Uplift: Visual Culture at the Banff School of Fine Arts

By Ben Fullalove

by PearlAnn Reichwein and Karen Wall UBC Press 2020/$34.95/352 PP.

Poised on the side of Tunnel Mountain with fabulous views up the Bow Valley, the Banff Centre is not only spectacularly located but is also one of Alberta’s most internationally recognizable institutions, hosting arts and cultural events, celebrating mountain culture and offering a venue for business development and conferences of all kinds. Today it is facing, in a time of pandemic and government austerity, what some consider to be an existential crisis. In this context, PearlAnn Reichwein’s and Karen Wall’s rewarding new book Uplift is especially relevant.

Founded in the mid-1930s under the leadership of the charismatic Donald Cameron (who would remain its director until 1969) and with support from the Carnegie Foundation, the Banff School of Fine Arts developed into a central part of the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension and eventually a free-standing institution within the province’s post-secondary system. From its first course in eurythmic movement in 1935, the school quickly expanded to offer courses in a variety of fields, including theatre, dance, business and visual art. It is on the last of these that this book is focused. It does so through a critical examination of place and representation—how was the Banff School framed as a cultural institution in “the wilderness,” and how, in turn, did the unique situation of the school in the Canadian Rockies affect the kinds of experiences and representations that were created there? In seven chapters, the authors consider topics such as the marketing of the school as an idealized geographic imaginary (“the Salzburg of North America”) through the use of carefully managed publicity and promotion; the contested question of its physical presence in a national park; and the problematic relationship between the school and the Stoney Nakoda, who were stereotyped as picturesque portrait subjects. In particular, respective chapters on the architectural history of the campus and on the varied experiences of students at the Banff School highlight the extensive archival research of the authors.

Uplift concludes with a consideration of a shift in the status of the Banff Centre over the last four decades, from its origins in an ideal of culture as both marker and generator of engaged democratic citizenship towards a contemporary globalized context in which the value of the arts is primarily determined by the market and where passively absorbed spectacle overshadows active participation. This is a thoughtful, at times entertaining book which provides a valuable lens through which to view not just the history of the Banff Centre but also the complex and vital relationships between culture, education and the state.

Ben Fullalove teaches art history at AUArts. 

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