National Music Centre: The Red Flag?

I intentionally waited for over a year before visiting Calgary’s new National Music Centre (NMC), aka Studio Bell. I wanted to give it time to work out the bugs and get all of its exhibitions and programming in place.  But, It was hard. The reviews of the interior architecture were all glowing. What I didn’t hear was how great the exhibitions or programs were.  All the talk was about how spectacular the building was.  To me, this was a red flag!

However, after returning from Nashville and experiencing their music museums I decided needed to check out NMC. I called up a friend who also hadn’t made it to the Center yet (even though he had an annual membership for the first year) and made plans to go together.

  National Music Centre's lobby invites visitors to play pianos and guitars.

National Music Centre's lobby invites visitors to play pianos and guitars.

Great First Impression

I loved that as I entered the National Music Centre I immediately heard live music. It was young girl playing the Dean Stanton-decorated piano in the lobby. Then I heard a young man tickling the ivories on another piano in the lobby, as well as some guitar sounds from the exhibition space just off the lobby.

GREAT - lots of hands-on opportunities for people to play and hear musical instruments.

Uplifting

The lobby was visually uplifting with its five-storey central atrium and stairwell to the heaven (pun intended) with slivers of light shining through.  Indeed, there was a sense of reverence - a cathedral-like sense of place. 

  It is easy to get seduced by the museum's striking architecture.  

It is easy to get seduced by the museum's striking architecture. 

Unfortunately, as we proceeded through the exhibitions we both became less and less enchanted.  There were lots of galleries that seemed to have very little in them or they had material to read but not much in the way of things to listen to or play with.

A lot of the information was easily available on the Internet or was old news.

  An example of large exhibition space devoted to information that is easily accessible on the Internet.

An example of large exhibition space devoted to information that is easily accessible on the Internet.

Some Things Missing

Given the Centre’s collection of over 2,000 musical instruments, we expected to see and hear hundreds of instruments. While there were some displays of instruments, it was often the same ones we had seen at the old Cantos Centre in the Customs House.  And while there were some places with headphones that allowed you to hear the instruments, they were too few and the music offered too short.

  An example of one of the exhibition from the museum's collection.

An example of one of the exhibition from the museum's collection.

I was also expecting some kind of introductory video summarizing Canada’s music history. Something that would get me excited about what I was about to see and put Canada’s music into perspective.

  This exhibition of "Trailbrazers" looks like billboard. This would have been a great place for a video documenting the how Canadians have been music "trailblazers" for over a century.  

This exhibition of "Trailbrazers" looks like billboard. This would have been a great place for a video documenting the how Canadians have been music "trailblazers" for over a century.  

But surprising to us both, there wasn’t and we didn’t see it anything that would helped international visitors appreciate the unique regional music of Canada.  For example, the role of the kitchen party in Maritimes and its links to Celtic music.  It seemed logical to both of us there would be separate galleries celebrating each region with listening stations that would invite you to sit and listen to a spectrum of the region’s music.

I was expecting something like the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, which organizes its huge collection of instruments into dozens of displays based on musical genre and countries.

I missed the in-depth historical story-telling I experienced in musical museums in both Nashville and Memphis.  For example, at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, there was a very large display of Shania Twain artifacts that not only told the story of her rise to fame, but also how she is responsible for linking country music to pop music, and thus significantly changing contemporary music.

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I didn’t find NMC’s k.d. lang exhibit with its display of outfits and interview particularly insightful.  I would have loved to have seen a video of her performances and how they changed as her career evolved. I will never forget seeing Lang at Calaway Park in the early  ‘80s wearing a wedding dress and cowboy boots and dancing like a possessed shaman.  I wanted to be "wowed" by her exhibition. Link: Early k.d. lang performance

  k.d. lang exhibition seemed more focused on fashion than on music and performances.

k.d. lang exhibition seemed more focused on fashion than on music and performances.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was we couldn’t see and hear the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, as it is located in the King Eddy wing of the Centre, which is only open for special events. 

The state-of-the-art exhibitions I was expecting were not to be. I came away with the impression that the champions of the Centre spent lots of money and attention on the building design, but little on the exhibitions and programming of the space. 

Highlight

On the upside, the highlight for me was the 15-minute live demonstration of the 1924 Kimball Theatre Organ that was used to make music and sounds for silent movies. The thundering sound of this huge instrument - the size of main floor of a 1950s house - was impressive, as were the range of sounds it could make.    

