Any discussion of the Yukon School of Visual Arts begins with a couple of questions:
What is it? Why is it in Dawson?
The first question is easily answered: the Yukon SOVA is a post-secondary art school with excellent facilities and dedicated staff, offering a foundation year (first year) of a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree.
From here, students can and do take advantage of transfer arrangements to Emily Carr University of Art & Design (Vancouver), OCAD University (Toronto), NSCAD University (Halifax), Alberta College of Art and Design (Calgary) and the University of the Fraser Valley.
The Yukon School of Visual Arts is overseen by a governance board consisting of representation from the Dawson City Arts Society, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Yukon College.
It’s in Dawson because it was created here, because Yukon College saw the wisdom of endorsing the fledgling program and because all political parties, while they have been in power, have supported it.
As local artist John Steins – who also works as the school’s studio technician – recalls it, the late Fred Berger first brought up the idea decades ago, when he was leader of the NDP and the town’s MLA. Later on Steins and Greg Hakonson, himself an artist as well as a placer miner and contractor, were in on the ground floor of creating Dawson City Arts Society and finding it a home in the restored Oddfellows Hall, now known as the KIAC Building.
The Yukon School of Visual Arts grew out of Dawson City Arts Society program called Arts for Employment, offered by the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC), which is the program arm of the arts society. It served as a pilot to prove that a curriculum could be developed and offered successfully, and ran for about seven years.
Steins and Enns agree that moving from this adult education program to a college was always the plan.
Once it was decided to go forward, the old Yukon government Liquor Store and admin building was renovated into the current 7,800 square foot college facility, with work and studio spaces enough to accommodate nearly two-dozen students, if necessary.
As Eldo Enns, who is currently the acting program director (a post he has held before) puts it, the Yukon School of Visual Arts is a program that was developed and tested and proven in Dawson. It is not something imported from elsewhere, not something the community was asked to take on, but rather something the community asked for help in realizing, beginning in 1998 and finally launching in 2007.
Enns also mentions KIAC’s Artists in residence program, which operates under the umbrella of the Dawson City Arts Society’s ODD Gallery and has a constantly changing roster of artists staying in Parks Canada’s Macaulay House year round, including two who are selected for what they can offer to the Yukon School of Visual Arts program while they are here.
Artists apply for this residency in large numbers. “There’s people lining up,” says Enns.
“There’s such an appreciation for this town from a wide variety of artists, that it sets us up as a place that artists recognize as a place they want to be.”
“It’s incredible,” Steins says. “There’s a sense of unfulfilled potential here, all the time, in the town. This is the kind of place where you come up with an idea and then you have the critical mass to do it.”
Kyla McArthur is a town councillor and the school’s administrative officer.
“Why on earth would it be anywhere but here?” she asks.
“This town has always attracted vibrant people and been very welcoming to those who are who are unconventional, and definitely welcoming to artists. This school helps to do that for this town.”
For more information about the Yukon School of Visual Arts go to YukonSOVA.ca.