The early Banff School and the ideals of the public university

“In a time of crisis, art and culture can carry us forward to be more human and perhaps more resilient.”


By Trevor Chow-Fraser and Jenna Bell

When PearlAnn Reichwein was teaching contract at the University of Alberta in the late 1990s, she shared an office in with Karen Wall. It was in Tory with a fantastic view of the river valley. She remembers that the office had bookshelves up to the ceiling, and it was “quite dusty.”

Little did they know, but this was the start of a long and collegial friendship. The two scholars bonded over their schemes to redecorate the office, the importance of teaching, and many conversations about Canadian Studies.

“I was a graduate of Canadian Studies at the University of Alberta and that interdisciplinary program was very special,” said Reichwein. “It laid the groundwork for all of the interdisciplinary study and analysis that I’ve since published as a scholar.”

Reichwein had already gone on from her Canadian Studies degree to complete a PhD on the history of the Alpine Club of Canada and Canada’s national parks. She had lived in Banff and actually worked for Parks Canada as an educational interpreter. She would soon carve out a niche researching Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks and early women alpinists as a professor at the University of Alberta.

Years later, on the return from one of her mountain trips, Reichwein and Wall started talking about the Banff Centre. “One of us asked, ‘Why would you put a major arts institution in the middle of a national park, remote from the big cities where you consider the centers of arts to be?’” said Wall, now a professor at Athabasca University. That conversation set them on the path toward co-authoring a book, Uplift: Visual Culture at the Banff School of Fine Arts, recently published by UBC Press.

America’s Salzburg

While the Banff Centre is certainly far from major cities, from the beginning the institution was carefully placed and purposefully developed. When in 1933, the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension wanted to start a summer school, Ned Corbett chose Banff. He knew the incredible beauty of the mountains would drew in students and artists, and that soon, the school itself would become an engine of tourism too.

“When you’re in the mountains, what are you going to do? It’s pretty irresistible to be painting landscapes,” said Wall.

The school’s first director, Donald Cameron, “dreamed of creating America’s Salzburg, a place in the mountains with spectacular beauty that would sing out with music and making art,” said Reichwein. The lure of educational experiences was generated by artists at the Banff School, perhaps a natural process given that the Canadian government was already commissioning landscape art of the Rocky Mountains and circulating it all around the country.

“Whether you were buying landscapes or producing landscapes, you would feel Canadian doing it,” said Wall. “I think a lot of the students actually felt that they were participating in that kind of grander enterprise.”

Jean Hilts of Banff School of Fine Arts (Library and Archives Canada)

But that’s not to discount the Banff School as a popular institution. Cameron was inspired by what he had seen first-hand in Denmark, where schools were opened for “people that wouldn’t normally be able to go to university — women, workers, all kinds of people,” said Wall.

The Banff School was initially a summer drama course in part because it was informed by ideas about the emancipating power of popular theater. Corbett and the school’s proponents were fueled by a desire to enfranchise the citizenry through education. Opening a school in the middle of a national park was an attempt to make the university both accessible and attractive to Albertans. The curriculum was geared toward giving young teachers new skills and older adults new opportunities. The majority of its students were women.

“The Banff School played an essential role in extending education as a democratic benefit and right,” said Reichwein.

Reichwein also sees the Banff School as a potential model for cultural tourism in an age more attentive to environmental degradation and the carbon footprint of travel. “Sustainable tourism in the future may want to focus on immersive experiences with people staying longer in one place to truly gain insight, reflect and renew themselves by rethinking their relationship to the land,” said Reichwein. “This is what students and teachers did, coming to the Banff school, sometimes year after year, more than once, returning to the same place in order to work on their art and understand the land around them.”

The public university in a time of crisis

Reichwein and Wall’s book launched in a year when no one can gather for a book launch, a year when the Banff Centre’s fantastic views and artists’ retreats are closed to all. The global pandemic and subsequent economic crisis and turn to remote teaching has many questioning the way we run our university.

For Reichwein, this moment has much in common with the time when the Banff School was founded. “They were in the midst of the Great Depression and an environmental crisis with the prairie dust bowl. We’ve gone full circle.”

Drawing lessons from the comparison, she points to the way the school and the national park have grown symbiotically over time. “The arts and the environment have common purpose, and common cause in that they belong to the public and citizens’ lives are enriched through both of them.” It turns out that founding a major arts institution in the middle of a national park was in fact a fitting move, and one that has produced huge benefits for Alberta’s society and economy.

“We can take from this example of a successful venture in public education and public parks, that investing in public institutions like these pays dividends in the long run,” said Reichwein, “in quality of life, in lives worth living, and in stimulating the economy.”

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PearlAnn Reichwein will dive deeper into her book and what the Banff School can teach us about the role of the public university in the next Sustainability Council lecture. Please join us on March 10, 2021 at 12:30 p.m. Register on Eventbrite.

Cover photo source: Library and Archives Canada



Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.