This is what I was expecting more of - turns out it was the only live demonstration of the day.  If you came in the morning, there were no live demos. I would have loved to hear someone play some early Elton John on the white Elton John piano.  Or how about a demo of the Theremin - a musical instrument that you control by waving your hands over it, rather than physical contact.  I want to hear the instrument, not just read about them.

To me, the key to a music museum is the ability hear lots of different types of music, not just read about it.   And when the museum has a large collection of rare instruments, I want to see and hear them performed.

Poor Design

While everyone is blown away by the architecture, it doesn’t really work well as a museum space.

The open central atrium and tiled surfaces mean sound echoes through out the building.

 The ramp/stairwell of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has many of the same design vs function issues at the National Music Centre. 

The ramp/stairwell of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has many of the same design vs function issues at the National Music Centre. 

It was really annoying when kids were talking loudly in the lobby (as you would expect) but you could hear them throughout the building. 

The stairwell, atrium and other design elements also mean there is actually less exhibition space than one would think given the size of the building.  

I had many of the same feelings, when I visited the Canadian Museum for Rights in Winnipeg. 

In both cases, the champions built a uniquely shaped building but that doesn’t function as a great exhibition space and has lots of wasted space.

  Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. 

Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. 

  National Music Centre aka Studio Bell in Calgary.

National Music Centre aka Studio Bell in Calgary.

Importance of Programming

As a former art gallery director and curator, I am very cognizant of the fact the exhibitions and programming are the key to a successful gallery or museum, not the architecture.  In fact, you don’t really need to pay admission to appreciate the NMC’s architecture - you do that from the outside and the lobby.

Over the two hours we were there on a Friday afternoon in November, there were perhaps 35 people in the entire museum and only 11 showed up for the Kimball Organ demo. This pales in comparison to my experience at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum a week earlier where hundreds of people packed the museum on a Monday morning.

We were told it was a slow day.
  Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum was busy even first thing on a Monday morning. 

Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum was busy even first thing on a Monday morning. 

Value for Money

While, the 163,000 square foot National Music Centre costs $191 million to build, I feel it would have been better to budget $125 million (for which you could still get a stunning building) and then raise $50 million as an endowment to create stunning exhibitions and programming, including having the King Eddy fully operational with live music 7 days a week.  I am told the King Eddy will open full-time in July 2018.

In fact, the 210,000 square foot expansion of bass clef-shaped Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 2014, cost $130CDN million and has very similar specs.

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Last Word

Though just my opinion, it is an informed and honest one. Just in case you are wondering, the opinion of my fellow visitor was “the Centre is sterile and underwhelming.” 

I was expecting a lot of Calgarians to disagree with these observations, however, the response (10 emails and 2 calls) to date (Dec 7th) has all been in support of these observations. 

If you like this blog, you will like these links: 

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent?

Postcards: International Musical Instruments Museum

Music Museums In Memphis

National Music Museum accepts authenticity challenge

Calgary Hidden Gem: The Book Dissected

University campuses are fascinating to me.  They are a world unto themselves, each with their own sense of place and unique energy.  After a recent Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change Advisory Committee meeting at the University of Calgary, I decided to flaneur the campus. 

Hidden Treasures 

For those of you who haven’t been on campus (or haven’t been there in many years), it is a maze of buildings, pathways and +15 bridges that can be difficult for the neophyte to negotiate. I was immediately drawn to the relatively new (opened in 2011) $205 million Taylor Family Digital Library complex which seems to have become the heart of the campus (but not before getting trapped in a construction detour). 

Upon entering, there was an advance Municipal Election polling station in the lobby, so I quickly voted.  Then above the polling station tables I saw a huge sign saying “The Book Dissected” exhibition was on the 5th Floor.  I couldn’t resist.

What I found was an amazing treasure – a tiny exhibition room hidden at the far end of the hall.  While the floor was packed with students, I doubt many or perhaps maybe any of them realized what lie at the end of that hall. 

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“Paradise Lost” Found

What I found was an intriguing exhibition entitled “The Book Dissected” exploring book construction and illustration from 1500 to the 1800s.  

The highlight for me was Book IX of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (published in 1688) opened to a full-page engraving illustrating the “fall of humankind.”  Nearby was a Latin bible from 1556 with an alchemical recipe scribbled on it and an ancient Swedish bible with pressed flowers still sitting on the opened page.

 There are actually two edition of Milton's Paradise Lost in the collection a fourth edition (top, 1688) and second edition (bottom, 1674). 

There are actually two edition of Milton's Paradise Lost in the collection a fourth edition (top, 1688) and second edition (bottom, 1674). 

