How did a university such as ours come to house nationally significant cultural artefacts and to foster a tradition in drama unique in its inclusiveness and impact on local culture? Start with a vision to build “bridges between Technology and Arts and Science”; add a belief that the university’s role is both to preserve and contribute to the cultural heritage of Cape Breton Island; insist that education encompasses the intellectual, social and ethical development of the student. Such was Father Campbell’s legacy. Along with his goal of creating truly innovative interdisciplinary programs at the proposed new College of Cape Breton campus, Father Campbell (first appointed Principal of Xavier in 1963 and then President of CCB/UCCB until 1983, and affectionately known as Father Donnie) was instrumental in making the visual and performing arts part of our educational and cultural landscape, creating bridges to connect faculties, disciplines and students from across the programs. He saw the Art Gallery, Playhouse, and Beaton Institute (which will be featured in future articles) as vital pieces of the university’s contribution to both the cultural life and education of students and the wider community ‒- to not only bring Cape Breton to the world but the world to Cape Breton.
The Art Gallery, established to house the first publicly-held permanent art collection on the Island, owns works of national and international significance. When it opened, Father Campbell’s acquisitions already included works by the Group of Seven and serigraphs by Alex Colville. In 1977, he hired our first curator to oversee the future gallery. An astute art collector himself, he left us with well over 100 acquisitions, including a substantial portion of his own collection; it includes works by eminent Nova Scotian artists, Canadian pieces of national and international significance, and a sizable collection by prominent photographers. His work in getting CBU a Cultural Properties Tax Fund Designation (received mid-eighties) solidified CBU’s mandate to collect, preserve and present. Works from our collection have been exhibited in various galleries; we house travelling exhibitions of provincial/national importance and showcase local artistic talent. The Gallery educates both in and out of the classroom, fosters cultural awareness and creativity, and provides the community with a showcase for their artistic creations through the annual ProletariART exhibition. The Witness Blanket, the latest work of great cultural significance to be exhibited, brings students and adults face-to-face with the complex legacy of the residential school system.
Father Campbell also firmly advocated for the role that drama plays in raising awareness, challenging assumptions or sometimes simply poking fun at sacred cows and, in hiring Harry and Liz Boardmore, he initiated a vibrant and innovative drama scene in Cape Breton. Pulling in talent from the student body, from faculty in Arts, Science and Technology, and the wider community, the Playhouse became a space to showcase talent and hone skills in an environment of constructive criticism, difficult at times but well worth it. The Boardmores paired cutting edge drama with talented local actors and budding playwrights. Some, like Bryden MacDonald, Carolyn Dunn, and Audrey Butler, landed on the national stage, but most simply found an outlet for their creative impulses in a wide range of activities from acting to set building. According to the late Evelyn Garbary, founder of Mermaid Theatre, CBU’s annual Festival of Plays, now in its 44th year, became “one of the most exciting examples of [local] theatre in Canada.” Through workshops and adjudicated performances, the festival continues to invite students and the broader community to critically engage with live theatre.
Father Campbell’s written Presidential reports reveal his belief that our cultural heritage embraces the past and the future; just as those before us, we shape it by drawing upon influences near and far. He saw to it that important works of art and drama arrived on Cape Breton’s doorstep and then invited us in. In teaching us about ourselves and the world at large, they become part of our heritage and the seedbed for much more. It’s a vision that never gets old.
Mary Keating is Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences and an Assistant Professor of English at Cape Breton University.
This post originally appeared in the Cape Breton Post’s, Community Post.