As Alberta University of the Arts (AUArts) celebrates its first year as a university and as we quickly approach our centennial (around the corner in 2026), it reminds us of the essential role arts and culture play in contributing to the social, economic and cultural prosperity of our communities. These are the three core elements of any vibrant society.
The work of practicing artists, craftspeople and designers is everywhere around us, and the embedded entrepreneurial spirit that is behind creativity and innovation is becoming the true commodity of the 21st century where genuine economic diversification is key to long-term sustainability.
Creativity and innovation are the most powerful vehicles to change the world. As AUArts celebrates its milestone since elevating from a college to a university last February, it presents an opportunity to reflect on this past year. While only one year as a university in name may seem insignificant, this institution’s lengthy history since inception nearly a century ago is resolute. We have remained relevant since 1926 ‒ weathering the ups and downs of challenging economic realities, navigating uncertainty during times of war and adjusting to ever-shifting cultural norms. Our name has changed several times over the years, most recently from Alberta College of Art and Design, or ACAD. Yet through it all, the professional studio-based art, craft and design education we champion proves time and again that this practical hands-on learning model is one of the most effective means of educating the innovators of tomorrow.
Alberta University of the Arts is a catalyst and the epicentre of a dynamic visual arts economy. We employ the most artists in Calgary, and we count many of North America’s leading creative minds amongst our staff and faculty. The impact of becoming a university fully recognized the achievements of our students, our faculty and our staff. As a result, AUArts is celebrating our highest enrolment of new students in recent years. Bold new strategic and academic plans are in place to steer this university to greater heights and we are prepared to meet the challenges ahead.
Scanning the many cultural happenings around Calgary and the province, we are so proud to recognize students, graduates and faculty deeply embedded in Alberta’s cultural economy – their talent, research and creative practices entwined in countless businesses, projects and events.
Currently in Calgary, the Esker Foundation is exhibiting a truly amazing retrospective on sculptor alumna and lecturer emeritus Katie Ohe, while Contemporary Calgary’s Collider Residency has numerous AUArts alumni involved. Elsewhere, faculty member Mitch Kern has a photography exhibition at Herringer Kiss Gallery, Stride Gallery has an exhibition featuring educational technician Jolie Bird, and Alberta Craft Gallery has a group exhibition including AUArts fibre professor and 2019 Alumni Award board of governor’s winner Bill Morton.
Farther afield in the province, Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery has an exhibition featuring Governor General’s Award-winning professor Rita McKeough and Alberta Craft Discovery Gallery in Edmonton is featuring glass alumna Leah Kudel.
Perform a quick scan of design, advertising and digital agencies around the province and you will discover a full complement of homegrown AUArts talent, while many other AUArts graduates are successfully making an international impact with global brands such as Converse, Amazon Music, Nike and Disney to name a few. Our graphic designers lead the world of graphic novels, animation and children’s book illustrations. Over a period of 10 years, our alumna Jillian Tamaki won 14 international awards, among them two prestigious Governor General’s Awards for children’s book illustration, an Eisner Award for best graphic novel and a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book. The epic series Saga first published in 2012 and illustrated by our alumna Fiona Staples is one of the most celebrated comics in North America, winning three Eisner Awards and one Hugo Award.
While we are immensely proud that 11 Governor General’s Award winners number amongst our graduates and faculty, the value of our education model is measured in other meaningful ways than by winning awards. Simply put, we are a driver of Alberta’s creative economy — our graduates contribute to their communities across this province, not only as artists, craftspeople and designers but maybe more importantly as problem solvers, collaborators, entrepreneurs, and influential business and community leaders.
A successful, thriving economy and civilization requires diversity; economic diversity but also creative diversity. On this first milestone anniversary, take a moment to (re)discover and celebrate our students, alumni, staff and faculty who form the nucleus of this province’s invaluable collective of thinkers, shapers, makers and risk-takers.
Carol Ryder is board chair and Daniel Doz is president and CEO of the Alberta University of the Arts.