York’s Accolade ‘hums with new creative energy’

As Phillip Silver shows a guest around the grounds of the new Accolade Project on York University’s Keele campus, he seems like a proud father, exulting in the achievements of his offspring, reported theatre writer Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star March 20. The story was headlined, in part, “A fine arts overture: York University hums with new creative energy.” On this occasion, said the Star, the fine arts dean’s euphoria is justified, even to an outsider. The $107.5-million project, which officially opens today, is not only a carefully planned and well executed facility but it shows York as an institution with a real understanding of where Toronto is going in the future. “Some cynics,” says Silver, “have sarcastically asked why York put so much money into a fine arts project ‘all the way up here.’ I’d remind them that we’re just as close to the centre of the city as Harbourfront is, just in a different direction. We’re focused on the area around here and the whole 905 region. I know there are a lot of people who claim they never go north of Eglinton. Well, in the future, they’re going to realize that there’s a giant portion of this city who never go south of Eglinton and they have an equal right to a place like this.”

What York has provided is a network of interconnected buildings and resources dedicated to the fine arts that has no equal in the GTA or – in terms of architectural and pedagogical synergy – in the rest of Canada. And while the primary reason all this has been built is for the students, it’s also clear that York wants the outside community to feel these facilities are theirs as well, said the Star. “There are over 250 individual events that York generates every year,” says Silver, “but that still leaves a lot of time for interested outside parties to rent them, too. The door is always open.”

Theatre, film, music, art and dance can also function together. This week, the theatre is being launched with a dance project but it could just as easily hold a play or an opera. The recital hall is equally friendly to a solo vocalist, a full orchestra or a jazz combo, the Star said. But it’s not just in the public spaces that you feel this exchange of energies happening. Wandering through the building late Friday afternoon was like flipping the dial past a series of cultural stations on the radio. Someone singing lieder dissolved into a percussion-heavy piece of modern jazz, followed by the distinctive sound of the gamelan, underscoring a dance rehearsal. One student wheeling his harp through the halls passed a bevy of dancers in leotards, while a paint-spattered technical crew was taking a break from painting the latest stage set. “This is what York has always been about,” smiles Silver, “the celebration of interdisciplinary exploration.”

When asked how long it all took, he offers an initially cryptic answer, the Star said. “Either 40 years or three years, depending on how you look at it.” He goes on to explain that, when York established its fine arts faculty in the 1960s, “the master plan for the campus always included a group of buildings in which each department would have its own spaces but put the students in close proximity with each other so that they’d realize that no art stands alone.” But it took a long time for that vision to get realized, even though, as Silver puts it, “they kept nudging away at it over the years. When I started working here teaching design in 1986, my classes happened in an industrial park across Keele next to a topless dining lounge. The music department used to be all alone on the other side of campus, in the basement of a series of colleges, existing in rooms that were never meant for music.”

Things went along like that for quite a while, said the Star. Then in the mid ’90s, during a major review of the fine arts program, a series of external assessors offered their recommendation: “If the music department can’t get better facilities, it ought to shut down.” Lorna Marsden was in her first year as president and she took this advice to heart, appealing to the Harris government when it made its first SuperBuild call. But, as Silver dryly puts it, “They helped us with business and technology but they didn’t want to hear much about music.”

Silver, 62, became dean of fine arts in 1998 and his decades of experience as a world-renowned designer proved useful as he kept studying what was needed and making plans, the Star said. Then, in December 2002, with Grade 13 abolished and the double-cohort year about to start clogging the province’s higher education arteries, another SuperBuild initiative occurred. “Thanks to the ingenuity of our board of governors and the leadership of president Marsden,” recalls Silver, “we put in a proposal that served as the basis for The Accolade Project.” The final approval came through in April 2003 and the fact the entire 358,000-square-foot project was up and running in less than three years “is a bit of a miracle,” according to Silver.

On this afternoon, just a few days before the gala opening, there are still some signs to be affixed and final decorative touches to be added, but everything is amazingly tranquil, the Star said. “The students have actually been using the facility for a while now and they say it makes a real difference to them,” says Silver. Almost as if on cue, a trio of music majors, lugging a pair of guitars and a hammer dulcimer, come down the hall, recognize Silver and tell him how much they love being in the new space. “We’re all working together, even though we’re still all individuals,” volunteers one. “It’s really cool.” As a celebration of everything York has done and intends to do with The Accolade Project, a special series of 16 events open to the public starts tonight and runs though Saturday. Film, music, theatre, dance, visual arts – all are represented and everyone is invited. “At times like this,” concludes Silver, “I like to remember what I heard Mavis Staines say once before a recital at the National Ballet School. ‘You’re about to see an exciting and wonderful combination of accomplishment and potential.'” Which sounds like a perfect description of The Accolade Project, concluded the Star’s Ouzounian.