More Treasures

One of the most remarkable illustrations was an ancient clergyman’s design for Noah’s Ark, which the exhibition brochure says, is mathematically correct. Not sure how they would know that?

The exhibition also explores the collecting pursuits of ancient English travellers combined with specimens of the same time borrowed from the Faculty of Science to create a 17th century cabinet of curiosities.  

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Fun With Bibles

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Last Word

I left shaking my head wondering what other amazing treasures the University of Calgary has hidden away in remote locations.  In fact, the exhibition brochure says, “The bibles in Special Collections are a particularly rich source for provenance research.”  Surely, the Special Collections deserves a more prominent location in the Library and more recognition as one of Calgary’s best treasures.  With the right location and marketing, it could become a tourist attraction!  May I suggest it could replace the gift shop next to the Nickle Museum on the ground floor?

“The Book Dissected” is presented by the University of Calgary’s Special Collections and curated by Maria Zytaruk, Department of English.  It continues until December 4, 2017.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

A-mazing University of New Mexico Campus

University of Arizona: Resort vs Research

Dublin: Newman University Church a hidden gem!

Must See: cSPACE & I Am Western

If you haven’t been to the renovated three storey, sandstone King Edward School (1720 – 30th Ave SW) in Marda Loop you must go. The handsome building was completed in 1913 and was one of 19 sandstone schools built by the Calgary public school board between 1894 and 1914.

  cSpace is currently hosting the provocative "I Am Western" art exhibition which is a "must see" for anyone interested in the visual arts and social commentary.  

cSpace is currently hosting the provocative "I Am Western" art exhibition which is a "must see" for anyone interested in the visual arts and social commentary.  

Old vs New

While cSPACE is still a work in progress (the school renovation is finished and 29 artists and art groups are all in, but they are still constructing the new performance space and completing the front yard landscaping). You can already see how the juxtaposition of the old and new is creating something very special both for Calgary’s creative community and the public.

  The majestic King Edward School is getting a new life as a creative hub.  The construction on the left side is the new performance space.  The site will also include luxury condos on the west side and a seniors complex on the east. 

The majestic King Edward School is getting a new life as a creative hub.  The construction on the left side is the new performance space.  The site will also include luxury condos on the west side and a seniors complex on the east. 

Free

There is a bit of an urgency to go before Oct 1st 2017 as the well worth seeing exhibition “I Am Western” closes then.  I hope these postcards from our recent visit will entice you (and maybe bring some friends) to visit both the space and the exhibition before the end of September.  It’s FREE!

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  Lyndal Osborne and Sherri Chaba, The Space Between Cities, 2011 is a mixed media installation that resembles a small tool or garden shed.  It includes fossils, wasp nests, antlers, furniture, digital images, pelts, grain seedlings, paddle, bird nest, bird wing, sunflower roots and much much more. The artists intent is for the viewer to "meditate upon the constant transformation of our world." 

Lyndal Osborne and Sherri Chaba, The Space Between Cities, 2011 is a mixed media installation that resembles a small tool or garden shed.  It includes fossils, wasp nests, antlers, furniture, digital images, pelts, grain seedlings, paddle, bird nest, bird wing, sunflower roots and much much more. The artists intent is for the viewer to "meditate upon the constant transformation of our world." 

 Loved this shed-like structure full of fun everyday artifacts from the farm. Especially liked this beehive made from old matchbooks. 

Loved this shed-like structure full of fun everyday artifacts from the farm. Especially liked this beehive made from old matchbooks. 

  John Freeman, Now You See It Soon You Won't, 2011, inkjet in on translucent polyester fabric. This tryptic that combines image word association "Rye-Food," "Grain-Same" and "Canola-Same" with images of prairie agriculture.  

John Freeman, Now You See It Soon You Won't, 2011, inkjet in on translucent polyester fabric. This tryptic that combines image word association "Rye-Food," "Grain-Same" and "Canola-Same" with images of prairie agriculture.  

 Be sure to check out the stairwells, as they are full of fun artworks - don't take the elevator. Kids will love these.

Be sure to check out the stairwells, as they are full of fun artworks - don't take the elevator. Kids will love these.

  People of all ages and backgrounds will enjoy the Chagall-like mural.

People of all ages and backgrounds will enjoy the Chagall-like mural.

  Kelly Johner, The Three Sirens: For The Love of Bling, Prairie Song, Belle of the Bale, 2014. The artist's materials relate to the land or to activities on the farm but are given new purpose and meaning - saddles become female silhouettes, bale twine is crocheted into a dress by her mother and horse tack and heel rope become a hoop skirt.    Below are some close-up views of The Three Sirens.

