Public Art Galleries: To Charge Or Not To Charge? 

Until recently, Regina’s Mackenzie Art Gallery was the only major public art gallery in Western Canada to offer free admission - to everyone, all the time. But starting June 10th 2019, it too started start charging - a $10 admission for non-members over the age of 17. 

Deborah Rush, Director of Communications at the Mackenzie informed me the primary reason for moving to a mandatory admission fee rather than by donation (pay what you wish) as had been the case prior, was NOT to generate more revenue, but to promote and increase memberships. Their goal is to double their membership to about 800, which will give them a stronger base to gather visitor feedback on existing and future programming.  

Memberships are $30 (individuals) and $55 (doubles).  This gets you unlimited visits to 10 exhibitions per year, as well as to numerous events (e.g. exhibition openings, artists’ and curators’ talks). 

They are lined up out the door and down the street on Tuesdays afternoons waiting for 5 pm when admission is by donation.

They are lined up out the door and down the street on Tuesdays afternoons waiting for 5 pm when admission is by donation.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum is packed on Free First Thursday nights.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum is packed on Free First Thursday nights.

Mandatory vs Donation vs Free

Admission and membership fees to Western Canadian public galleries are all over the map. This  shouldn’t be surprising given each has a different funding structure and offers members a different number of exhibitions, programs and amenities. I’ll spare you a cost per square foot or per exhibition analysis of admission fees and memberships across Western Canada.

Some would argue any institution receiving public funding should offer free access to the public on a regular basis.  Others would argue that if you make it free, you devalue the experience.  Surely, there must be a happy middle ground.

For Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, the middle ground is offering free admission to everyone the First Thursdays of each month from 5 to 9 pm.  While this token effort is appreciated, it is very restrictive and isn’t very family-friendly. Why not offer a free Saturday or Sunday per month in addition to an evening?   

The Glenbow’s free nights (sponsored by Servus Credit Union) attract, on average, 3,000+ people, making it the busiest day of the month and documenting there is a pent up demand to visit the museum if the price is right.  

The Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta offers free access EVERY Thursday from 5 to 8 pm, while the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria offers free access all day the first Tuesday of every month, as well as complimentary admission to indigenous people at all times. In Saskatoon, the Remai Modern’s main floor gallery is always free and Rawlco Radio Ltd. sponsors free admission six times a year. Surprisingly, the Winnipeg Art Gallery doesn’t offer any weekly or monthly free admission to the public. 

The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has the most liberal free public access of any Western Canadian public gallery. It offers admission by donation every Tuesday (from 4 to 9 pm), as well as the first Monday of every month to seniors 65+ from 10 am to 1 pm. While technically you can get in free, you must go to the admission desk to get a ticket. No just dropping your money in the donation box when you enter or exit the galleries. It is difficult to give nothing when everyone else is donating.  While the suggested donation is $10, you can give a little or as much as you wish.  I saw people giving loonies and twonies, but most people were giving $5 per person.

The VAG’s “by donation” program is a huge success with line-ups out the door and down the block most Tuesdays evenings - even in the rain. What does this tell VAG gallery administration? It tells me the regular admission price of $24 for an adult and $20 for a senior is too high and $5 is probably closer to the right amount. 

When I emailed VAG media relations re: how long the Tuesday admission by donation has been happening, they said “at least 12 years, but nobody knew for sure.” When I asked how much in total visitors donated on Tuesday nights and Monday mornings compared to other days of the week and what the average donation was, I was told “we do not share this information at this time.”  

Obviously, the whole free/donate vs paid admission is a sensitive subject for gallery administration. The popularity of the “free or donation admission” programs demonstrates the existing fee structure is a barrier to public visitation. 

Admission fees are a critical source of revenue. The Glenbow generated a million dollars in admission fees in 2018, which represented about 12% of its annual revenues.  VAG, with its huge tourist population, generates over $3 million in admissions (or about 25% of its annual revenues).  This revenue would be difficult to replace.  

