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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 9.27.24 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 8.43.27 PM.png

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

Richard Florida: I was wrong!

When Richard Florida, the 21st century urban guru, speaks lots of people listen. Ears really perked up when Florida admitted, “I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities, become a new middle class like my father’s and were going to live happily forever after.  I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.”  (Houston Chronicle, Oct 24, 2016).

Staging area for POW! Parade of Wonders at Eau Claire.

Jane Jacobs Revisited

Back in 2000, Florida published his first book “The Rise of the Creative Class” and immediately became a media star with his mantra, “if your city is attractive to the creative class, they will come.”

He quickly converted many urban planners and politicians to his dogma, which, in many ways, was just a reworking of Jane Jacobs’ key messages about the importance of bohemia and small-scale development in her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

  Tim Williams and friends at the Blues Can in Inglewood, one of Canada's best communities. 

Tim Williams and friends at the Blues Can in Inglewood, one of Canada's best communities. 

Creative Class 101

Florida hypothesized a key paradigm shift in the employee/employer relationship was happening - no longer would workers move to where the jobs are, but rather employers will move to where employees want to live. He preached that if a city wanted new businesses to locate in their city, all they had to do was create a city where the creative class wanted to play, live and then work.

The creative class was a broad term that included software, computer game and app developers, 3D computer artists as well as painters and sculptors.  It also included architects, interior designers, graphic artists, actors, musicians, writers, chiefs, film and video makers. 

His research included creating indexes to measure a city’s attractiveness to the creative class – Talent, Technology, Bohemian, Mosaic, Gay (today, that would be the LGBT Index), and Tolerance Indices.

Container Bar in Calgary's Kensington district.

If you build it, they will come...

Florida’s research documented the creative class wanted things like a vibrant festivals, music and café culture. They also love places - to skateboard, play disc golf, fly a kite, bike ride, roller blade or just hang out.

Today, Florida, a University of Toronto professor admits appealing to the creative class won’t work for every city.  In fact, it will only work for a few.  And to add insult to injury where it has succeeded (Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Washington), it has resulted in skyrocketing house prices to the point where only the highly paid can live. 

Indeed, appealing to the creative class actually became a catalyst for gentrification not diversification and vitalization.

Ship & Anchor patio in March. 

Creative Class Loves Calgary?

At the turn of this century, Calgary’s City Centre had many of the ingredients Florida identified as those appealing to the creative class. We had great urban parks and pathways – Prince’s Island, Shaw Millennium Park and an extensive river pathway system.  Calgary’s construction of the world’s largest skateboard park in 2000 is exactly what Florida would have recommended to attract the creative class.

We also had a small but vibrant live music scene and a local café culture.  Our festival scene was taking off with the likes of SLED Island and our International

Film Festival and Underground Film Festivals.  We also had fun theatre festivals like the High Performance Rodeo, Animated Objects (puppet) and One Act Play festivals. In addition, Calgary’s cuisine scene was sizzling with the opening of Laurier Lounge, The Living Room and numerous sushi restaurants.  

The growth of Calgary’s cosplay festival (Calgary Expo) over the past 10 years into Canada’s second largest and our Pride Parade from a few thousand people to over 60,000 is evidence Calgary has been successful in attracting the creative class to our city.

However, Calgary’s creative class is unique as it is dominated by a strong GABEsters culture i.e. geologists, accountants, brokers, bankers and engineers.  Indeed, for the past 50 years, Calgary has attracted the cream of the crop of new GABEsters from universities across Canada and beyond to work in the oil patch.

Call them whatever you want young professionals began to revitalize the Beltline, Kensington, Bridgeland and Inglewood 20 years ago.  And it is still continuing today even with the downtown in the economy.  Places like Bridgeland’s

Luke’s Mart, Cannibale Barbershop & Cocktails and Bridgett Bar in the Beltline make Calgary’s City Centre very attractive to young hipsters. 

A big bonus for all of these communities is they are within easy walking and cycling distance to downtown, which even with all the vacancies has more occupied office space than Austin, Portland or Vancouver. 

Fortunately, Calgary seems to have the best of both worlds. We have been able to attract the creative class, while avoiding the skyrocketing City Centre home prices plaguing places like Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco.  

Bridgeland has been evolving for the past 10+ years into a very attractive place for the creative class to live and play with work just a short walk or bike ride away in downtown.

New Urban Crisis

In 2017, Florida will be published his new book “The New Urban Crisis” which will address affordable housing shortages in gentrified districts, need to link suburbs to inner city with mass transit and need to raise wages of service workers so the can afford to live near the City Centre where their jobs are.

Again, Calgary appears to be ahead of Florida with numerous affordable inner city housing programs (Attainable Homes) and several new mass transit programs linking the suburbs to the City Centre – Green Line, SW and Forest Lawn BRT.

Future map of Calgary's rapid transit routes.

Last Word

Despite all our faults, Calgary has perhaps the most diverse, attractive and affordable collection of urban and suburban communities in North America.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday, March 24, 2017 titled "Richard Florida could take a page from Calgary's urban songbook."