Kelly Johner, The Three Sirens: For The Love of Bling, Prairie Song, Belle of the Bale, 2014. The artist's materials relate to the land or to activities on the farm but are given new purpose and meaning - saddles become female silhouettes, bale twine is crocheted into a dress by her mother and horse tack and heel rope become a hoop skirt.

Below are some close-up views of The Three Sirens.

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Hot Tip

Maybe plan your trip on a Saturday, so you can stop by the Marda Loop Farmers’ Market (at the nearby Community Centre parking lot) and pick up a coffee and perhaps a treat (there is no café at cSPACE) before heading to the school.  Also note the Alberta Craft Council gallery isn’t open until noon; so don’t get there too early.

  Alberta Craft Council's boutique is a great place to find a unique gift.  They also have an art gallery the showcases the work of Alberta craft persons. 

Alberta Craft Council's boutique is a great place to find a unique gift.  They also have an art gallery the showcases the work of Alberta craft persons. 

  Love this magazine rack with a sample of the many great magazines published in Alberta.  It provided us with good reading for the rest of the weekend.

Love this magazine rack with a sample of the many great magazines published in Alberta.  It provided us with good reading for the rest of the weekend.

  Even if the studios aren't open you can still look inside and see some of the interesting art being produced.

Even if the studios aren't open you can still look inside and see some of the interesting art being produced.

  Marda Loop Farmers' Market fun.

Marda Loop Farmers' Market fun.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

King Edward Village

Marda Loop Madness

Fun, Funky, Quirky Colorado Springs

 

 

 

 

 

Berlin: East Side Gallery Gong Show

Whenever I tell people we went to Berlin, they always ask what I thought of the Berlin Wall fragments and the East Side Gallery (ESG).  Berlin’s East Side Gallery is a 1.3 km long section of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved as an international memorial celebrating freedom. It is the longest open-air gallery in the world. 

 This is the most famous artwork at the ESG...it is not the original. Link:    The Stolen Kiss

This is the most famous artwork at the ESG...it is not the original. Link: The Stolen Kiss

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Must See?

Immediately after the wall came down, in November 1989, hundreds of artists began painting sections of the wall in celebration of their newfound freedom.  The East Side Gallery opened as an open-air gallery on September 28, 1990 featuring the work of 118 artists from 21 different countries.  Today, the wall continues to feature the work of street artists and muralists from around the world. 

Given my interest in graffiti and street art since the mid ‘80s, this was a “must see” for me.  Perhaps my expectations were too high as it was probably the biggest disappointment of my 6-week stay in Berlin.

In a city filled with street art, I was expecting artwork that was provocative, poignant, politically charged. Though some pieces were well executed, most were mediocre, messy and moronic. 

In addition, the area has become a tacky tourist trap with tour groups, buskers, cheesy souvenirs and stupid selfie sticks.  It was a gong show.

Link: East Side Gallery History

  The East Side Gallery gong show of people, clutter, construction and fences is not a great experience - IMHO!.

The East Side Gallery gong show of people, clutter, construction and fences is not a great experience - IMHO!.

In a city filled with street art, I was expecting artwork that was provocative, poignant, politically charged. Though some pieces were well executed, most were mediocre, messy and moronic. 

In addition, the area has become a tacky tourist trap with tour groups, buskers, cheesy souvenirs and stupid selfie sticks.  It was a gong show.

Link: East Side Gallery History

  Tourists are more interested in selfies than looking at the art.  Perhaps you can't blame them when you have to look through a fence to see the art. 

Tourists are more interested in selfies than looking at the art.  Perhaps you can't blame them when you have to look through a fence to see the art. 

Last Word

Is it only me or does everyone see the irony that the East Side Gallery a remnant of the Berlin Wall which is suppose to be a memorial to freedom actually has a fence around it to protect it from vandals.   

Checkout this photo essay from ESG and let me know what you think or the art and the sense of place.

  The ESG is a popular spot for professional photographers and models. 

The ESG is a popular spot for professional photographers and models. 

  Across the street is a very loud construction site.  

Across the street is a very loud construction site. 

Torrington: Kitsch Capital of Alberta

Finally! We made the trek to the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta. And, we weren’t disappointed. 

For years, friends have been saying this quirky museum would be right up our alley.  The museum has attracted lots of media attention - including Huffpost calling it “Alberta’s Most Insane Hilarious Destination” to Calgary’s Avenue Magazine proclaiming, “You must see it to believe it.”

