The bookshelves lining Ron Burnett's office at Emily Carr University of Art and Design reveal a voracious mind. The university president has hundreds of books, covering topics ranging from guerrilla street theatre to Gertrude Stein, from Karl Marx to yoga. His own output is equally wide-ranging. Burnett writes a lot about social media these days, but in the more than 150 essays he's published, he has also covered documentary filmmaking, Norman Bethune, complex scientific theories as they relate to art, and Clint Eastwood as male fantasy. Burnett is a Renaissance man, with big-thinker fingers in a lot of cultural pies.
On Thursday, at a Vancouver ceremony, he will be officially recognized for his vast contribution to Canadian - and international - culture when the government of France names him to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. They'll pin a medal on him and he'll be designated a chevalier, or knight.
"I doubt if I'll be wearing the medal that much, but nevertheless it's kind of interesting as an experience," says Burnett, 63, who was born in London, grew up in Montreal, lived in Australia for a while during the 1980s and moved to Vancouver 14 years ago to take up his post at Emily Carr University.
He's busy these days with a pile of projects, not the least of which is the university's planned move to the new Great Northern Way Campus in East Vancouver. The school has outgrown its Granville Island digs, designed to house 900 students but currently holding twice that number. The school may or may not keep a presence on Granville Island, but if Burnett has his way, it will play a big role in the cultural development of its new neighbourhood.
"My vision of that space is one that's full of public art, full of enough gardens and actual public space [like]parks, that people will want to come down to Great Northern Way, not only to see Emily Carr, but to experience culture as it's being created." He envisions a cinema, art galleries and a working hub for creative companies like Pixar, which recently set up shop in Vancouver.
Burnett is also board chair for British Columbia's Knowledge Network, he has published three books, and he's working on another, about the British painter Henry Inlander. He is a self-described gadget freak, and is overseeing the creation of a centre for 3-D digital media and film at the university, opening in September.
He also enjoys a lunchtime walk on the seawall, and that's how he first caught wind of his pending knighthood. He bumped into the cultural attaché for the French consulate general, who told him in rapid French that he had good news about an award, but he couldn't really talk about it and would tell him more later. Shortly thereafter Burnett, who reads newspapers from France on-line, came across a number of articles about others receiving the award, and he put deux et deux together.
The prestigious honour (past Canadian recipients include Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and John Ralston Saul; non-Canadians include Rudolf Nureyev, Philip Glass and George Clooney) comes as a result of Burnett's leadership at Emily Carr, his efforts to strengthen academic relationships between Canada and France, his prolific writing on culture, and in particular his role as founder and editor of Ciné-Tracts, one of Canada's first journals focusing on film and cultural studies.
Burnett started the deep-thinking quarterly(ish) publication in 1977, producing it on a shoestring out of his Montreal home while he taught full time at a CEGEP. By the third issue, Ciné-Tracts was attracting so much buzz, big name cultural theorists and filmmakers wanted in.
"There wasn't a major figure at the time who didn't publish in this small Canadian journal out of Montreal," says Burnett. "So the subscriptions just started to go through the roof. We would come home some days with bags at the front door from the post office with requests for subscriptions and manuscripts… and by the time we hit the 10th or 11th issue, we were publishing essentially the main figures who were writing about the cinema, and filmmakers as well." They included Yugoslavian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev, Oscar-winning British director Peter Watkins and Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra.
Despite the journal's success, Burnett was unable to secure funding for it from the Canada Council for the Arts. He was told that the journal wasn't Canadian enough. "It wasn't [considered]Canadian enough because it was too international. And it was that kind of parochialism that I was actually trying to break." Years later, when Burnett tried to get the Canada Council to support the preservation of the pioneering journal in PDF form (it stopped publishing in 1982), he was again turned down.
So he sees this cultural recognition from France as a bit of sweet irony: The French don't mind looking outside their own borders to honour cultural achievements. "I don't know what it is about Canada," he says. "It really is a strange thing. On the one hand you could have an international situation out of France where they look at the history of one's career, whereas in Canada we tend to look very specifically at very specific areas, but don't have the breadth." He doesn't sound bitter about it; he really just finds it odd.
Mostly, though, he simply seems delighted about this honour.
"You reach a point in your life when you're sort of looking at your career and you're asking questions about what you've done and what you could have done," he says. "I think that the international recognition is really significant because it brings value to me personally. But also I think for Emily Carr, it brings tremendous value. And I love this institution. I want it to succeed."