What's with the names - Arts Commons & Contemporary Calgary?

Is it just me, or does Calgary now have the most ambiguous names in North America (maybe the world) for its performing arts centre (Arts Commons) and public art galleries (Contemporary Calgary)?  Call me “old school” but isn’t there something to be said for naming public buildings in a public-friendly manner?

Recently, the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts changed its name to Arts Commons.  I expect the change was precipitated by the fact EPCOR’s naming sponsorship had expired so they had to drop the EPCOR name.  But surely they could have come up with a better name, something less vague and misleading.

The new name and logo for the old EPCOR Performing Arts Centre has no link to the City or to the building's architecture. 

One colleague said, “It sounds like a bohemian artists’ co-operative of studios and galleries,maybe even a small performance hall with rehearsal spaces.” Another said “Arts Commons” sounds like a little park or street corner in Eau Claire or maybe on Prince’s Island; maybe a new public space in East Village.  Yet another said the name was meaningless to her, and “certainly doesn’t change my experience of going to the Jack Singer concert hall or one of the theatre spaces.”  An artist I spoke with said it reminded him of the old Art Central that was recently torn down to make way for the new TELUS Sky tower.

It certainly doesn’t convey an image of being one of North America’s major performing arts centre with five performance spaces, with a total of over 3,200 seats in one of North America’s fastest growing cities.  

When the new name was announced last December, Johann Zietsmann, President and CEO of the new Arts Commons said, “This new name reflects the momentum the centre has been gaining over the last few years, and best communicates where we want to be as part of Calgary’s cultural landscape.” Henry Sykes, Chair of the Arts Commons Board of Directors explained, “It is about increasing awareness and creating a better experience for both our resident companies and our patrons. It is about being welcoming and open to all.”

Sorry gentlemen, I don’t buy it.  How does a name like Arts Commons make the Centre more welcoming, more open, a better experience for performers, increase public awareness or enhance the facility’s position within Calgary’s cultural landscape?  I hope the new name was properly tested with the Calgary public before it was chosen. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man and the new name works resonates with the younger demographics.  However, I haven’t had a single person - young or old - tell me they like the name over the past month.

Here’s an idea…..why not just revert to the Calgary Performing Arts Centre (or CPAC for short)?  It is simple, descriptive and easy to remember and no need for an explanation – all important criteria for good naming.  It says exactly what it is and what city it is located in.  Certainly one of the purposes of a major civic performing arts centre is to help build the City’s brand/image as a place of culture.  Arts Commons could be in Red Deer or Iqaluit for that matter – it says nothing about “place.” 

Call me stupid, but applying the tried-and-true KISS principle to the naming of arts buildings is always a good idea.

The Performing Art Centre is located on the south side of  Olympic Plaza. The red brick building contains two theatre spaces, the green roof building on the far left an office building and the old eight storey Federal Public Building was renovated to includes offices on top of the  Jack Singer Concert Hall on the ground level. It is part of an arts district with the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Telus Convention Centre on the next block. 

What’s with Contemporary Calgary?

I find it hard to believe anyone thinks the name “Contemporary Calgary” is a good name for a public art organization with two gallery spaces and soon a third.  Sure, I can understand that with the merger of the Art Gallery of Calgary and the old Triangle Gallery (whoops, I mean MOCA i.e. Museum of Contemporary Art) that they would want to avoid any reference to previous names.

For many years the triangular space on the plaza of the Municipal Building was called the Triangle Gallery. In 2011, it was changed to MOCA - Museum of Contemporary Art, before merging with Art Gallery of Calgary and Institute of Modern & Contemporary Art (IMCA) to create Contemporary Calgary. 

I can also understand they wouldn’t want to make any reference to the Institute for Contemporary and Modern Art (IMCA). It was formed many, many years ago but was never able to build a major public gallery in Calgary focusing on contemporary art.  Obviously, they were looking for a fresh start. I totally get it.

“Contemporary Calgary” could easily be confused with a modern furniture store, or maybe a tony fashion boutique. One colleague, who shall remain nameless, as he is key figure in Calgary’s visual arts scene, thought it might be a good name for a consignment clothing store.  Just to add to the confusion, the former Art Gallery of Calgary space on Stephen Avenue is called C and the old Triangle Art Gallery space C2. Yikes!

I bet to the vast majority of the public and many culture vultures, the name Contemporary Calgary conveys nothing about being a visual arts organization or about being a public, not-for-profit organization. In fact, it sounds more like a private enterprise.  One person I emailed to ask what he thought sheepishly emailed me back to say she had to look it up!

Again, I think something simple like Calgary Art Museums or Calgary Contemporary Art Museums would have worked just fine.  The term “museum” works well to convey the idea of a public building that displays artifacts.  And “contemporary art” says that this is not a place full of historic paintings, drawings and sculptures.

The 1967 Centennial Planetarium and Science Centre building is currently empty while Contemporary Calgary determines how best to convert it into a public art gallery/museum space and then raise the money for renovations and operating costs.

Last Word

I realize my sample size is small, but as Malcolm Gladwell divulged in his book “Blink,” at a certain point in your life, you have accumulated enough knowledge and experience in certain areas that you know in the “blink of an eye” if something is right or wrong after which you spend hours, days or months justifying your observation or decision.  After 35 years of being involved in Calgary’s cultural landscape, I know these two new names are meaningless to most Calgarians and tourists, as well as national and international cultural leaders.

In the near future, both Arts Commons and Contemporary Calgary are going to go to the public and corporate community, with multi-million dollar capital campaigns. Arts Commons has ambitious plans to upgrade their ‘80s building into a 21st state-of-the-art facility. Contemporary Calgary has plans to convert the 1967 Centennial Planetarium building into a modern art gallery.

I believe both groups would be better served if they had simple names that reflect their purpose.  As one CFO said to me, “if I got a call from Contemporary Calgary, I would immediately think they were going to try and sell me new office furniture.”

The best way to communicate is by being clear and concise, not convoluted and confounding.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Glenbow: A new kind of art museum

Calgary Civic Art Gallery: Do we dare to be different?

Does Calgary have an inferiority complex?

Iconic Canadian art hidden in YYC office lobby