a learner-centric philosophy where students are encouraged to bring their experiences and knowledge to the classroom.

And through its unique partnership with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, elders and art makers from the First Nation will come to the classroom to share their practices and perspectives on traditional aboriginal art.

Apart from the artistic enrichment, Curtis sees the school as an economic driver in the community bringing in at least 20 new residents a year and new jobs for people in Dawson.

There will be spin-offs in every sector from retail to food service to housing, said Curtis.

The old liquor store building, which will eventually house the school, is government-owned but under lease to the arts society for the program.

Currently, it’s being gutted and pieced back together with roughly $1.75 million from government and fundraising dollars.

“The building had been condemned, the government was anticipating tearing it down and we lobbied against them doing that,” said Parker.

The revamped 675-square-metre space will be a mix of workshops — like drawing studios and computer labs — and classroom space.

“The partnership is a good example of people working in unity and the good that can come out of that,” said Education minister John Edzerza, who presented the hefty cheque at a ceremony in Dawson City last week.

The persistence of people in Dawson made this happen, said Edzerza.

“They were very aggressively pursuing this and they did their homework.”

The program will mean more opportunity to advance arts in the Yukon, and put the territory on the map as a cultural hub.

“I think there are a lot of talented people in the Yukon who already have artistic abilities whether it’s in carving or painting or copper work or video production and this will allow those people to enhance their natural abilities and get credibility for their knowledge in the arts,” said Edzerza.

The school’s future is as broad as an empty canvas with the potential to open other campuses around the territory.

And, by 2011, the school hopes to offer second-year courses that will eventually lead up to the whole shebang — a four-year full-degree program based in the northern town.