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The case for a School of Creative and Performing Arts

Time for creative possibilities


David Robinson, an economist and associate professor at Laurentian University, is widely created for first identifying the potential of Sudbury’s mining services cluster, and for introducing the idea Laurentian should establish a school of architecture. Here he argues the benefits of promoting arts education and the establishment of a school of creative and performing arts.



Look around. We live in a world saturated with the arts. Virtually every sign and advertisement bears the fingerprints of a graphic artist. We talk of “designer” clothes, bags, shoes and nails.  We drive the product of  automotive designers, live in the work of architects, listen constantly to the work of musicians, buy kitchen appliances by internationally renowned industrial designers, watch episodes on TV that are the work of actors, producers, directors, extras, truck drivers, sound engineers costume designers, and set designers.

Here is the really important news: around the world, cultural industries are growing faster than the rest of the economy.

Between 2012, and 2015, the arts in Canada posted an average annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, slightly higher than the 2.4 percent growth of the nation’s overall economy.

The exceptional growth of the cultural industries is a global phenomenon: the average annual growth rate for the arts in the United States between 2014 and 2016 was 4.2 percent, almost double the 2.2 percent for the entire economy.

We are starting to see that to succeed in the 21st century, our city needs to grow its cultural industries. It needs to become a centre for creative artists, designers and performers.


In 2017, Ontario’s culture industries contributed $25 billion to the province’s GDP. That is more than the accommodation and food services industry ($16.2), the utilities industry ($14.6), the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries combined ($7.4) and mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction ($6.9). The trend will continue.

Sudbury already exports culture. We produce movies and TV shows, we have playwrights and novelists, and artists who sell their work outside of the city. Students come from around the world to study at Laurentian University. They take home valuables skills and a bundle of this strange Canadian culture of ours.

The old image of Sudbury as a dirty, single industry mining town dominated by labour strife and ethnic conflicts captures an old truth about the city. But another truth is that visionary Sudburians have built a university, a symphony, an art gallery, and a professional theatre, a science centre and an architecture school, and a film industry. Sudbury is becoming a centre for the arts and culture.


But do we have a plan to get our share of Canada’s growing arts economy? What do we need to get to the next level? Is there a project that would display the city’s ambition, make it easier to attract skilled workers, and easier to retain talented young people? Is there a project we can start today that has small up-front costs and a big economic impact?

The answer is yes. The city needs a school of creative and performing arts.

We already have all the pieces to create a school, but they have not been combined. There are university programs available in English and French theatre arts, motion picture arts, architecture, and music programs as well as courses in creative writing, and communications studies.

At Cambrian College, there is a program in creative arts, music, and design that includes animation, art and design fundamentals, design and visual arts, and an award-winning graphic design program.

Collège Boréal has programs in architectural technology. Sudbury Secondary School has an acclaimed performing arts program, and there are many outstanding dance academies here.

Now add that Sudbury is becoming centre for Indigenous culture. There is an opportunity to develop a unique school here and at the same time promote the development of Indigenous art.

Sudbury is also long-standing hub of Franco-Ontarian culture, with a gallery, publishing house, a renowned theatre community, writers, musicians and artists. That alone would give

a school of arts in a unique role in the province.


With a population over half a million, over 57,000 of Indigenous descent, and almost 200,000 of French descent, Northern Ontario has a distinct culture, landscape and history that could be well served by a northern school of art.

It would be reasonable to expect leaders in both French and Anishinaabe communities to support a school if it were committed in part to the cultural development of their communities.

It is also important to remember here is a thriving are and culture community in Sudbury already. Art schools typically rely heavily on employ local artists and musician for a pool of teachers, just as our architecture school draw on local architects to run studio classes.

An art school funnels money to the local arts community, allowing it to grow and allowing more artists, musicians and performers to prosper. A growing community in turn produces more art, exports more art, and brings more money into the community.


A school of creative and performing arts (SCAPA for short) would bring students’ and provincial money to the city. The average student who comes to study spends more than $20,000 on fees, books supplies, food, housing and entertainment. (The average student who leaves the community to study takes away the same amount.) International students spend more.

As a result Laurentian’s 7000 full-time students inject the equivalent of 3,000 to 4,000 mid-wage full-time jobs. Student spending generates secondary spending that almost doubles the basic impact. If we could attract 100 new students to a School of Creative and Performing Arts, it would have the same economic effect as  adding 100 new jobs to the city.


The school would be a community builder. A successful community is the launch pad for its youth. The school would give our most creative students more opportunities to develop, less reason to leave the city for an education, and more reasons to come back. It would make the city’s culture richer and more attractive for professionals and young families.


But it is the long run impact on economic production that makes SCAPA a winner. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, “Arts, culture and heritage improve the ability of municipal governments to influence local economic development by attracting and retaining a skilled and talented workforce.”

Mid-sized Ontario cities such as Sudbury are, using cultural and recreational amenities as a tool for downtown revitalization

A school of creative and performing arts would keep Sudbury competitive in the global shift toward the creative industries.

It would support the growing film industry in the North.  Our local film industry needs and often has to train a wide range of cultural workers, from actors, set designers and casting specialists through to sound technicians, and specialized electricians. The film industry in turn would be a magnet for students.


But how do we get the school we need?

If we do want to move deeper into the new economy, we need a strategy.



The real challenge is not money — a school is a business that makes its community richer and better. The challenge is not talent: we already have all the pieces and all the talent here in Sudbury that we need to create a terrific school. The challenge is leadership. It would take real work to build a collaboration to bring this idea to fruition.

But we have performed miracles before. It was the community that pasted together Catholic, United and Anglican denominational schools, a French language education program and a technical college to create Laurentian University. It was the community that initiated the remarkable new school of architecture, not the university. In fact, recognizing the economic benefits, city council committed $10 million over 10 years. That brought in over $40 million of construction, an annual increase in GDP of close to $15 million per year, new tax revenues with a present value of $20 million, and a real boost to the sagging downtown core.  That was a visionary council if ever we had one.

A school of creative and performing arts would be smaller. Instead of adding 400 new students as the McEwan School of Architecture did, it would probably add about 100.

Laurentian would get something like $700,000 per year in fees. It is likely that a third of that would flow to artists in the community. Demand for student housing would rise, some property values would go up and the city would probably collect more in property and business taxes.

To get the arts school we need, the initiative will have come from the community. It will have to have some financial support from city council, FedNor and the Northern Heritage Fund.

It will probably start as a “virtual” school, with a flashy website and a long list of courses and faculty members from all the programs that participate. This virtual school will have a thick and well-produced booklet to use in recruiting students, but existing faculty members will stay in their existing offices. It will need a director, who will probably have to be funded by outside money at first. The existing faculty members are already overloaded, so new courses will be taught by sessionals from the community, quickly spreading the benefits into the arts community.

Where will the school be located? The virtual school of creative and performing arts would obviously be based at Laurentian, at least at first. Success would quickly crowd facilities available on campus and a search for space would begin. People in the arts community may want to see space renovated in the downtown. It may be possible to use space in Place des Arts or the St Andrew’s Centre, which hosted the architecture school in its first years.

One thing is certain: once we get it started, the school will grow into a unique northern institution that makes a very special contribution to our northern culture and northern economy.




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