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VAG patron checks out the art on Seniors’ Day.

VAG patron checks out the art on Seniors’ Day.

Not every First Thursday at the Glenbow is packed.

Not every First Thursday at the Glenbow is packed.

Festival Experience

In chatting with VAG’s gift shop staff on a Tuesday night (where the line-up was too long for me to wait to get in), they thought people liked the lively festival atmosphere the gallery has on donation nights, when it is full of people who animate the galleries, rather than the sombre atmosphere of the gallery most days.  

An experienced gallery patron (who prefers to remain anonymous) thinks having only a few free/donation nights creates a sense of urgency to go to the Gallery on those nights.  He thought you would lose the “thrill of the deal” if you have multiple free/donation nights/days. 

Zoltan Varadi, Communications Specialist at the Glenbow told me many people come on Free Thursdays but can’t get in to see the blockbuster exhibition so they return another time, paying full admission and often bringing family members or friends with them.  I think they call that a “loss leader” in the retail world. 

The Glenbow’s galleries take on a different feel on First Thursdays with lots of people milling about.

The Glenbow’s galleries take on a different feel on First Thursdays with lots of people milling about.

New York vs Toronto

Western Canadian public art galleries are not alone in this mandatory fee vs donation admission debate. Major museums like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art moved to mandatory admission fees in 2018 after 48 years of a “pay what you wish,” policy, i.e. donation. 

In early May, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced a mega change to its mandatory admission fee policy – anyone 25 or younger now gets in FREE while anyone over 25 can purchase an annual pass for $35 which includes unlimited access to the galleries and special exhibitions.  It is important to note the annual pass doesn’t include other membership benefits like free coat check, discounts at the café and gift shop or early access to the exhibitions.  

It will be interesting to see how many of AGO’s current 100,000 members (more than all of the Western Canadian public art galleries combined) will opt to keep their individual memberships ($110/yr. vs the new $35 pass).

As well, the AGO is free every Wednesday night (from 6 to 9 pm) for collections galleries only with discounted admission fees to the special exhibition galleries and they offer complimentary general admission to all Indigenous Peoples. 

Last Word

I can’t help but wonder, “Is there a sweet spot where art galleries can maximize their number of visitors and their admission revenues?”  I realize there is no “one admission policy fits all.” 

Personally, I like the “admission-by-donation” policy. I don’t think admission should ever be free.  I also think there should be a minimum of one evening and one weekend day per month where admission is by donation.  

Note: An edited version of this blog was published on line by Galleries West Magazine.

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

Glenbow’s Fabulous Free First Thursdays

Montreal Museum of Fine: The Human Hand

SAKS: Department store or art gallery

Road Trip: Postcards From Alberta's Badlands & Ghost Towns

This summer we decided to explore some of the off-the-beaten path places in southern Alberta. Our first adventure was to Drumheller (where we haven’t been for decades) and to some of the small town “main streets” along the way, as well as the Badlands.  

This road trip strengthen our resolve to think outside the “city.”

Public Art?

Public Art?

More public art?

More public art?

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

Everybody loves a train ride!

Everybody loves a train ride!

First Stop: Irricana (population 1,216) 

Its name is a contraction of the words “irrigation canals” which are found in the area.  Settlement dates back to 1909 and it was incorporated as a village on June 9, 1911, by which time it had a post office, hotel and general store operated by the Irricana Trading Company.  Today, though the store’s building is still standing, is abandoned and much of the Main Street consists of vacant lots making it look like a ghost-town. While there are some attempts to add some colour and charm with murals, it seems a bit futile.  

However, just outside of town on the highway #9, sits a fun installation of farm equipment mounted high up on posts promoting, Pioneer Acres, where I am told you will find a dozen buildings filled with unique exhibits and artifacts from the early prairie pioneers.  Too bad those buildings weren’t located in the town along Main Street. 

Link:Pioneer Acres https://www.pioneeracres.ab.ca

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

Main Street Irricana.

