Glenbow: A new kind of art museum

By Richard White,  June1 , 2014

(An edited version of this blog appeared in the New Condos section of the Calgary Herald, titled "Vibrant vision fires up Glenbow fans" on Saturday, May 31, 2014)

Great cities have great museums! New York City has several - Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Paris has the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Musee d’Orsay and Rodin Museum.  Everyday tens of thousands of locals and visitors invade the city centres of London and Paris to be entertained, educated and enlightened by a museum experience.  The diversity and quality of the museum experience is critical to understanding of a city’s history and sense of place, both for locals and tourists.  The importance of museums in defining a city was reinforced during our recent 6-week US road trip, where we toured 24 different museums and art galleries in places like Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Denver and Helena.

In Calgary, the Glenbow Museum is both our art and history museum.  For many years now it has struggled with this dual role.  Attendance and membership have not grown over the past 25 years despite the city’s doubling of population, as well as the number of its downtown workers.  

Recently, Donna Livingstone celebrated her one-year anniversary as Glenbow’s President & CEO. I thought it was timely to check in with her learn about her plans for the Glenbow.

The Building

Livingstone was quick to say the Glenbow has no plans to move out of the downtown. In fact, the current Glenbow building is in very good shape and what is needed is just modest renovations to the exterior and interior exhibition spaces.

She reminded me that when the Glenbow was designed and built (in the mid to late ‘60s), 9th Avenue was THE place to be with its new Calgary Tower, Convention Centre and hotel, as well as the train station and the grand Palliser Hotel. Today, 8th Avenue has become Calgary’s signature street so the museum needs to re-orient its entrance to the northside.  Her vision includes a new welcoming Stephen Avenue Walk entrance with an enhanced gallery shop, cafe and bold new signage.

Livingstone would also like to see the second floor look like a contemporary art gallery, not a convention centre space. This could be accomplished with a new ceiling and lighting, as well as the removal of the carpet to allow for a polished concrete floor, a relatively “mini-makeover” so to speak. 

Livingstone is looking at a mega-makeover of the third floor, which, in the past, has always been reserved for a major history exhibition that is on view for 10+ years without any changes (often leading to the comment “nothing ever changes at the Glenbow”).

She sees this floor becoming a multi-purpose space for art, artefacts, readings and performances that explore both the new West to the old West from multiple perspectives, genres and artistic practices. Using in-house expertise, combined with guest curators and other cultural groups locally, nationally and internationally, she wants to aggressively program the space to tell Calgary, southern Alberta and Western Canada stories. It is an ambitious and compelling vision that integrates and hybridizes modern art practices with historical documentation. It is the beginning of what she calls “a new kind of art museum.”  

As the fourth floor doesn’t have the high ceilings needed for today’s contemporary art and history exhibitions, her vision is to transform this space into a “hands-on” educational gallery for people of all ages and backgrounds.  In addition to the educational activities, it will include display cases filled with art and artifacts from the Glenbow’s collection that will rotate on a regular basis so “there will always be something new at the Glenbow!”

The Glenbow from 9th Avenue looking northwest. 

Many many years ago I attended a visioning workshop on Downtown Calgary and the group I was in looked at how the Glenbow and the Calgary Tower might look in the future.  This is the image we create of the future Glenbow.  

Glenbow's entrance from Stephen Avenue Walk.

While regular passenger train service not longer exists in Calgary, Downtown's 9th Avenue is home to the Canadian Pacific Railway Pavilion, which houses the vintage early 20th century passenger cars.  

Building Partnerships

One of Livingstone’s greatest assets is that she is a Calgarian; she knows the community and key players. Over the past year, one of her priorities has been to foster the Glenbow’s relationships and build new community partnerships. So, in addition to working with art gallery and museum groups like Alberta College of Art, Military Museums, Fort Calgary, University of Calgary and Contemporary Calgary (formerly the Art Gallery of Calgary, Triangle Gallery and Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art), she has also reached out to theatre and literary groups to let them know the “new Glenbow” is open and keen to work with them to bring its exhibitions and collection to life.  She is also working with the Calgary Stampede to create something celebrate our cowboy and western culture year round.

One recently example of a new partnership was with Calgary’s Verb Theatre who perform “Of Fighting Age” right in the gallery space containing the “Transformation: A.Y. Jackson & Otto Dix” exhibition (an exhibition of war art on loan from the National War Museums). For Livingstone and those who attended, the synergy of the visual and performance art was illuminating.

Building Community Support

The Glenbow’s signature fundraiser, SCHMANCY, has been recognized by Maclean’s magazine as one of the top five power galas in the country.  This year’s raucous evening of art and culture featured the likes of Bryan Adams, Rebecca Norton (Kung Fu Panties) and George Stroumboulopoulos. This is the new Glenbow – young, cheeky and schmancy. Oh yes, it also raised $280,000!

Exhibitions like “Made in Calgary: The ‘90s at Glenbow” by guest curator Nancy Tousley - with its 100 artworks by 55 artists - are critical to fostering the support of the local visual art community, something the Glenbow and most major Canadian art galleries struggle with. 

From June 7 to August 24, 2014, the Glenbow will feature Calgary’s young (under 40 years of age) whimsical glass art collective Bee Kingdom in an exhibition titled “Iconoclast In Glass.” To enhance visitors’ appreciation of glass art, the Bee Kingdom’s exhibition will be paired with an exhibition showcasing the Glenbow’s collection of historical and contemporary glass (which happens to be the largest in Canada).

In the past, the emerging and established local artists would often complain the Glenbow was ignoring their work.  This is no longer true!

The Bee Kingdom have exhibited their tiny, fun colourful creatures internationally and are now  at the Glenbow.

Last Word

For Livingstone, the duality of the being both art and history museum is something she wants to capitalize on, not complain about. With the largest, most diverse collection of art and artifacts in Western Canada (three times more art than the Vancouver Art Gallery), one of the largest collection of corporate head offices in North America in her backyard, as well as one of the strongest and most diverse cultural communities in Canada, she feels the Glenbow is well positioned to become the “new type of art museum” she envisions.

That is, a museum that tells the story of Calgary’s “sense of place: past, present and future” to Calgarians and visitors.  A museum that integrates historical and contemporary multi-discipline story-telling experiences which speak to everyone.  And, a museum that offer programs at noon hour, happy hour, weekday and weekends!

The fact Livingstone has no money to do any of the physical and programming changes she envisions doesn’t seem to faze her. She is confident the Glenbow will become Calgary’s the great museum (my words not hers) that Calgary deserves. It will be very interesting to watch the Glenbow’s transformation over the next few years. 

Donna Livingstone showing off her lassoing abilities.  A new kind of art museum, needs a new kind of President & CEO! (Photo credit: Calgary Herald)