  Just a few of the 47 dioramas at the Torrington Gopher Museum. 

Just a few of the 47 dioramas at the Torrington Gopher Museum. 

  Yes, Torrington has a community annual yard sale on Victoria Day....we have marked it in our calendars for next year. 

Yes, Torrington has a community annual yard sale on Victoria Day....we have marked it in our calendars for next year. 

Summer Only!

And, we weren’t disappointed.  Since 1996, this grassroots museum has been attracting 6,000+ visitors every summer (it is only open from June 1st to September 30th, when the gophers go into hibernation). 

Arriving shortly after it opens at 10 am on a recent Saturday, we were the first to arrive, but by the time we left, there were several visitors and a motorcycle caravan was expected later in the day as part of a scavenger hunt. 

So popular with visitors, a great unofficial website guide to the museum was created by fans as a tribute.  Very professional and comprehensive, the website has lots of fun information. I loved the “Meet The Team” link.

Link: Gopher Hole Museum

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Gopher Hole Museum 101

The museum is located in Torrington, Alberta on Highway 27 just 15 minutes east of the QEW II highway, about an hour’s drive north of Calgary. 

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Housed in an unassuming, cottage-like former house just off of Main Street, it is not an iconic building designed by a star international architect as we have become accustomed to in big city museums. 

Murals on the west side of the building let you know you have found it.  You can park right next to the museum at no charge. Try that in the big city.

Speaking of cost, the museum admission fee is $2 for adults and 50 cents for children under 14. How good it that?

  Kitschy mural on the side of the museum.

Kitschy mural on the side of the museum.

  This photo is for my Mom who loves trains and calls herself Queen of the Rails.

This photo is for my Mom who loves trains and calls herself Queen of the Rails.

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Very Welcoming!

  Dianne Kurta greeted us with a big smile.

Dianne Kurta greeted us with a big smile.

Once inside, the friendliest person we have encountered at the front desk of a public museum or art gallery in a long, long time welcomed us.  

Dianne Kurta, the museum’s curator since it first opened in 1996, greeted us. She seems as proud and enthusiastic today as if the museum had just opened.

After a hearty welcome, you are free to explore the single exhibition room that houses the 47 dioramas with 77 mounted gophers.

They look like old box televisions, with the innards replaced by miniature scenes from early 20th century rural life in a small Alberta town, the “twist” being the humans are represented by (real!) stuffed gophers. 

The result is hilarious; there is a clever tongue-in-cheek sensibility to each of the scenes. 

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  This one was Brenda's favourite - The Yard Sale.  

This one was Brenda's favourite - The Yard Sale. 

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Gift Shopping!

Local artist Shelley Barkman who lives on a farm west of Three Hills painted the murals for each of the dioramas.  She had become well known in the community for her work painting animal portraits as well as farm scenes.  When asked if she was interested in painting the murals for the Gopher Hole Museum, she jumped at the chance. Working inside a box was a bit more challenging that painting scenes of the flat surface of a canvas but she was up for the challenge. And she did a great job!

You will probably spend 20 to 30 minutes looking at the dioramas, depending on how many photos you take and there is lots of documentation on the history of the museum to read as well.

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Like all good museums, you exit (you also enter) through the gift shop which is full of a wide variety of souvenirs, hand crafted by the volunteers. It has the feel of a good old-time church bazaar.

No mass-produced, made in China junk that ends up in garage sales here! They even have their own postcards.

Whether you buy or not, make sure you vote on your favourite diorama and also make sure your town or city has been identified with a pin on the world map hanging on the wall.  This is truly an international tourist attraction.    

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Kitschy Fire Hydrants?

As you leave the museum, you are invited to tour (an easy walk) the town to check out the 12 kitschy fire hydrants, all painted to look like a gopher, each with a name and story. 

Grab a copy of the Torrington Tourism Action Society’s map to guide the way.  You can easily spend another 20 minutes or so wandering the town, taking selfies with the likes of Butch, Gramps, Tubby and Peggy Sue and reading their life stories. 

You will also pass by the huge Clem T. GoFur statue at the entrance to town – great family selfie opportunity.

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  Mabel was the town's schoolteacher when she met Butch on a holiday. She is very involved with community affairs and still teaches part-time at the school while also raising a family of little GoFurs. 

Mabel was the town's schoolteacher when she met Butch on a holiday. She is very involved with community affairs and still teaches part-time at the school while also raising a family of little GoFurs. 

