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Garry Neill Kennedy dies at 85: Influenced art, artists across Canada

Obituary: Artist, teacher and administrator lived in Vancouver, earlier turned sleepy art college in Halifax into a world centre for conceptual and avant-garde art in the 1960s and 1970s

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Garry Neill Kennedy was a “really intelligent thinker and artist” who influenced the development of art across the country as the head of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, says a former student and long-time art teacher in Vancouver.

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David MacWilliam said he first met Kennedy in the autumn of 1974 when he went to NSCAD to learn about artist books.

MacWilliam said Kennedy had been so successful in promoting the college that students were attracted to the Halifax campus from across Canada and the United States.

By the time MacWilliam arrived, Kennedy had turned NSCAD into a world centre for conceptual and avant-garde art.

“It was just a great place to be a student — there was no other way to describe it. There’d be a different visiting artist every week or two weeks,” MacWilliam said.

“He created a buzz.”

In addition to being an artist, MacWilliam later taught and worked at Emily Carr University of Art and Design for 29 years, a testament to Kennedy’s influence and mentorship.

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“Garry thought about how you could bring the outside world closer to the art world and not leave it in an ivory tower or art museum,” said MacWilliam.

“He was a really intelligent thinker and artist.”

The 85-year-old Kennedy, born in Port Dalhousie, Ont., died in Vancouver on Aug. 8.

Renowned Canadian conceptual artist Garry Neill Kennedy, pictured in 2018, emphasized ideas rather than art object.
Renowned Canadian conceptual artist Garry Neill Kennedy, pictured in 2018, emphasized ideas rather than art object. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG files

Kennedy took over as president of NSCAD in 1967 at age 32. He remained president until 1990 and kept teaching there until 2005 when it was known as NSCAD University.

Before heading to Halifax, Kennedy had been teaching minimalism and pop art and other new approaches to art at a college in Wisconsin. Kennedy arrived in Nova Scotia to find an art school that had a Victorian sensibility in an old church hall.

When Kennedy didn’t renew four faculty contracts after his first year, students protested in the streets, he said an article in Artforum.

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“All hell broke loose,” he said.

“I’m not sure they quite understood what they had gotten themselves into when they hired me.”

Kennedy used part of the budget for teaching to bring in numerous top artists of the era. Many were from the art centre of New York, which was a two-hour flight away, or on their way there from Europe.

They included Lawrence Weiner, Daniel Buren, John Baldessari, Yvonne Rainer, Michael Snow, Robert Smithson and Lucy R. Lippard.

Kennedy championed conceptual art, which emphasized ideas rather than the art object. NSCAD also became a place artists could experiment and push boundaries by making art in new ways with performance, video and text.

MacWilliam pointed out that the 1960s and 1970s was a time when making art with video was considered radical.

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“NSCAD wasn’t traditional in how it approached contemporary art making,” he said. “There was an appetite for new things that were different.”

After moving to Vancouver, Kennedy created an art work called Remembering Names on the walls of CSA Space on Main Street in 2018. The work involved writing and printing in pencil the names of artists, curators, friends and classmates he remembered.

The work was made especially poignant because Kennedy was living with dementia, which progressively impairs a person’s memory.

It was a continuation of a 1974 art work of writing out the names of everyone he knew. Over the years, Kennedy did various iterations of the work.

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At CSA, Kennedy eventually wrote the names of hundreds of people, one after another, in long, slanting lines. Sometimes he remembered only their first names.

Kennedy also taught at ECUAD and the University of British Columbia. In the art world, he was affectionately known as GNK.

Remembering Garry: Memorial celebrations will take place at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, at 2 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 2, at Art Metropole in Toronto in November (date and time to be confirmed), and at Western Front in Vancouver at 2 p.m., Jan. 8, 2022.

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