If you like this blog, you will like:

Beltline: North America's best hipster village?

Calgary: North America's Newest Cafe City

Cowtown: The GABEster Capital of North America

 

Calgary = Austin, Portland, Nashville, Denver or Seattle

For decades Canadian cities have stood-in for American cities in movies. That soon may be true for tourists too. 

Recently, MetroNews published a piece looking at what Canadian cities tourists might consider visiting this year rather than American cities given the turmoil south of the border these days.

 Calgary's Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour is packed with people strolling the pedestrian mall. It is lined with shops, restaurants, vendors and patios.  (photo credit: Jeff Trost)

Calgary's Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour is packed with people strolling the pedestrian mall. It is lined with shops, restaurants, vendors and patios.  (photo credit: Jeff Trost)

  The Core shopping centre links Calgary's historic Hudson Bay department store with the flagship Holt Renfew fashion center.

The Core shopping centre links Calgary's historic Hudson Bay department store with the flagship Holt Renfew fashion center.

While MetroNews picked off the obvious ones i.e. if you want to go to San Francisco go to Vancouver. If you are thinking Chicago, think Toronto. If thinking Washington Ottawa would be a good alternative. And Quebec City is Canada’s equivalent to New Orleans while Halifax is our Boston. 

However, given my travel experience, I thought I’d share my suggestions that might not be so obvious.

Link: Don’t want to travel to the U.S. Visit these Canadian cities instead

  You never know what you might encounter on Calgary's the River Walk in East Village. 

You never know what you might encounter on Calgary's the River Walk in East Village. 

 Yes, Calgary has funky salvage yards (Ramsay) and flea markets (Hillhurst) for the urban scavenger. 

Yes, Calgary has funky salvage yards (Ramsay) and flea markets (Hillhurst) for the urban scavenger. 

  One measure of a cool city is how fun are their window displays. 

One measure of a cool city is how fun are their window displays. 

  When in Calgary, shop where Cher shops when she is in town. 

When in Calgary, shop where Cher shops when she is in town. 

Calgary 

If you are considering a trip to Austin, Portland, Nashville, Denver or Seattle might want to consider Calgary (you could add in Dallas and Houston, but that seems too obvious).  Politics aside, dollar-wise, a Canadian destination makes good sense.

Like Austin, Calgary’s vibrant City Centre with has lots of shops, café and restaurants and funky urban streets. While Austin’s outdoor playground is Ladybird Lake, Calgary’s is its two pristine rivers that form the hub for its 700+km of pathways and 5,200 parks. Yes, bring your bike, as this year will see the completion of the 138 km Rotary/Mattamy Greenway, a multi-use pathway that circles the city. Walking, running or cycling along the Bow River through downtown is the quintessential Calgary experience. 

 Calgarians love to get out and enjoy their 325 days of sunshine. Downtown's Calatrava Peace Bridge is a popular spot. 

Calgarians love to get out and enjoy their 325 days of sunshine. Downtown's Calatrava Peace Bridge is a popular spot. 

  Calgary's Elbow River is a popular padding, rafting and swimming spot.  

Calgary's Elbow River is a popular padding, rafting and swimming spot. 

  Further along the Elbow River locals enjoy the grass beach at Stanley Park. 

Further along the Elbow River locals enjoy the grass beach at Stanley Park. 

  St. Patrick's Island Park is Calgary newest urban playground.

St. Patrick's Island Park is Calgary newest urban playground.

Hipsters vs GABEsters

While Austin and Portland are known for its known for their hipster hang-outs, Calgary is a mecca for GABEsters (young geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers) who love to play just as hard as they work. You will want to check out places like Bridgeland’s Cannibales - barbershop, cocktail bar, sandwich shop. 

Link: Calgary & Austin: Sister Cities?

  Even in the winter, Calgary's GABEsters like chill-out 17th Avenue's patios.  This photo was taken in mid-March at the Ship & Anchor which is perhaps the heart of Calgary's hipster community. 

Even in the winter, Calgary's GABEsters like chill-out 17th Avenue's patios.  This photo was taken in mid-March at the Ship & Anchor which is perhaps the heart of Calgary's hipster community. 

  Calgary has one of the largest cosplay festivals in Canada, including a fun parade through the streets of downtown. 

Calgary has one of the largest cosplay festivals in Canada, including a fun parade through the streets of downtown. 

Music Cities

While both Austin and Nashville boast world-class music scenes, Calgary is on the cusp of becoming a very interesting music city.  The new mega National Music Centre museum is a must-see – one of the world’s largest collection of keyboard instruments including Elton John’s piano. for anyone interested in the history of Canadian Music.  Calgary’s boasts two lively Saturday afternoon blues jams- one at Mikey’s Juke Joint and one at Blues Can – both happen at 3 pm. Plan your visit properly you can attend Ironwood’s Big Band brunch. (Learn more about Calgary’s Big Band scene)

Link: Calgary: A Big Band Haven

Calgary’s year-round music festival includes Sled Island Music & Arts Festival, X-fest, Country Thunder, Calgary International Folk Festival, Calgary International Blues Festival, One Love Music Festival (Western Canada’s largest hip-hop festival), ReggaeFest, and Honens International Piano Competition just to name a few.  

