This academic year, Brock University, in partnership with the city of St. Catharines, opened its newest building, the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts (MIWSFPA) in the heart of downtown St.Catharines. The campus, located directly behind the fellow brand-new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, was a project aimed at bringing programs that were once almost hiding on the main campus, mainly in the lower-level classrooms in Schmon Tower, to the forefront of arts and culture in the greater city. Housing three departments: Dramatic Arts, Visual Arts and Music, as well as the Centre for Studies in Arts and Culture, the MIWSFPA is quickly becoming known for its existence as a creative hub for students in the Brock community.
The facility, housed in what was once the historic Canada Hair Cloth Building, operates with a purpose: fostering creative minds and building a strong foundation of practical and theoretical experience for students in the arts. In addition to being the place where academia in the arts can thrive, the campus also serves as a great outlet and studio space for over 500 students and 50 faculty and staff, including those in the Concurrent Education program.
“We have a place where we can risk it all and it is encouraged,” said student Bernadette Kahnert, a second-year student in Concurrent Education with a concentration in Dramatic Arts. “People are constantly open to new ideas and the art departments are working more freely together.”
Creating a brand new, state-of-the-art home for the three highly-specialized arts programs was not an easy task. During the migration of classes to the downtown campus from the main Brock campus, faculty were heavily involved in the entire process.
“As we were approaching, so much detail went into planning this move.” Dr. Karin Di Bella, the Chair of the Department of Music, spoke on the fine details that went into building and fully developing the downtown campus: “It’s easy to look around and take things for granted, like how many acoustic panels go in each room, and other discussions like that.”
The Department of Music, in particular, is a great example of the interconnectivity between the city and specifically, the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre (PAC) and the downtown campus. Throughout development, it was emphasized that the success of the downtown campus project was directly linked with the success of the brand new Performing Arts Centre. Beginning early in the first semester, every Tuesday afternoon in the Cairns Recital Hall of the FirstOntario PAC, recitals by students and faculty in the Music programs are held for any members of the public who wish to attend. Admissions to the ‘Music@Noon’ concert series (sponsored by the RBC Foundation) are free, and showcase the talent and performance abilities of those who use the new campus on a regular basis.
What is stressed by students and faculty however, is that the Marilyn I. Walker school is foremost a location that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration between the arts.
Dr. Di Bella noted this strong emphasis on collaboration: “It’s [student culture and interaction] really, I think, going to change fundamentally in some ways, how the departments interact with each other (on a student and faculty and inter-programming basis), just by being housemates, basically, with each other, things are going to change.”
This type of interaction can already be seen in events that have happened at the campus this year. This past October, as part of the Imagining the City series, a cello performance was held in the drawing studio on the fourth floor of the Marilyn I. Walker school while fifteen visual artists, each set up with an easel and supplies, drew along to the music to an audience of roughly forty people.
“What I most appreciate is the fact that our building generates high levels of creative energy, each and every day”, said Derek Knight, Director of MIWSFPA and Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Arts. “It is a stimulating environment to find yourself in: the sounds emanating from the music practice rooms on the ground floor, the tremendous energy of the drama rehearsal studios and the large-format canvases filling the painting studio, are typical of a productive, studio environment.”
The welcoming feeling has certainly echoed into the student population of the downtown campus.
“I do not see my professor walking towards me in the hall, but instead a friend,” Kahnert noted, when asked about the feeling of the environment of the campus and interactions between faculty and students.
“This is the place that wants you to be there and wants you to grow, learn, and express who you are as an individual.”