Main Street Irricana.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

Second Stop:  Beiseker (population 819) 

Lying in a belt of rich black soil, Beiseker was developed as an agricultural service centre. It was founded by the Calgary Colonization Company, whose purpose was to promote settlement by demonstrating the grain-growing potential of the area. The village is named after Thomas Beiseker, a partner and vice president of the company. The surrounding area became known as "World Wheat King Capital" because of its ability to grow wheat. Today, a  small park at the end of main street tells the history of the town. It even has a tiny sod house that you can explore. 

The village began to grow in 1910 when the branch line of the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. The Grand Trunk Pacific line - now owned by Canadian National Railway - was constructed in 1912 to the east of the central business district

With the construction and intersection of Highways 9, 72 and 806 being at the northeast edge of the village, Beiseker came to have a very favourable location in terms of road and rail access. Almost equidistant from Calgary and Drumheller, Beiseker began to emerge as a local service and trade centre for the surrounding rural agricultural area. 

Beiseker currently serves as a centre for local agricultural services including fertilizer, seed cleaning, and soil testing. There is a local UFA outlet, and a Canadian Malting Co. grain elevator serving farmers in the area. Local industries serve the oil patch.  

It is also home to the Canadian office of Lampson International, a large international company specializing in construction cranes and a biomedical incinerator which handles medical waste from hospitals in Alberta, Canada and internationally.  

Not unlike Irricana, wandering Beisker’s main street on a Saturday morning was akin to walking in a ghost town -  nobody on the streets, lots of the main street buildings are gone and those that remain look like they are struggling to survive.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the fun factor…

Love the fun factor…

Third Stop: Horseshoe Canyon Park 

 While not the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Canyon sits just off Hwy 9, 17 km west of Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands. It is an eye-popping sight. Stand at the edge of this huge U-shaped canyon and try to imagine what it was like when the dinosaurs roamed a lush sub-tropical habitat some 70 million years ago. Today, marked trails guide your wandering down into the canyon to get a closer look at the different soils, rock formations and plants. There are even helicopter rides available on-site.  The park is free and there is lots of free parking. 

Horseshoe Canyon

Horseshoe Canyon

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Fourth Stop: Drumheller (population 7,982)

When we first moved to Alberta in the early ‘80s, Drumheller was best known as the home of the Drumheller Institution (aka prison). Opened in 1967 as a medium security facility, a minimum security facility was added in 1997. Today, it has a capacity of 704 (582 medium security and 122 minimum security). The Institution provides a stable economic and employment base for Drumheller and surrounding area. 

In the late 1980s, Drumheller became famous as a center for dinosaur tourism and research with the opening of the Tyrell Museum in 1985 (it subsequently received “Royal” status in 1990.  Located 6 km northwest from Drumheller, the museum is situated in the middle of the fossil-bearing strata of the Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formationand holds 130,000 fossil specimens from the Alberta badlands, Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Devil's Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site.  In the first year it attracted over 500,000 visitors from over 100 countries. Today, it averages about 350,000 visitors annually. 

We opted to skip the museum (a new exhibition had just opened and it was a zoo) to flaneur downtown Drumheller. To our pleasant surprise, the downtown has several charming shops, restaurants - even a Saturday farmers’ market.  What impressed us most is how the city has capitalized on the dinosaur theme with fun creatures at every downtown corner making for great photo ops. We encounter several families exploring the downtown taking photos of the kids with the dinosaurs.

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

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Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

 Fifth Stop: Wayne (population 40)

Wayne, located 10 km southeast of Drumheller was once a thriving coal mining town whose population is estimated to have reached a high of 10,000 in 1932. The last mine closed in 1957 and today it is home to about 40 diehard souls. Half the fun of visiting Wayne is navigating a winding road with 11 (no word of a lie)  one-lane bridges along a moon-like landscape to get there. 

In its heyday, Wayne had a school, hospital, hotel, theatre and several stores along its main street.  Today, all that remains is the Rosedeer Hotel which surprisingly still operates as a hotel and its Last Chance Saloon, now a popular watering hole for touring motorcycle groups.  The hotel has only 6 rooms, each with a different theme – Titanic, Golf, Harley, Miners, Honeymoon and Music Room.  