  • In the midst of Toronto’s flurry of cultural building projects comes something out of left, or rather northwest, field, reported The Globe and Mail March 18. Soon York University staff and visiting dignitaries will cut the ribbon on the York Keele campus’s Accolade Project. Why now? “York was the first faculty of fine arts in Canada, and it was always a vision to have a fine arts complex central to the campus. It should have happened years ago,” says Phil Silver, York’s dean of fine arts. “Instead, we’ve struggled to find appropriate spaces.” 
    The timing of the Accolade opening underscores the fact that Toronto already has many underutilized performance spaces, with more halls coming over the next two years as the Big Six Superbuild projects near completion, said the Globe. The University of Toronto alone has about 10 theatre/concert halls, while the often dark stages at Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre and North York’s Mel Lastman Square are testament to the difficulty of drawing audiences to suburban facilities. The trouble is, these spaces aren’t where the students are. While students will be the main users of the Accolade facilities, the University has plans to expand contact with the public at large. The Jane-Finch area’s East Asian and Caribbean communities have staged events at York’s Burton Auditorium, and it’s hoped that now relations with off-campus neighbours will deepen. “Downtown folk think York is nosebleed territory,” says Silver, “but I’m hoping we can say to theatre and dance companies, ‘You’ve played Harbourfront, now come up here for three nights.’ We want to be a cultural destination.”
  • Silver spoke on 680 News radio (Toronto) March 19 about the Accolade opening and the Festival of Fine Arts. CBC TV’s “News at Six” (Toronto) also noted the week-long festival March 17.

Transit a priority for Ontario’s budget, says the Star

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will table his first budget since being named finance minister last October, noted a Toronto Star editorial March 20. When he does, he will have a chance to tackle some of the areas that have not received the attention they deserve in previous Liberal budgets. The most significant of these areas includes public transit. The Ontario government appears ready to move forward on new subway construction, most notably a $1.5 billion expansion subway to York University and into York Region. The project is critical to having greater public transit integration among GTA municipalities, said the Star.

Tension over dogs unleashed

In a story about the rift between dog owners and parents in Toronto’s leash-free parks, Kelly Brown, a PhD student in bioethics at York University, takes a softer line, reported the Toronto Star March 20. Brown owns a 9-month-old pug named Otis and likes the idea of an enclosure. “It would protect the dogs from traffic,” she said. But Brown wishes her neighbours could empathize more with owners like her. “Dogs are like children to people,” she said.

Alumna shows how new employees can make the best of being a rookie

Newly graduated with a masters of economics, Sumana Bandyopadhyaym, now a PhD student at York, hoped her first job would offer challenging assignments and opportunities for advancement. But she quickly learned the harsh reality faced by rookies in the workplace, reported The Globe and Mail March 18. “I never really wondered whether I could do the job well, but I found that other people had doubts,” she says. Her first assignments as a financial analyst for the Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto were small and her managers and co-workers would comment that “you really have no experience working with a team” or that “we are not sure you are ready for that assignment.” In addition to putting in long hours with her group to get practical experience, she enrolled in a program to earn certification as a chartered financial analyst to give her needed accounting skills. And she also engaged in conversations with managers and co-workers. “I let them know that I was doing things to develop the specific skills needed by the industry. I think that helped immensely to build credibility with them and also my own confidence,” Bandyopadhyay says.

And the strategy worked. It wasn’t long before the comments disappeared and she started getting better assignments. Little more than two months on the job, she was promoted to manager of the trading policy group. Bandyopadhyay has reaped rewards from continuing to use every opportunity to learn. She left Scotiabank in 2000 to go back to York University and get a PhD in statistics. Returning to the work world last year at Toronto-Dominion Bank in Toronto, she found her years of practical experience and continuing education gave her immediate credibility. And there were no questions about her readiness for the job. “I’m happy to say my experiences have been completely different this time around,” she says

On air

  • Monica Belcourt, professor in the School of Administrative Studies in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, commented on the human resources benefits of letting employees celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on AM640 Radio (Toronto) on March 17.