Why A Gopher Museum?

The museum idea was in response to the decline of the small agricultural towns in the late 20th century, as large-scale agricultural farms gobbled up the 100-year old family farms across Prairies, including Torrington.

Many once thriving small towns with a post office, school and a few stores became almost ghost towns.  In Torrington’s case, it couldn’t compete with larger towns nearby – Olds, Trochu and Three Hills. Soon, the gophers began to take over the town and local folklore says a town council member suggested, “we should stuff them and put them on display.” 

While the museum and fire hydrants are fun, there is a sadness that permeates the town as you enter and wander the hamlet of about 200 people. Many homes lack a pride of ownership and there are only a few businesses left. Gone are the school, post office, general store, bank and other businesses you would expect in a bustling community.

Like lots of towns and cities, down and out on their luck Torrington looked to tourism to rescue a declining economy.  (Perhaps the most famous example being Bilbao, Spain who hired Frank Gehry, a famous international architect to create an iconic art gallery for them. It captured the world’s imagination and today, what was a dying city is a mega tourist attraction.  Unfortunately, Bilbao is the exception not the rule.)

  Clem T GoFur the Torrington Mascot is positioned at the entrance to town and serves to welcome visitors and encourage them to stay at the Torrington campgrounds.

Clem T GoFur the Torrington Mascot is positioned at the entrance to town and serves to welcome visitors and encourage them to stay at the Torrington campgrounds.

Last Word

After 21 years, the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is still going strong, but as you wander around the hamlet you have to wonder about its long-term future. Will anyone have the same passion for the museum as Kurta? While she has endless optimism and pride in the town, will there be a next generation to carry the gopher torch?

I really hope so. The world needs more kitschy fun that everybody can enjoy!

  Be sure to sign the guest book before you leave. The comments are great read.  I think it is the most used guest book I have ever seen in a museum or gallery. 

Be sure to sign the guest book before you leave. The comments are great read.  I think it is the most used guest book I have ever seen in a museum or gallery. 

Calgary: Mannequins As Public Art?

On a cold Sunday afternoon I decided to go "chinooking," i.e. flaneuring at Calgary's Chinook Mall (Calgary's largest and one Canada's top malls, home to Nordstrom and soon Saks Fifth Avenue).  

I have to admit it had been years since I have been to the Chinook, but as I had an hour before my Apple store  "iPhone Photography" workshop (how to take stunning photos), I thought why not give my new iPhone7+ a workout.  

As soon as I walked in I was immediately reminded how much I love store windows as fun, funky and sometime provocative art installations.  I was also reminded how surrealistic-looking mannequins are used to make eerie and strange narratives. 

It never ceases to amaze me, what you see when you look closely at the windows. 

Then the light bulb went on - why not do a photo essay focusing on mannequins and womannequins!  So I did....

Womannequins?

Last Word

As I flaneured the mall, from hallway to hallway, from window to window; it was very much like being in a large public art gallery wandering from gallery to gallery. 

While I realize a shopping mall is not a public space, it felt like the mannequins were the equivalent of public statues and installations a form of public art. They were free for everyone to see as part of their everyday experience as much as downtown's Family of Man, Conversation, Famous Five or Wonderland.  

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MAD about Manchester?

With all the communities surrounding Calgary’s downtown becoming more gentrified with new condos, offices, restaurants and cafes people often ask me, “where is the next Sunnyside, Bridgeland or Inglewood?” 

One community that is not on most people’s radar is Manchester.

   Urban Grub  is the storefront for Indulge Catering Kitchen is just one of the many commercial kitchens in Manchester. 

Urban Grub is the storefront for Indulge Catering Kitchen is just one of the many commercial kitchens in Manchester. 

Where?

Manchester is the no-man’s land between Macleod Trail S.W. and Blackfoot Trail S.E. and from 58th to 34th Ave South.  Most Calgarians know it as a hodgepodge of junkyards, railway tracks, lumberyards, automotive shops, small industrial and a few assorted small office buildings. However, for the urban pioneer, there are lots of hidden gems to be discovered. 

Backstory: Named after the England’s industrial city, Manchester (in the early 20th century it was common practice to give new Calgary communities that would appeal to British immigrants) it was Calgary’s first industrial district, although it did have some residential development and even its own school until 1973. 

  A row of small cottage homes that are a reminder of Manchester's residential past.  

A row of small cottage homes that are a reminder of Manchester's residential past. 

  A cluster of mid-rise residential towers is developing at the southwest corner of Manchester. 