The Saloon often has live music and hosts the annual WayneStock music festival (this year’s festival is from August 30 to Sept 2, 2019).  While we were there the Maybellines were playing the afternoon set – it was magical. 

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Sixth Stop: East Coulee (population 148) 

We “passed” on stopping at the Hoodoos Park just east of Drumheller and proceeded directly to East Coulee and the Atlas Coal mine (a national historic site) site 16 km east of Drumheller. Once home to about 3,000 residents, its heyday was between 1920s and 1950s when, like Wayne, the coal mines were excavating hundreds of thousands of tons of coal.  Today, the old school has been converted into a museum which also hosts an annual spring music festival “SpringFest.”  Unfortunately we arrived just after 5 pm too late to get into the museum. 

The streets of East Coulee are lined with huge trees, giving it an oasis-like feeling compared to the barren surrounding landscape. The tiny miners’ homes are a reminder of how early pioneers lived in modest small homes, each probably housed six or more people.

Nothing is left of its main street except one large building that has been converted into a studio for the manufacturing of dinosaur-related items for museums, movie studios, parades and theme parks.  There is also a small gift shop with a lovely garden.  

Just across the river from East Coulee is The Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site that operated from 1936 to 1979. It is the most complete historic coal mine in Canada and is home to the country's last standing wooden coal tipple. In fact, it’s  the largest still standing in North America. Designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1989, it achieved  National Historic Site of Canada status in 2002. 

Various guided tour options exist. You can take a train ride through the site, walk up the tipple or tour the 210 foot underground conveyor tunnel. The facilities are open to visitors from May to Thanksgiving weekend. 

With not enough time to do a tour (we arrived 20 minutes before closing) we instead walked up the dead end road west of the parking lot where we had heard there was an art installation.  Sure enough, at the end of the road, stood dozens of five foot tall tree limbs with alien head-like nobs stuck in the ground with rock piles at their base to help them stay standing. Many of the limbs had various small trinkets hanging or sitting on them, creating a somber, graveyard sense of place.  There is no markings or signs indicating who did them, why there are there, which only adds to the mystique. 

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

All aboard….

All aboard….

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

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Atlas Coal mine site

Atlas Coal mine site

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

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Loved this coal dust sand box….

Loved this coal dust sand box….

Public Art?

Public Art?

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Seventh Stop: Rosebud (population 87) 

It was founded in the 1885 by James Wishart, while following the Gleichen Trail with his family on their way to Montana. Arriving in the dark, they awoke the next  morning to discover the river valley covered by wild roses- Alberta’s official flower. Wishart then reportedly said, "Here's the promised land; we go no further." 

The beauty of the valley has attracted many people throughout the years, from nature lovers to artists. Notable Canadian artists A. Y. Jackson and H. G. Glyde, members of the Group of Seven, spent the summer of 1944 painting in the area. 

 Over the years, farming and coal mining have been the primary industries. In 1972, the Severn Creek School was shut down as part of an Alberta-wide education consolidating process, forcing local children to be bussed to Standard and Drumheller.  This resulted in the closure of  many local businesses and the hamlet population dropping to under a dozen people. 

But at Easter 1973, a group of young adults from Calgary brought about 40 teenagers out and camped in the then empty mercantile building. This pilot event initially evolved into a summer camp funded by a grant from the Alberta government and then later, Rosebud Camp of the Arts supported by Crescent Heights Baptist Church in Calgary. 

In 1977, a high school was founded using the old buildings of the town as classrooms and emphasizing practical visual, music and the performing arts in its curriculum. In the 1980s, Rosebud School of the Arts began to operate theatre, which eventually developed into Rosebud Theatre and the school shifted its emphasis to post-secondary education. 

