Ottawa School of Art: Stellick marks 30 years of leadership

Some of the Ottawa School of Art team. From the left: Cathy Brake (gallery co-ordinator); Val Butler (registrar); Sheila Sturk-Green (admin officer); Jeff Stellick (Executive Director); Malika Welsh (development officer); Nina Camilleri (marketing and events officer).

The Ottawa School of Art turns 140 in 2019 and for 30 of those years, it has been led, through thick and thin, by a bagpipe-playing, printmaker named Jeff Stellick.

Stellick is from Saskatchewan. He attended the University of Regina where he studied printmaking under Jack Cowan.

“He ran the print shop like a Marine military base. I learned a lot there,” Stellick told ARTSFILE in an interview. He went on to do a Masters at Concordia University.

In 1984, Stellick, who was living in the Laurentians at the time, was part of a group exhibition when he saw the OSA for the first time.

“It seemed like a lively place but that was about the only impression I took away from it.”

Still, a year later a teaching job came up and Stellick got the position teaching printmaking. That meant regular day trips from the Laurentians.

Despite the occasional unsettling drive, “it was a teaching job and it was related to what I had been trained in, so it was a good opportunity.”

After a few years, he had caught the eye of the previous executive director of the school and when Ron Shuebrook decided to step down, he encouraged Stellick to apply for the director’s job.

“At that point in time I was teaching print-making, I was a studio technician, I was delivering pizza in the Laurentians and I had a couple of other parttime jobs.” The possibility of one full-time job had a lot of obvious appeal.

He assumed his post as Executive Director in June 1988.

“(Shuebrook) thought I was reliable, I guess. I had been teaching printmaking and had worked pretty hard at that so maybe I impressed him with something I had done there.”

Printmaking is a very complicated art form that requires a lot of attention to detail — one misstep and the whole thing can come tumbling down. He had learned that kind of discipline in Regina and it has stood him in good stead.

“My printmaking teacher in Regina really stressed being methodical, going through the process step by step, very carefully, making sure you clean up as you go along.

“That sticks with me even now.  When I cook, by the time supper is on the table usually most of the pots and pans are washed.

“You wouldn’t know it looking at my desk, but when there is an opportunity I like to keep things organized.”

In 1988, OSA had about 1,000 registrations per term. Today there are about 1,200.

But signing up for class was a little more disorganized. It was ‘I’ll pay you next week for that class,’ he said.

“There was a lot of that going on. … The first thing we did was institute a No money, No candy policy.”

They also had only one lonely Corel computer with less capacity than a flip phone.

“Everything was done on paper including class schedules, instructional schedules. It took time to get things established. I typed up my application on an old Olivetti typewriter. I was really good with the white-out.”

When he assumed his post, Stellick had a list of the things he wanted to accomplish.

“Some are still valid. (For example) I wanted people to know where the school was and what it was. I wanted the situation to be that if someone wanted to sign up for a class in the fall term and they showed up in September we could say to them, you should have signed up in June because the classes are now full.

“We’re still working on that one.”

Basically though it was a sink or swim kind of situation.

After dealing with a serious financial crisis, the OSA has started to reach out beyond George Street.

In 1999, the school began a key Outreach program to make art available to disadvantaged youth and children.

“I think we have eight or nine community partners across the city. We offer free art classes. We give them art supplies and healthy snacks for younger kids.

The program was supported by the generosity of a person taking classes at OSA.

“Judith Miller wanted to see this happen and it certainly fit with what we wanted to do. She put the money up so we could do it. Over 10 years she put about $400,000 into that program.”

That opened the door to go after grants from different organizations. Now the program has been running for almost 20 years.

In all Outreach has put almost $750,000 into the community and has reached about 5,000 kids, he said.

“It’s helped us reach into the community. It’s really something that shows we are part of the community and not just taking. That’s been helpful when we meet politicians at city hall. It changes the perception of us.”

Another key advance has been the creation of a second school in Orleans at the Shenkman Centre.

The Orleans branch opened in 2009. There have been bumps along the way. One of the biggest was the lengthy bus strike that ground transit to a halt for weeks.

These days the Orleans program is expanding, he said. And, recently, “we have started offering some classes in the west end of the city.” This is a natural progression, he said.

There are are up to 80 instructors at the two campuses, most are also working artists. The school offers a Fine Arts Diploma Program which began the year before Stellick took over.

“We aren’t subsidized by the province so we can’t pay at same rate as universities or community colleges. So right now we pay instructors $35 an hour.”

The salaries are recouped by tuition. They can’t bump tuition too much or people won’t enrol. It’s a delicate balancing act, he said.

The school has an operating budget of about $1.8 million a year. About a quarter is covered by an operational grant from the city. The rest comes from tuition and fundraising.

The OSA operates two galleries in the George Street building and it has four off-site exhibition spaces at the GCTC on Wellington at the Preston Square office complex, the Minto Suites Hotel and storefront locations on Somerset Street.

“We were even in a Canadian Tire for a couple of years near St. Laurent Boulevard. Snowblowers on one side art work on the other.”

The building at 35 George St. is owned by the NCC and leased by the City of Ottawa. The city leases the building to the OSA for a nominal fee.

Stellick believes the NCC should sell the building for $1 to the city for all the upgrades and renovations that have been done.

“They have replaced our elevator and put in central air conditioning which has just been huge.”

During Stellick’s tenure the OSA has also reached beyond the city.

Every other year the OSA holds an international miniature print exhibition. The seventh closed earlier this summer.

“We have added onto that an artist in residence program which is advertised internationally. We have had people from Belgium, France, Jordan, the U.S., Hong Kong and other places. We provide free space and they do a presentation of work done.

StelIick says he benefits from “a very active and dedicated staff. They make me look good every day.”

Between the two campuses there are 12 full time staff.

Thirty years is a long time to stay in a demanding job.

“There were challenges that came up. In the early years there were big financial challenges. I was determined to see those through and not be the last director of the Ottawa School of Art.”

Things were shaky for awhile. As time went on other things came up. I have had opportunities Over the years other projects came along. He has taken some time to do things for himself, including playing the bagpipes.

Jeff Stellick and his pipes.

He is a member of the Highland Mist in Kanata. he takes part in competitions and recently was in the Manville Highland Games with his colleagues. You can catch them at the Richmond Fair in September.

With next year being the 140th anniversary of founding of the school under the patronage of the

Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise and the same group of prominent people who also set up Ontario College of Art and Design and what would become the National Gallery of Canada, he does reflect on the years. 

“I always look at it in terms of what we have done as a team. I have never walked around saying I did this, because I know I didn’t.

“The school is on solid financial footing right now. Its programs are solid as well. The future should be pretty good. But we are always at the mercy of changes in the economy.”

So he’ll stay to try and ensure that the OSA can withstand a downturn.

There is little doubt, though, that when he does hang them up, he will leave the Ottawa School of Art in much better shape than he found it in 1988.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.