Lunch with Emily Carr’s Ron Burnett

Ron Burnett | BCBusiness
Raised in Montreal, Burnett has a master’s in film and a PhD in communications from McGill University.

Ron Burnett, president of Emily Carr University, on the new campus and why the arts are “the bloodstream of the country”

From the panoply of tattoos adorning our server’s arms, Ron Burnett quickly notices—then compliments—her latest, not-quite-discernible ink addition.

While it’s just casual banter over an order of cheese sandwiches at Granville Island’s AGRO Cafe, it seems to subtly underscore the Emily Carr University of Art + Design president and vice-chancellor’s reputation as a convivial conversationalist with a weapons-grade eye for detail.

Burnett, 66, has spent 18 years at the nearby campus, using these assets to cultivate an appetite for new artists and artistic philanthropy in the province. His biggest accomplishment has been the successful, decade-long campaign to move the institution eastward to Great Northern Way.

Ron Burnett’s Favourites

1. The battered halloumi at Acorn (3995 Main St., Vancouver; absolutely fabulous – and so is the restaurant

2. I love the seafood at  Yew restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel (791 W Georgia St., Vancouver; It functions well as such a great hub in the city”

3. Campagnolo (1020 Main St., Vancouver; Is a nice spot for good pasta (I like mine with fish and seafood such as the octopus ragu).”

The university had outgrown its current location, where student registration stands at 1,850 in a building designed for 800. The new $134-million campus will house up to 2,200 students and faculty, with completion slated for spring 2017.

“For me the arts are not some sort of peripheral part of life; they are the bloodstream of the country,” says Burnett, explaining that the creative economy contributes three to five percent to B.C.’s GDP. He also argues that B.C. plays an outsized role in the heritage of great Canadian art, mentioning such legends as Jack Shadbolt. “There is something about the environment that is provocatively rich and engaging with creativity.”

However, the rules of that artistic engagement, he is quick to point out, have changed dramatically in recent years. Disciplines overlap—whether it’s fine arts and 3D printing or ceramics and industrial design—and he believes the new “reimagined” east side campus will reflect these “adjacencies” better. Some of the examples he offers include continuing outside connections with the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, and engaging with galleries, Science World and other parts of the broader False Creek Flats community.

“It’s the golden age for creative people,” says Burnett. “This new campus will represent a physical manifestation of really rich ideas—creative people developing the creative skills to engage with any creative challenge.” Much of Burnett’s can-do attitude is driven by his family history. His parents escaped the Holocaust, first to England—where Burnett was born—before immigrating to Montreal when he was six. With initial aspirations to be a writer (he was first published at 20 by Take One, one of the first film magazines in Canada), Burnett attended university locally at McGill where he has a master’s in film and PhD in communications. After teaching stints at nearby Vanier College and at La Trobe University in Melbourne, he was recruited back to McGill in 1986 to work as director of the graduate program in communications. (That is where he met his teacher wife, Martha, with whom he has two grown-up daughters.)

Having published three books with two more in the works, Burnett still enjoys writing—fiction, poetry, non-fiction, screenplays—along with walking and cycling. “I cannot pass a day without writing a sentence,” he says. “I have to do it, even if it’s five in the morning.”

As for what’s next for Burnett after Emily Carr moves into its new digs, Burnett isn’t sharing. “I will be here for the new campus; I want to see it through being built—but that’s all I’m saying. If I start something, then I finish. That’s my motto.”