Today, Rosebud Theatre runs as a fully professional company that offers programming year round and is a tourist attraction drawing patrons largely from Calgary and Drumheller.  It has a few shops, an art gallery and an excellent museum along its two main streets.  There were probably a dozen people wandering the streets while we were there. There are even an inn and bed & breakfast accommodations for those not wanting to drive home after the theatre. 

While tourism might save Rosebud, it can’t save every small town and village in Alberta. 

Link: Rosebud Theatre 

Link: The Hamlet of Rosebud 

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The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

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In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

Lesson Learned

On our way home, we chatted about how this road trip was a good reminder of how Alberta and the prairies have evolved over thousands of years from roaming dinosaurs, to nomadic indigenous people, to agricultural and resource pioneers (first coal, then oil and gas), to today’s corporate farming and resource development.  

It is good for us city folks to get out and explore the real towns and villages (not just the tourist attractions and tourist towns - aka Banff and Canmore) to get a better perspective of the world we share.  While much of the media attention these days is about the urbanization of Canada and decline of rural living, there are still a significant number of people living in rural Alberta communities - 656,048 according to 2016 Census of Canada.

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

Flaneuring Fun In Maple Creek

Delacour: Ghost Town or Golf Town

Meeting Creek: Ghost Town Could Be Art Town

Window Licking Fun In Vancouver

Those of you who are regular readers of the Everyday Tourist blogs will know I love taking photos of urban street life in storefront windows. For me, it is the best format for “street photography” as I can be incognito.

I use the term “window licking” because it sounds a bit weird and fun at the same time. The term is from the French words for window shopping, which when translated literally into English is “window licking.”

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Window Licking History

“The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw an evolution in shopping spurred by a faster turnover of manufactured "fashionable" goods and an increase in department stores selling them. These shops pioneered new techniques of window display. Rather than piling their stock up - as had been common in markets and bazaars - they sold goods in mannered and self-conscious window displays, intended to sell nonessential goods.”

Link: Window Displays


There was a time when department stores would have full-time window dressers who like curators at a public art galleries, would research and carefully plan seasonal window displays to capture the pubilic’s imagination. To “wow” them to come into the store. This is still the case in fashion centres like New York, Paris, London and Milan, but not so much in places like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg or Hamilton.

Selfridges in London has perhaps the most iconic storefront windows. Harry Selfridge the founder of one of the world’s signature department stores was adamant when designing his store in 1909 that it must have large windows facing the street. He even brought with him a widow dresser from the American department store Marshall Field’s which was noted for their window displays. Many of the early episodes of the TV show Mr. Selfridge focus on the importance of the windows as a means of attracting people into the store and the important role of the “window dresser” as part of the stores branding.

Today the use of street windows as a key marketing and sales tool has been forgotten by most retailers. As a result most “Main Street” experiences aren’t as much fun as they use to be.

Great cities are often defined by their great shopping or “High” streets. Places where the sidewalks are animated with people coming and going. Places, where the windows are carefully curated with art gallery-like exhibitions of objects. They can make a street become a tourist attraction.

Link: Video Selfridges Christmas window

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Vancouver Window Licking

I was pleasantly surprised to find the art of window dressing still very much alive in Vancouver, especially in the high end fashion shops along and near Alberni Street.

Link: Retailers Continue to descend on Vancouver’s Luxury Zone.

However, it wasn’t only Alberni Street. I found fun windows wherever I went from Strathcona to South Granville. Sure many of them were in upscale shops, but some of the more unique ones were in off the beaten path places like the BC Stamp Works. I found great windows in local grocery stores, as well as the Army & Navy store in New West.

Here are some of my favourite Vancouver windows….

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Last Word

In my opinion, cities today are placing too much attention (and money) on the design of the streetscape as a means of attracting people to their shopping streets. If landlords and retailer want to attract more people to visit their shops they would be far better off hiring a professional window dresser to create fun, funky and quirky windows on a regular basis - at least quarterly if not monthly.

