While flaneuring last week I wandered past Calgary’s funky old Science Centre next to Mewata Armouries in downtown Calgary’s West End. The concrete Brutalist designed by Calgary architect Jack Long has been funked up over the years with some bold yellow and red elements that together definitely give it a modern art gallery look.
One of the proposals for the future of the building is indeed to be a public art gallery - to become Calgary’s Civic Art Gallery. For over 50 years, Calgary’s visual arts community has lamented the fact that we don’t have a civic art gallery. Even smaller Alberta cities like Lethbridge and Grande Prairie have civic art galleries. I understand the future of this building will be announced soon.
West Village Catalyst
I would be surprised if the City didn’t choose to convert the Science Centre into an art gallery. The City has ambitious plans for the creation of West Village utilizing the land to the west of Mewata Armouries. Using the same thinking as in East Village, the Calgary Civic Art Gallery would function like the National Music Centre and the new Central Library serving as an anchor or catalyst for converting a harsh underutilized urban environment into an attractive place to “live, work and play.” It could work. If we could convert Mewata Armouries into a public farmers’ market then we might have something. Stranger things have happened?
Artists Incubators vs. Gallery
I am guessing it will take $150 million to convert the building into a public art gallery, approximately the same cost as building the National Music Centre. I can’t help but wonder if this is the best use of $150 million to enhance the visual arts or the arts in general in our city. What else would $150 million buy?
One of the biggest issues facing artists living in Calgary today is affordability. Artists don’t make much money and Calgary is not a cheap place to live. Calgary has no old tired warehouse areas with cheap rent that artists can use as “studio/apartment” spaces. Places like Inglewood, Bridgeland, Sunnyside and SunAlta are all becoming more and more upscale as GABEsters (geologist, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers) move in.
I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t be investing in more spaces like C-Space King Edward that would be incubators for young artists – visuals, performing and literary – to live and work. Perhaps we could create an artist’s village or better yet what about affordable housing project for seniors and artists – multi-generational.
What is cSPACE?
This is a CADA (city's Calgary Arts Development Authority) and Calgary Foundation) project that will see the 100-year-old King Edward School (South Calgary, 1720 – 30th Ave SW) converted into a hub for creativity. Ten anchor tenants will create a 45,000 square foot space with studios, offices, production, exhibition and rehearsal space. The cost of this project is expected to be about $30M (land and renovations).
CADA is also partnering with International Ave BRZ to create temporary presentation, studio and workshop space at 1807 42nd St. SE.
In Beddington, a group of theatre companies have come together and converted the old community centre into a 200 seat theatre, 4 studio spaces and offices for its two resident theatre groups - Storybook Theatre and Front Row Centre Players.
For $150M we could build numerous artists spaces around the city. I expect places like Bowness would love to have a multi-purpose arts centre as part of their revitalization plans and I expect it could be done cheaper than $30M. Land isn’t cheap in South Calgary, nor are renovations of old buildings.
Perhaps we could create fun, funky and affordable “container villages” for young Calgary artists to “live, work and play” across the city. We are currently experimenting with one in Sunnyside that might help us understand how this might work!
Why do we need a Civic Art Gallery?
One of the most often touted reasons we need a Civic Art Gallery is that we don’t have a facility to host block-buster travelling exhibitions that Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa get. You know those one’s with the big name artists like – Picasso and Rembrandt!
Another reason would be to have a place to showcase Calgary’s civic art collection, which is an important piece of our history and our sense of place. Do new Calgarians need another place where they can discover Calgary indeed does have a history - we have the Glenbow, Fort Calgary and Heritage Park?
Do we need a civic gallery to increase the public’s awareness and appreciation of art? The downtown is full of art, there is public sculpture on almost every block, the office lobbies are full of public art, Hotel Arts, the Hyatt and Bow Valley College are like a public gallery with their extensive collections on public display almost 24/7.
It would also give local artists another opportunity to exhibit their work, in addition to Art Gallery of Calgary, MOCA Calgary (old Triangle), Glenbow, as well as galleries at ACAD and University of Calgary and artist-run-centres – New Gallery, Stride and Truck.
Link vision with reality?
The cost of a civic gallery isn’t just to build it - there is significant annual operational cost. The Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton) has had an operational budget deficit since it moved into their new building. A major civic art gallery needs an operational budget of over $5 million annual if it is going to provide exciting and engaging programming. And that is a conservative number!
Interestingly, a $150M foundation with a 4% yield would generate a $6M annual rate of return – enough to support public gallery. I can’t help but wonder what the chronically underfunded Glenbow might do in the way of new programming with a $6M increase in its budget.
The Art Gallery of Calgary and MOCA are struggling to find the ongoing operational funding for their spaces. How do we think we are going to fund the operations of another public art gallery?
Perhaps the problem is not that we don’t have a civic art gallery, but that we have too many smaller public art galleries. Are we too fragmented?
Maybe now is the time for the creation of a Calgary Civic Art Galleries, which would include the Glenbow, MOCA and the Art Gallery of Calgary spaces, staff, membership and volunteers. Perhaps what we need is a good visual arts merger?
Remember the motto: “working together to make a great city better?”
Here’s a radical idea! Maybe we should just turn the Science Center over to art groups and let them see what they can do with it - forgo the huge renovation and operational costs of a major civic art gallery?
Artists did a great job of turning the old Billingsgate Market building in East Village into a fun, studio, exhibition and event space. Perhaps with a little seed money visual, performance and literary artists could transform the Science Centre into a wonderful creative incubator/hub. Do we dare to be different?
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SB writes: Give it to artists with rules about protecting the building. Perhaps it could be a below-market version of Art Central.
CO writes: Food for thought!