SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, situated in one of downtown Vancouver’s most dynamic and diverse neighbourhoods, offers a unique curriculum in which studio classes in dance, film, music/sound, theatre performance and production, and visual art are integrated with the historical and theoretical study of the arts. This meeting of creative practice with academic enquiry is a core value of the school and is enhanced by our attention to critical contemporary issues as well as our commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration both within the classroom and beyond. Today’s world is facing unprecedented economic, social, and environmental pressures that demand flexible and creative responses. In this rapidly changing landscape, we encourage students to see art as a powerful instrument for critical expression. Working within the framework of Canada’s top-ranked comprehensive university, our internationally renowned faculty members focus on equipping students with the skills, discipline, understanding and creativity to excel in the arts in Canada and around the world.
History of the SCA
Since 1975, the School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA) has produced outstanding alumni who have gone on to play a major role in redefining the arts in Canada. The interdisciplinary MFA program is widely recognized internationally as a unique opportunity where graduate students can explore connections between art forms and develop their own creative voice.
The First Decades
From the founding of Simon Fraser University in 1965 as a progressive and innovative new university in British Columbia, the university showed a commitment to cultural animation and the presence of artistic creators and thinkers as an essential component of campus life. The fine and performing arts in the first decade were situated in the Centre for Communications and the Arts, and non-credit workshops in dance, film, music, theatre, and visual art were introduced. Highly regarded practicing artists such as theatre director John Juliani and composer R. Murray Schafer helped establish SFU as an environment for artistic experimentation and groundbreaking research (e.g. the World Soundscape Project). An ambitious and vibrant public event series was begun in 1970. Until budget cutbacks resulted in curtailment of this series in 1984, SFU was widely known as a North American leader in the programming of leading contemporary interdisciplinary performance companies and artists.
In 1975, the Centre for the Arts was formed as an academic unit with credit courses in dance, film, music, theatre, visual art, and interdisciplinary art history under its first Director, Dr. Evan Alderson. By 1981, there were minor programs for each disciplinary area of the School, a major in Dance, and a BA with a major in the Fine and Performing Arts. Grant Strate, the celebrated choreographer and a former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, became Director in 1980. Although subjected to cutbacks as a result of the provincial restraint program in 1983, the Centre showed resilience and spirit, finding a way to maintain the academic programs in all fine-arts disciplines. Ultimately, the eighties proved to be a period of growth and revitalization for the Centre for the Arts. Professional development programs for artists were introduced at this time, including the founding of the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters in 1986 and summer intensives in a variety of areas including Art Theory and Criticism, Voice Training, Choreography, New Media, and Javanese Court Gamelan.
When composer Rudolf Komorous became Director in 1989, the department was renamed the School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA) and grew to include BFAs in Film, Dance, Music, Theatre and Visual Art, a BA in Art and Culture Studies, and extended minors in all disciplines. The integrated BFA degree has proved to be an extremely key, facilitating a high order of disciplinary training combined with an original multidisciplinary pedagogy generally unavailable in other universities. Another significant development in this period was the introduction of an interdisciplinary MFA, established in 1990.
In recent years, under the direction of composer, conductor, and artistic director Owen Underhill (1986, 1994-2001, 2006-07, 2010-213), and Martin Gotfrit, composer and performer (2001-2010), the School for the Contemporary Arts has continued to thrive, enriching and refining its programs, establishing an ambitious cumulative research profile, and building a reputation for graduating intelligent and resourceful artists and scholars. The School has become more international in its outreach during this period with the introduction of Field Schools in Ghana and India.
As the sub-standard facilities of the School on Burnaby Mountain continued to deteriorate, a herculean and sustained effort was mounted to plan for and investigate numerous scenarios for a downtown move. Although this long-term initiative, over two decades, required considerable effort from many of the School’s faculty and leaders, the results have proven to be spectacular and worth the wait. The School would be remiss if it didn’t recognize Past President Michael Stevenson and Vice-President of External Relations Warren Gill (now deceased) for their extraordinary efforts in making the new SCA facility a reality.