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Window Licking in Paris

Window Licking in Chicago

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Calgary: 59+ Free Fun Things To See & Do

Every travel blogger must have a list of fun things to see and do in his/her home town.  I can’t believe I haven’t done a list before.  Better late than never, right? 

Here are my picks for FREE things to see and do with links to websites and blogs that will give you more details. I have tried to make sure the information is correct at the time of posting (May 2019) but always best to check their website before you go.  

Note: This is not a complete list of free things, but just some of the ones I know and like.  If you have others, let me know and I will add to the list.  I am short on free things to do in the suburbs as I don’t frequent those communities as often as perhaps I should.

Tourists love Calgary’s parks, plazas, public art, markets, streets, museums, art galleries, trails, pathways, promenades, rivers etc etc…..

Tourists love Calgary’s parks, plazas, public art, markets, streets, museums, art galleries, trails, pathways, promenades, rivers etc etc…..

Free Gardens

Calgary has two rock gardens to wander – Reader and Senator Patrick Burns.  The Botanical Gardens of Silver Springs (totally a community volunteer initiative) and the historic Beaulieu Gardens at Lougheed House are both delightful places to wander. Best to visit these outdoor gardens from May to September. 

Calgary’s downtown boasts two lovely indoor gardens that can be enjoyed year round – Devonian Gardens (fourth floor of The Core shopping centre) and Jamieson Place’s winter garden.

Link: Postcard from Reader Rock Garden

Link: Stop and smell the flowers in Silver Springs 

In the summer, Olympic Plaza becomes Olympic Gardens with beautiful hanging baskets, trees and other ornamentation.

In the summer, Olympic Plaza becomes Olympic Gardens with beautiful hanging baskets, trees and other ornamentation.

Historic Beaulieu Gardens at Lougheed House

Historic Beaulieu Gardens at Lougheed House

Reader Rock Garden

Reader Rock Garden

Silver Springs Botanical Garden labyrinth

Silver Springs Botanical Garden labyrinth

Devonian Gardens

Devonian Gardens

Jamieson Place’s winter garden with three David Chihuly glass sculpture, infinity ponds and living wall.

Jamieson Place’s winter garden with three David Chihuly glass sculpture, infinity ponds and living wall.

Free Museums

The YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretive Centre is fun for everyone, with educational exhibits including The Forensic Lab, True Crime Stories, as well as Alberta’s largest collection of policing artifacts – uniforms, weapons and vehicles.  

At the Grain Academy & Museum (open Monday to Friday), learn about how the prairies were settled, early pioneer life and see the world’s largest model train display showing the movement of grain from the prairies to the terminals at Vancouver. 

In the lobby of their ATCO building at 11th Ave and 8th St SW is a mini museum with artifacts from the power industry.  Both Smithbilt Hats and Alberta Boots Company have a flagship stores that double as museums with lots of artifacts. 

And the Glenbow Museum is free the first Thursday of every month after 5 pm. 

Link: Police Interpretive Centre

Link: Grain Academy & Museum

YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretive Centre

YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretive Centre

Glenbow Museum Free First Thursday Nights

Glenbow Museum Free First Thursday Nights

Grain Academy at Stampede Park

Grain Academy at Stampede Park

Free Walks in the Parks

While New York City has Central Park, Calgary has two huge parks – Nose Hill Park in the north and Fish Creek Park in the south.  Nose Hill, a natural prairie grassland park, offers spectacular 360 degree views of the prairies, city, foothills and mountains.  Fish Creek Provincial Park offers walks in a natural forest setting along a trickling creek.  These are just two of the over 5,000 parks in Calgary. 

Downtown’s Prince’s Island Park includes a small sculpture park, as well as the Chevron Learning Pathway (an innovative urban wetland environment) and fun children’s playground.  

Just a few kilometers from the City Centre is the Douglas Fir trail up the Bow River escarpment. This is the furthest east where Douglas Fir trees grow - truly a forest in the middle of the city.

The Inglewood Bird Sanctuary is a fun place to wander and see what birds, fish and mammals you can spot.  There is even a fishing pond for kids. A short walk away lies Harvie Passage where you might catch kayakers shooting the Bow River rapids. 