Plan carefully and you won’t be disappointed.

 Calgary is home to dozens of live music venues along its Music Mile. 

Calgary is home to dozens of live music venues along its Music Mile. 

 Calgary's International Folk Festival on Prince's Island lets you get up close and personal with the performers. 

Calgary's International Folk Festival on Prince's Island lets you get up close and personal with the performers. 

  Calgary International Folk Festival's Main Stage on the lovely Prince's Island. 

Calgary International Folk Festival's Main Stage on the lovely Prince's Island. 

Urban Villages

While Portland is the darling of many urban planners, Calgary actually has as much or more to offer when it comes to quirky urban villages. While Portland its Pearl District, Calgary has Kensington, Mission, Bridgeland, Inglewood, 17th Ave and the Beltline (perhaps the hipster capital of North America?). 

Denver has its popular 16th Street Mall, while Calgary has Stephen Avenue Walk that is lined with shops, restaurants and patios.  It is home to the historic Hudson Bay store (Canada’s iconic department store), the Core shopping centre, a flagship Holt Renfrew store and the Glenbow Museum.

Like Denver, Calgary’s City Centre is also home to 100+ public artworks; they are literally everywhere – from parks to plazas, from pathways to office lobbies. 

Link: Calgary vs Denver: Two Thriving City Centres

 Jaume Plensa's "Wonderland" sculpture of a young girl's head allows you to walk inside and see Calgary's urban landscape from a unique perspective.

Jaume Plensa's "Wonderland" sculpture of a young girl's head allows you to walk inside and see Calgary's urban landscape from a unique perspective.

  Calgary is home to several street artists.  

Calgary is home to several street artists. 

  Calgary's City Centre is full of lovely public art, parks and plazas each with their own character and charm. 

Calgary's City Centre is full of lovely public art, parks and plazas each with their own character and charm. 

 We like to put the PUBLIC into our public art. 

We like to put the PUBLIC into our public art. 

Our Tower Is Taller

If you like Seattle for its tower, the Calgary Tower is taller.  If you like Seattle for MoPOP (Museum of Pop Culture), Calgary has the aforementioned National Music Centre, which by the way was designed by a Portland architect. Heritage Posters and Music if you are into collectables or Recordland if into vinyl.

If you like coffee and café culture, Calgary is a hidden gem with a number of local roasteries and independent cafes. Maybe start with Monogram Coffee, co-founder Benjamin Put placed third in the World Barista Championship (2016 and 2015).

You will also want to check out Phil & Sebastians in the Simmons Building in East Village.

 Purple Perk has been a popular coffee house in Mission for years.

Purple Perk has been a popular coffee house in Mission for years.

  Cafe Beano is popular with both the artists and GABEsters.

Cafe Beano is popular with both the artists and GABEsters.

 The Oak Tree's patio is a popular chill spot in Kensington Village.

The Oak Tree's patio is a popular chill spot in Kensington Village.

Food Fun

Calgary like Seattle, Portland and Austin is becoming a culinary destination with the several of the best new Canadian restaurants opening over the past 10 years. 

In fact, Chef Jinhee Lee recently won the 2017 Canadian Culinary Championship. And not only is the food good but so are the settings – Calgary Tower with a revolving restaurant offers up spectacular, city, prairie and mountain views with fine dining.

Or you can dine in the 100+ year Deane House downtown or the majestic Bow Valley Ranch in Fish Creek Park (one of the largest urban parks in the world.)  River Café on an island downtown in the middle of the Bow River offer some of the best Rocky Mountain cuisine anywhere.

Link: Calgary: Eat Like A Local

 10 restaurants, 7 courses and 280 people enjoy dinner on Stephen Avenue's really really really long table. 

10 restaurants, 7 courses and 280 people enjoy dinner on Stephen Avenue's really really really long table. 

  A typical lunch on Stephen Avenue Walk

A typical lunch on Stephen Avenue Walk

Best & Biggest Parks

Yes Calgary also boasts some of the best and biggest parks in North America including one of the world’s largest public skateboard parks. 

And the Calgary Zoo located on a downtown island in the Bow River (one of the best fly fishing rivers in the world) is simply bucolic.

 On Sunday our fishermen like to get dressed-up.  

On Sunday our fishermen like to get dressed-up.  

 The Eau Claire Promenade is a strollers paradise. 

The Eau Claire Promenade is a strollers paradise. 

It is also home to some amazing used bookstores, one of North America's largest performing arts centers and one of Canada's largest history/art museums - Enough said? 

Link: Tourism Calgary

Last Word

Stay tuned… the next blog will look at how visits to Canadian cities like Winnipeg and Edmonton compare to Chicago and New Orleans.

Editor's Note: All of the photos in this blog were taken within 3 km of downtown. 

If you like this blog, you will like:

Calgary's Rail Trail Stroll

Calgary: Off The Beaten Path

Calgary: The GABEster Capital of North America