A Decade of Transformation
A New Building in the Heart of Vancouver’s Downtown
Our new facilities in the redeveloped Woodward’s complex in downtown Vancouver include the state-of-the-art Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, which can accommodate a variety of stage configurations (250-400 capacity), the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre (housing our Javanese gamelan), the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema/lecture hall (350 capacity), two equipped Black Box theatres (150 capacity), screening rooms, film sound stage, three dance studios, a music teaching studio and two composition seminar rooms, a visual art studio, the Audain Gallery, computer teaching labs, and numerous smaller computer-based editing and composing suites for film, video and electro-acoustic music. We have retained the Alexander Centre, the site of most of our visual art studios since 1993 to accommodate the visual art area and some graduate student studios. Some scholarly lectures and seminars are held at the Woodward’s building, some at SFU Harbour Centre five minutes away. Renovations at Alexander Centre were completed in summer of 2010 to accommodate the increased number of students in the Graduate program.
The inclusion of the Audain Gallery in the new building has proved to be a vital addition to the Visual Arts program. The gallery’s mission is to advance the aesthetic and discursive production and presentation of contemporary visual art through a responsive program of exhibitions and to support engaged pedagogy. The gallery encourages conceptual and experimental art projects that explore the dialogue between the social and the cultural. The new Audain Visual Artists in Residence Program and student exhibitions are central to the gallery’s programming. The Audain Visual Artists in Residence program allows the School to invite two artists each year to share artistic research through public presentation and engagement with the students.
Renewal and a New Faculty
The second most significant event in the recent history of the SCA was the founding of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) in April 2009. At that time, the School moved from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) after a two-year process of transitional planning. The new faculty has provided a wonderful opportunity to build from the ground up, and a number of new collaborations have formed with faculty in the School for Interactive Art and Technology (SIAT) and the School of Communication.
The School has begun a process of academic renewal and invigoration in the last decade. Faculty appointments include Dr. Laura U. Marks, Grant Strate University Professor, and Dr. Denise Oleksijczuk, Art, Performance & Cinema Studies (2003); Robert Kitsos, Dance (2004); Dr. Chris Pavsek, Film and Art, Performance and Cinema Studies (2006); Steven Hill, Theatre Performance (2007); Elspeth Pratt, Visual Art (2010); Sabine Bitter, Visual Art (2012); Ker Wells, Theatre Performance (2014); Cole Lewis, Theatre Performance (2015); Noé Rodríguez, Film (2015); Claudette Lauzon, Art, Performance & Cinema Studies (2016); Eldritch Priest, Music (2016); Simone Rapisarda, Film (2016); Kyla Gardiner, Theatre Production & Design (2017); Sabrina Schroeder, Music (2017); Wladimiro A. Woyno R, Theatre Production & Design (2019); Mauricio Pauly, Music (2020); Raymond Boisjoly, Visual Art (2020) Ryan Tacata, Theatre Performance (2020); Erika Latta, Theatre Performance (2020); NiNi Dongnier, Dance (2021); Miwa Matreyek, Theatre Production & Design (2021); and Nadia Shihab, Film (2021).
Although the last decade has been concentrated on the move to the new building and the new faculty, we have accomplished positive curricular evolution. At the undergraduate level, the SCA increased credit hours in a number of studio courses that are most time-intensive for students, and introduced honours options associated with all BFA majors. The innovative MFA program in Interdisciplinary Studies has grown in size during this period and is now poised to take the next step in its development.
An invitation to make a difference. We rely on generous community support to make the new home for the School for the Contemporary Arts a vital component of Vancouver's artistic and economic future. Please consider making a gift.
For more information or to arrange a meeting, contact: Erin Morantz, Vice-President Advancement or Alumni, or Associate Professor Elspeth Pratt, Director of the School for the Contemporary Arts since 2013.
Donate to the Ker Wells Memorial Fund
In Ker Wells' honour, his friends and colleagues have established the Ker Wells Memorial Fund at SFU. Your gift will pay tribute to Ker by supporting performance students in the School for the Contemporary Arts. It is our wish to raise $20,000 in order to create an endowed award at SFU.
Please Support The Opal
Named in honor of SCA alumnus Opal McLean, who tragically died in a car accident in July, 2023, The Opal McLean SCA Alumni Creative Production and Research Prize is designed to support a recent SCA alumnus in developing their creative practice. Recognizing that the challenges and cost of everyday life can be impediments to research and production, this merit-based prize provides $3,000 that can be used freely by the recipient to cover exploratory research, development, and production costs, as well as home or studio rent, travel expenses, and even groceries. In exchange, the recipient will participate in a public presentation and Q&A during the fall term for the SCA about the work they've conducted with the support of the prize. Details of this event will be promoted by the SCA.
Your donation will help the SCA maintain the Opal Mclean SCA Alumni Creative Production and Research Prize in perpetuity. Make your donation HERE.