Dean’s letter: Learning how much is possible even in the most trying of circumstances

new dean for the school of the arts, media, performance and design
Sarah Bay Cheng

Greetings from AMPD, the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design at York University!

Sarah Bay-Cheng
Sarah Bay-Cheng

Over the past 12 months, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind for our school as we’ve developed new phrases and coinages to respond to the continuously changing circumstances of life with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Perhaps the famous of these covidioms is the reminder that one is “on mute.” (Something I’m still struggling with, to be honest.) Close behind it is the ubiquitous refrain of the need to pivot to the new normal. As a dedicated educator, advocate and enthusiast for our school and its students, I think about these concepts a lot. What does the recent and continuing shift mean for our school? How can we help our students to navigate, survive and thrive in this new normal? What can we do today to get ready for tomorrow?

One of the most important lessons from our experience at York has been learning how much is possible, even in the most trying of circumstances. It is also clear that we cannot simply go back to the way things were, but must continue to expect change in the future. This is a unique opportunity. Amid all of the recent and ongoing challenges, there is a growing sense of optimism that collectively, we might be able to work together not only to adapt to these changes already in motion, but also to use this unusual moment in history to create a better future.

This is why we’re excited for the role that AMPD programs will play in the new University Academic Plan (UAP) as we empower our students, faculty and staff in their communities across Canada and beyond. Our service to the UAP and its emphasis on York’s role in meeting the challenge of the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals is simple: great art for the greater good.

Art → Media → Great                                            for the Greater Good Performance → Design →

To achieve this, we build on our past success and look forward to a dynamic future in which our faculty and students create new opportunities for themselves and the world around them. As a diverse community, we focus on collaboration, connection, computation and creativity to achieve these ends.

We continue what has made York a leading university in fine arts for more than 50 years: research and teaching at the forefront of Canadian art, design and culture. Home to many of Canada’s original disciplinary programs, our Faculty combines exceptional education across our founding disciplines – such as curatorial studies, dance, film and media, jazz music and theatre – with cutting-edge research in emerging areas such as design and healthcare, digital media and sustainability, as well as multi-disciplinary projects that advance social inclusion and equity, including major partnership grants in Inuit cultural heritage, media history archives and community and performance creation across the Americas.

Over the last five years, AMPD researchers averaged $1.2 million in annual Tri-Council grants, with a 52 per cent success rate for other competitive funding sources and over $700,000 in annual commissions, arts grants and other non-council awards. Sensorium Centre for Art + Technology brought AMPD researchers to ISEA International, one of the world’s most prominent international arts and technology events. In the past year, AMPD students have earned prestigious Banting Fellowships and the Order of Ontario. Professor Freya Olafson was one of the recipients of the Sobey Art Award for 2020, and Professor Christina Petrowska Quilico received the Order of Canada in December in recognition of her lifetime achievements in advancing classical music and music education in Canada. More recently, AMPD alumni, faculty and students collaborated on the innovative series 21 Black Futures, a ground-breaking theatre collaboration between Obsidian Theatre and CBC Arts that has brought 21 new televised plays about the future of Blackness to audiences nationwide. Current undergraduate and graduate students in Theatre@York participated in 21 Black Futures as both critics and mentors.

Even amid the challenges of the pandemic, AMPD faculty are working to expand opportunities for our students, including:

  • collaborations, such as the recent work between art history students and ArtGate VR (founded by Visual Art alumnus Brendan McNaughton) to reconstruct the AGO’s Tunirrusiangit exhibition of Inuit art so that it is accessible to distanced viewers via virtual reality;
  • expanded connections between teaching and research, imagination and industry at York Studios at Cinespace, professional studios for film and media arts, including new techniques in virtual production design and interactive storytelling, among others;
  • enhanced performance facilities and studios at the Keele Campus to support digital production across disciplines and to ensure that all interested students have experience in the computational changes that are shaping the arts.

We continue to expand opportunities for experiential education (EE) and work-integrated learning, both in the current programs at the Keele Campus and as part of our new program in Creative Technologies in development for the Markham Centre Campus.

As the last year has shown us, change is constant. Indeed, perhaps the most commonly used word in 2020 (other than “mute”) was creative. Creative teams across music, drama, film and dance have sustained our spirits during the long weeks of lockdowns and quarantines, even as they watched venues close. Artists have made us laugh in the midst of the pandemic and called for action in the face of ongoing inequities. Designers have brought their research and communication skills to plan for more sustainable and livable communities in the post-pandemic world, while the art and cultural historians are carefully tracking these events to ensure that these lessons will not be lost.

In a world that is quickly changing and in which the future of work will continue to evolve, creativity across all domains, disciplines, communities and cultures will be what empowers new generations of AMPD students to create a future in which we all can thrive.

Sarah Bay-Cheng
Dean, AMPD