Now well over a century old, NSCAD was once a twinkle in the eye of Oscar Wilde, who advocated art education during a well-publicized lecture tour that brought him to Halifax in 1882. But NSCAD owes its existence to another dynamic international personality, British teacher Anna Leonowens, who is best known for her years as a tutor for the King of Siam, immortalized in numerous stage and film productions of The King and I.
After her adventures in Asia, Leonowens relocated to Halifax and turned her energies toward establishing visual and literary culture in her adopted city, a former military base where the fine arts were virtually nonexistent in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1887, Leonowens and a committee of fellow citizens founded the Victoria School of Art and Design, commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee with an artistic enterprise that would have a lasting impact on the city’s cultural, industrial and educational life.
The school offered instruction in the fine and industrial arts, art education training to public school teachers, and Saturday morning children’s art classes, a tradition that continues today. The first classes were held in the Union Bank building at the corner of Hollis and Prince Streets and in 1890, the school rented three rooms in the Halifax Academy. It moved again in 1903 to the Old National School (now the Five Fishermen restaurant) near Grand Parade Square, where it remained for 54 years.
NSCAD boasts a long list of impressive school principals and presidents, including Arthur Lismer, member of the influential Group of Seven painting movement. During his 1916 to 1919 tenure, his artist friends from Toronto traveled east to offer lectures and demonstrations, and the school hosted exhibitions featuring the best in contemporary Canadian and British art. In 1925 under the direction of the school‘s first female principal, Elizabeth Styring Nutt, it was renamed the Nova Scotia College of Art and incorporated by Provincial charter.
By 1957, post-war growth prompted the college’s next move to a large four-story church hall on Coburg Road near Dalhousie University, which, in 1968, saw a six-story expansion for studios and galleries.