York’s groundbreaking contribution to GTA culture

“The visionaries who created York University in 1959 knew that the country had changed and there was an untapped reserve of creative talent waiting to be unleashed,” said President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden during her stirring presentation at the recent prestigious colloquium held at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“They set out to harness the brainpower and talents of creative people from the entire city region, the new immigrant groups, the old establishment and the power of community,” Marsden said, going on to highlight York’s interdiscliplinarity and some of the more well-known faculty, alumnae and programs.

Marsden presented a case study at the colloquium, in partnership with York graduate (BA ‘72, LLB ‘75) David Tsubouchi, Ontario minister of culture and Chair of the Management Board of Cabinet, focusing on York’s unique contribution to the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) cultural community.

Beginning by introducing Tsubouchi as a “poet, politician, York double-graduate and a great Canadian”, Marsden proceeded to speak of other University current faculty and alumnae who have made names for themselves, and to talk about the ways in which York has reached out culturally to the GTA.

She also singled out the Rhombus Media group’s founders, who made the internationally-acclaimed movie, The Red Violin; and Phillip Silver, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and “major stage designer at the Stratford Festival” and elsewhere.

“What York did is tap into what people were doing in their parlours and give it stage – quite literally. We built a theatre, the Burton Auditorium, which – in the 1970s – was the only major stage in town for serious production.

“We brought in marcel Marceau in a series on mime…and the famous New Yorker Eric Bentley. The Danny Grossman Dance Company was founded when Danny was a student performing on that same stage…. York was fierce with creators,” said Marsden, listing names such as Sir Henry Moore and Sir Anthony Caro, who “taught and created sculpture on our campus; Ron Bloore and the Regina Five all painted and taught at York…[and] Oscar Peterson, who taught master classes in our jazz program and serviced as our chancellor from 1991-1994.”

Marsden pointed out that York’s Faculty of Fine Arts “took over” the famous David Mirvish Gallery and Bookstore in downtown Toronto and “ran it for some years as a living laboratory with performances, lectures and exhibitions by our faculty and students”.

She spoke of the culture buses York ran through the city neighbourhoods “with students working to stir up constructive action and excitement in local parks and youth centres…. In keeping with this long tradition is our innovative new partnership with Toronto’s marvellous Harbourfront Centre. Over the years, York University students and graduates have performed on Harbourfront’s stages, installed art in its galleries and have worked for the organization itself,” said Marsden.

One of the University’s innovative professors helped organize cultural-exchange festivals through Harbourfront to give participants the chance to develop a richer understanding of the arts, cultures and techniques, added Marsden. “The festivals have cognate academic programs at York.”

Many more links between the University and the city were touched on, including cultural outreach programs through Theatre@York. “The brilliance of York’s founders was that they recognized the strengths of the surrounding area and the many new communities, embraced and encouraged those strengths and allowed them to develop in new and unexpected ways. They set out to ensure an interdicsciplinary approach that helps creative people avoid being boxed in,” said Marsden at the close of her presentation.

York was the only Canadian university and Marsden the only Canadian university president to be invited to make a presentation at the inaugural colloquium, held on the occasion of the installation of Case Western Reserve’s new president, Edward M. Hundert. The colloquium garnered extensive media coverage, and was covered by journalists from such publications and TV networks as the New York Times, Business Week, Associated Press, University Business and CNN.