A cluster of mid-rise residential towers is developing at the southwest corner of Manchester. 

  While the Manchester school closed a few years back, there is a lovely community playground. 

While the Manchester school closed a few years back, there is a lovely community playground. 

   Castle Toys  Calgary's premier toy store calls Manchester home. 

Castle Toys Calgary's premier toy store calls Manchester home. 

  Ill-Fated Kustoms  is part fashion, part second hand, part motorcycle store in Manchester. 

Ill-Fated Kustoms is part fashion, part second hand, part motorcycle store in Manchester. 

MAD?

Arguably, the first pioneers were Uri Heilik and Rogelio Herrera, who in 2010, opened Alloy Fine Dining in a nondescript building at 220 - 42 Avenue SE.   It immediately became one of Calgary’s go-to restaurants for foodies. So much for the adage, “location, location, location.”  There are no luxury condos nearby, nor any suits with their expense accounts. Seven years later, Alloy remains one of Calgary’s top restaurants. 

Then there’s Christine Klassen who, three years ago, made a bold decision to move her contemporary art gallery from the Beltline’s 11th Avenue Design District to a warehouse space behind an office building at 321 - 50th Avenue SE.  While the location is off the beaten path, the industrial chicness gives it a New York or London gallery look/vibe. 

“Moving to Manchester allowed us to go form 1,900 to 4,600 square feet.  It allowed us to show more artists and to show larger works.  The viewing vistas for the artwork is so much better. We love it here and so do our clients.” says Klassen. 

She even joked she’d love to see more art-oriented businesses open up so it could become the Manchester Art District – MAD for short.

Indeed, a short drive from Klassen’s takes you to the Alberta Printmaker’s Studio and Gallery at 4025, 4th St. SE.  It moved from its Inglewood space to a very fun yellow façade a funky ‘70s warehouse building that looks like a box of Crayola coloured-crayons. The Studio space is perfect for its 60+ members to make their art and a dedicated exhibition space open to the public. They love the location and the fact that right out their back door is Ukrainian Fine Foods.

 Drying rack at  Alberta Printmaker's Studio . 

Drying rack at Alberta Printmaker's Studio

Klassen’s MAD dream was further enhanced in 2016 when Jarvis Hall Gallery (also a former Beltline gallery) relocated to 333B -6th Ave SE. while not far away from Jarvis Hall is the artisan Banded Peak Brewery (119, 519, 34th Ave S.E.) 

We were sampling late on a Saturday afternoon and the tasting tables were full with people of all ages.  We were told several other small breweries will be opening nearby in the next year.

  Jarvis Hall Gallery 's Peter von Tiesenahausen exhibition 

Jarvis Hall Gallery's Peter von Tiesenahausen exhibition 

   Banded Peak Brewery  growlers. 
  Manchester provides some unique photo opportunities for artists. 

Manchester provides some unique photo opportunities for artists. 

Baker, Butcher, Bootmaker?

While several of Calgary’s younger entrepreneurs are transforming Manchester from a dusty industrial district to fun, funky and quirky quarter, there are still a few old timers. 

The Calgary Italian Bakery, founded by Luigi and Myrl Bontorin in 1962, and one of the largest independent bakeries in Western Canada, has called Manchester home for 20+ years.  There is a popular small deli on site where you can get a fresh and very tasty, made-to-order classic sandwich. (Hot tip: if you go late on a Saturday afternoon there are some good deals to be had for a buck or less.)

Eric Day not only has rented space in Manchester for his Indulge Catering Kitchen for years, but recently also opened up Urban Grub in the old Sidewalk Citizen space (which moved to East Village’s Simmons Building) offering meals to go. 

Manchester is also home to several large corporate buildings.  CANA, one of Calgary’s oldest companies, has its funky bright yellow trimmed office building just off 58th Ave, while ENMAX’s sprawling head office building is on 50th Ave.  Safeway has a 256,000 square foot cold storage facility for meat and produce. 

And tucked away out of sight at 5340- 1st St SW is the contemporary Southern Alberta Eye Centre building.

 Alberta Boot's 2017 collection

Alberta Boot's 2017 collection

Alberta Boot established in 1978 also calls Manchester home.  After 30 years in its Beltline location, it moved to #50, 50th Ave SE.  If you haven’t visited yet, it is a truly hidden gem - part factory, part showroom and part museum.  It is a great place to bring visiting family and friends. 

Did you know they not only make custom boots but also funky men and women’s shoes?   

 

Opps We Got The Wrong Name?

