Ontario College of Art and Design University | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Ontario College of Art and Design University

The alma mater of some of Canada's most important artists, like Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer, the founder of the Painters Eleven Harold Town, and Michael Snow, the Ontario College of Art and Design University has adapted to the 21st century and continues to be a vital force in the art world.
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Jack Bush, 1968, acrylic polymer on canvas (courtesy NGC).

The Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) is Canada's best-known and largest art school and is located in Toronto. Over the more than a century of its existence, OCAD U has provided training for generations of Canada’s most prominent artists, from members of the Group of Seven like A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer to innovative post-war artists like Jack Bush, Harold Town, and Michael Snow. In the 21st century, OCAD U has reinvented itself as a leader in digital media and design.

Founding and Early Years

Since its inception in 1876, under the sponsorship of the Ontario Society of Artists, the college has had several names and locations. First called the Ontario School of Art, it was located at 14 King Street West in downtown Toronto. In 1882, it came under the Ontario Department of Education and moved to the city's Normal School, the present site of Ryerson University. The school relocated five years later to a building near Queen and Yonge Street, where it existed precariously for a short time.

In 1890 the Ontario Society of Artists resumed its sponsorship and re-established the school as the Central Ontario School of Art and Industrial Design. At that time, the school occupied the upper floors of the Princess Theatre Building. When the theatre was demolished, the school changed location again, to the Upper Floor of Grange House, the home of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). In 1920, Group of Seven Member Arthur Lismer became the Vice Principal, following his stint as principal at NSCAD. While there, it became recognized as the Ontario College of Art, and in 1921 moved to its present site at 100 McCaul Street, next door to the AGO. This was the first building in Canada to be used solely for art education. In 1929, another member of the Group of Seven took on a leadership role in the evolving institution with the appointment of J.E.H. MacDonald as principal.

The Sharp Centre for Design

In 1979 the main campus was supplemented by the newly renovated Stewart Building at 149 College Street, and in 1981 the main campus was considerably enlarged. The institution had grown steadily since opening, with enrolment climbing from 100 in 1911 to nearly 5,000 combined graduate and undergraduate students as of 2016.

In 2000, funding was secured to build a major extension to the main building. In 2002, award-winning British architect Will Alsop, known for his free, and often flamboyant, use of form and colour, received the commission to design what came to be called the Sharpe Centre for Design. The building was completed in 2004. The extension is designed to look like a tabletop spattered with windows and white and black squares lifted above the main building on garishly coloured stilts that resembles drawing pencils. The whimsical character of the building is in striking contrast to the spare elegance of Frank Gehry’s renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is directly across Grange Park from OCAD University.

Legacy and the Future

OCAD U’s alumni and faculty include world-renowned artists and designers, among them Barbara Astman, Aba Bayefsky, J.W. Beatty, David Blackwood, David Bolduc, F.H. Brigden, Dennis Burton, Jack Bush, Ian Carr-Harris, Charles Fraser Comfort, Graham Coughtry, Greg Curnoe, Ken Danby, Allan Fleming, Richard Gorman, Frederick Haines, Robert Hedrick, James Hill, Robert Holmes, Yvonne McKague Housser, C. W. Jefferys, Burton Kramer, Nobuo Kubota, Isabel McLaughlin, Lucius O'Brien, George A. Reid, John Scott, Michael Snow, Lisa Steele, Harold Town, Colette Whiten, members of the Group of Seven (Franklin Carmichael, A.J. Casson, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley).

OCAD U's contemporary curriculum includes drawing and painting, integrated media, sculpture/installation, criticism and curatorial practice, photography, printmaking, communication and design, environmental design, industrial design, and material art and design. In 2002, OCAD received official status to confer the degrees of Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Design in addition to its four-year diploma in art and design. OCAD transitioned into the status of a university in 2010.

In 2005, media artist and theorist Sara Diamond, who was the founder of the Banff New Media Institute and the Director of Research at the Banff Centre, was appointed president of OCAD University. In the process leading up to OCAD’s official transition into the status of a university, Diamond took numerous often unpopular measures, including reducing the ratio of senior to junior staff, insisting that all faculty members have graduate degrees, and investing greater independence and power in deans. In terms of curriculum, Diamond reduced the amount of required classroom verses studio time, increasing the academic rigor of the program, and dramatically pushed forward digital media and design research and classes through the Digital Futures Initiative and the Digital Media Research and Innovation Institute. She was also involved in initiating the Aboriginal Visual Culture Program.

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