So… Nova Scotian

The still-unfolding story behind last year’s firing of new NSCAD President Aoife Mac Namara fits all too neatly into the ongoing story of business as usual in Nova Scotia. Pity.

Dozens of people gathered in Granville Mall in 2020 to call on NSCAD to fire its board of governors and reinstate former president Aoife Mac Namara.— Photo: Zane Woodford

It all seems, well, so … Nova Scotian.

Let’s begin way back in the late 1960s and early seventies when a local developer named Ben McCrea cobbled together various deals that helped save a group of historic but ramshackle waterfront buildings from the wrecker’s ball.

McCrea’s efforts not only transformed those rundown blocks into our now internationally iconic Historic Properties, but they also helped kickstart the revitalization of the city’s entire downtown.

The key: a deal to bring the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design — then in the process of cementing its reputation as “the most important art school in North America” — to McCrea’s new/old downtown development.

The college had been operating for more than a decade out of a too-small church/office building on Coburg Road, cheek by jowl with Dalhousie University.

It needed more space.

McCrea’s Armour Group developers had plenty of space — a funky rabbit-warren of upper-level not-quite-ready-for-prime-tenant office space spread across 23 inter-connected buildings that could be made over into a still-funky but serviceable rabbit-warren of classrooms, studios and office for the artsy crowd.

It worked. McCrea got a major, government-backed anchor for his project. The college got its space. And the city got a downtown tenant whose students helped change the face of the city for the livelier and the better.

Private interest meets public benefit.

Win. Win.

Fast forward close to 50 years.

The college, to be kind, is in a mess of its real estate making. NSCAD, as the Examiner noted,  was “nearly bankrupted a few years ago by an ill-conceived purchase of property at the port [of Halifax].”

It’s worth noting, as my colleague Tim Bousquet did so well last week, that the then-chair of NSCAD’s board, businessman and now convicted tax fraudster Ralston MacDonnell, who helped navigate that move, later landed work for his risk management company from the port authority.

Ah, Nova Scotia… But I digress.

Scott McCrea

A few years later, Scott McCrea, the son and successor of the original Historic Properties developer — this being Nova Scotia, there is also always a “son of” storyline — tried to piece together another deal.

McCrea wanted the college to sell those old downtown properties back to him. Baked into the original deal, Armour — of which Scott is now CEO — has first right of refusal if the college ever decides to sell its Granville campus.

McCrea’s pitch: sell his company the property and then pay his company to build a new main campus on land Armour owned next door to the new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. NSCAD would then rent that space (which it had financed) from Armour, which would, of course, still be allowed to crown the college’s new campus building with private condominiums it could then sell too.

Win. Wi-?

Maybe. As Tim noted, that may be a debate worth having. But this is a Nova Scotia story, so there are also inevitable complications and conundrums, and even more inevitable conflicts of interest.

To mix into that messy mix, add a feisty outsider who doesn’t seem, to understand that artists and art administrators should be seen but not heard whenever vested interests are invested in an outcome.

And those interests were certainly well vested in this outcome.

Aoife Mac Namara

By the time Aoife Mac Namara — a respected Irish-born artist and arts administrator who’d most recently served as Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology at Simon Fraser University — arrived on the scene as NSCAD’s new president in the summer of 2019, the fix was in.

Mac Namara was “encouraged” by members of NSCAD’s board to meet with McCrea and give her pro forma blessing to MacCrea’s plan, which all the important people had already apparently agreed to. And she should too.

Instead, according to an excellent investigative report by Greg Mercer in the Globe and Mail last week, Mac Namara began asking rude questions “about potential perceived or actual conflicts of interest of some governors — and potentially breaking public procurement rules that regulate infrastructure spending by universities.”

Within a few months, the board had hired a consultant — at $32,000 in public expense— to “monitor” Mac Namara’s performance as it looked for ways to get rid of her.

Sean Kelly, then the vice-chair of the NSCAD board, was among those MacNamara might have been referencing as having at least a “perceived” conflict when it came to McCrea’s proposal. Kelly is a lawyer whose “firm represents Armour Group and leases office space from one of the developer’s many Halifax properties.”

Less than a year after Mac Namara was hired, in fact, Kelly “introduced the motion to fire Dr. Mac Namara during a closed-door meeting on June 25, 2020.”

We still don’t know all the sorry, sordid details behind that firing because, as the Globe also reports:

The publicly funded university, meanwhile, has repeatedly blocked efforts to seek more transparency into the firing, earning a scolding from Nova Scotia’s privacy commissioner for failing to respond to two access-to-information requests for NSCAD records on the issue.

For its part the university responded to the Globe’s story in a statement, arguing the information requests were “uniquely complex,” but that it expects to respond in the “near future.”

But don’t expect to learn much from anything it releases about the real reasons for Mac Namara’s firing. According to the business and politics website, the chair of the university’s current board, claimed the Globe story…

doesn’t present an “accurate account of the matters that transpired” last summer, and that the university cannot discuss details on decisions made regarding “confidential personnel matters” between the board and the president.

And so it goes. So… Nova Scotian. Pity.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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