Manchester is also home for 1,332 Calgarians of which a whopping 23% (three times the City’s average) are under the age of 4.  There is a cluster of high-rise apartments near Macleod Trail and 58th Ave, as well as some old cottage homes, many of which have become small cottage businesses.

A huge opportunity for larger scale Transit Oriented Development (TOD) exists next to the 39th Avenue LRT Station, which has to be the most, unfriendly LRT station in North America.  It is almost as if Calgary Transit forgot it is even there.  In fact, it was originally called the 42nd Avenue Station even though it is located at 39th St.

However, it is on the City’s radar and is currently being analyzed to determine how best to capitalize on the opportunity.

 North America's ugliest LRT Station.

North America's ugliest LRT Station.

Bakery District

“Manchester feeds Calgary through its network of warehouses, industrial bakeries, food equipment shops, coffee roasters and some nice restaurant finds such as Alloy and Black Apron, in addition to being home to the Calgary Food Bank” says John Gilchrist, Calgary restaurant critic and food writer. 

In some ways, you could call Manchester “the new Beltline”, given all of the businesses that have relocated from the Beltline to Manchester.  While Manchester might have a Walk Score near zero today, in the future it could become a thriving integrated and diverse retail, restaurant, residential and commercial community.   

Could become Calgary’s equivalent of New York City’s Meatpacking District or San Fran’s Tenderloin District. 

It might even become The Bakery District given it is home to the Calgary Italian Bakery, as well as Safeway and Weston’s bakeries, and numerous commercial kitchens.

Perhaps not in my lifetime!

 

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MBAM: The Human Hand

When I visit an art gallery/museum, I can’t help but look at the exhibition(s) from a curator’s perspective and wonder what would I do differently.  It’s a bit of a case of “once a curator, always a curator,” having organized 100+ exhibitions over 10 years at Calgary’s Muttart Public Art Gallery from 1985 to 1995 (a precursor to what is now Contemporary Calgary). 

Questions?

Upon entering a gallery, my mind immediately starts questioning.  Is there an exhibition theme? What is the curator trying to say to the public? Why did the curator choose these particular works? Why are they hung like they are? Is there a more logical way to group the art?  Why is this work beside that one?

I never read the curator’s statement first (though it is usually on the wall at the entrance to the gallery), as I don’t want to be influenced by his/her thinking.  But often I will read it after I have reviewed the exhibition and then sometimes revisit the artworks to determine how well the art and statement connect.  Does it help me gain new insights about the art and the exhibition? Is the statement public friendly or art gibberish? As I said, “Once a curator, always a curator!”

Especially when visiting large galleries with many exhibitions, I like to make it fun by looking at all the art with one theme in mind. Maybe a colour, brushwork, shadows, faces or architecture – whatever catches my eye first.

Why Hands?

Recently, when at the Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal (MBAM), Canada’s second largest art gallery, (the largest being the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto), I decided to study how hands were portrayed in various artworks from contemporary to traditional, from photography to sculptures.

Backstory: The idea came from a photo I took of the lovely second floor columns of the historic Bourgie Concert Hall, across the street from the MBAM. When I checked the photo, I surprisingly, noticed, a cluster of fingers in the foreground where the head should be of life-size “winged figure” sculpture. 

It was only when working on this blog, that I learned the sculpture by David Altmejd’s titled is titled “The Eye.”  

 

My curatorial statement can be found at the end of the blog for those interested. I should also add that if you are in Montreal, be sure to designate a few hours to visit MBAM. 

Without further adieu, here is my curated exhibition of close-up photos of hands from various artworks on exhibit at MBAM in December 2016. 

Curatorial Statement

The images were chosen to reflect the tremendous range of emotions that can be – and are - portrayed by the human hand - from a sense of innocence to strength and power; from tenderness to love and passion.  The images hopefully also evoke a sense of individuality, human interaction and/or intimacy that strike a cord with everyone's personal experiences. 

The images were also selected to illustrate how different media - from photography to painting and artists have employed different genres from realism to primitivism - for centuries to convey a sense of the human experience. 

And thirdly, images with a strong narrative were chosen in the hope they would spark some thoughtful personal reflection and memories about the viewer's life.    

No artists’ names or artwork titles are included, thereby allowing the viewer to focus on the image and not be distracted or swayed by peripheral information. Ponder the hands based on your own experiences and ideas to create your own meaning and significance for each image and for the exhibition as a whole.

Ideally, in doing so you will have gained a new appreciation for the “human hand” both in art and in everyday life. 

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