Link: Edmonton vs Calgary: Who has the best river valley parks?

Link: Inglewood Bird Sanctuary

Inglewood Bird Sanctuary’s fishing pond. You can easily see the trout you are trying to catch.

Inglewood Bird Sanctuary’s fishing pond. You can easily see the trout you are trying to catch.

Harvie Passage fun

Harvie Passage fun

Douglas Fir Trail (photo credit: Hiking with Barry)

Douglas Fir Trail (photo credit: Hiking with Barry)

Prince’s Island sculpture park

Prince’s Island sculpture park

Calgary has over 5,000 parks offering lots of fun walks.

Calgary has over 5,000 parks offering lots of fun walks.

Chevron Interpretive Trail is also in Princes’ Island Park

Chevron Interpretive Trail is also in Princes’ Island Park

Fish Creek Park is one of the largest urban parks in Canada. It offers numerous trails, as well as the historic Bow Valley Ranche restaurant.

Fish Creek Park is one of the largest urban parks in Canada. It offers numerous trails, as well as the historic Bow Valley Ranche restaurant.

 Free Art Galleries

For those who like art, Calgary has lots of free things to see.  The downtown is literally a free public art gallery with 100s of artworks along the sidewalks, on the plazas and in the lobbies of the larger skyscrapers.  

On the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade you will discover a herd of colourful and playful, life-size cows.   The Udderly Art Pasture is the legacy from the Colourful Cows project in 2000, when over 100 cows grazed in the downtown.  In addition to the cows the pasture has several information panels that tell the story of Calgary’s most successful public art project to date. 

Highlights include works by modern Canadian master painters Bush, Riopelle and Shadbolt at Eighth Avenue Place and Dale Chihuly glass works in Jamieson Place. 

In Calgary City Centre office tower’s lobby hangs a huge expressionistic canvas drawing (32 feet by 16 feet) in its lobby of the Zeppelin by Saskatoon artist, Alison Norlen along with 19 other artworks in the building’s public space. 

The two towers for Bankers Hall have numerous artworks in the lobbies and outside entrances including several interactive Weather Vanes in the southeast lobby that you can actually turn.  

And don’t forget to ask at Eighth Avenue Place and City Centre for their booklet about their art program. 

Calgary also has three free public art galleries. The Esker Art Gallery in the Atlantic Avenue Block in Inglewood, the Nickle Art Gallery in the Taylor Family Digital Library at the University of Calgary and the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta Arts University (formerly called Alberta Collage of Art and Design or ACAD). All offer engaging exhibition programs. 

You should definitely check out cSpace a grand old sandstone school in Marda Loop that has been converted into artists studio, a craft gallery space and performance space. It is a fun place to explore with rotating exhibitions in the old school hallway. The preservation and repurposing of the building is exquisite.

The Beltline community just south of downtown has several murals that make for a fun walking tour, especially if you also visit the Beltline’s commercial galleries along the way – Gibson Fine Art, Herringer Kiss Gallery, Loch Gallery, Paul Kuhn, New Zones, Trepanier Baer and VivianArt.

Stampede Park also has numerous murals and artworks that are available for viewing year-round, including the Parade of Historical Posters on the 2nd floor walkway from the LRT Station to the Corral.  They too have an art walk map. 

Link: Calgary has a free public art map 

Link: Beltline Mural map 

Link: Stampede Art Walk Map

Link: Downtown’s Udderly Cow Pasture

Stampede Park has numerous murals and sculptures scattered throughout the park. At the entrance to the Park from the LRT Station on Macleod Trail is a contemporary tipi inspired sculpture - the semi-circle design depicts the historic iconography of the Kainai, Piikani, Siksika, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. The sculpture sits on the original site of Stampede’s Indian Village which was Sun Tree Park.

Stampede Park has numerous murals and sculptures scattered throughout the park. At the entrance to the Park from the LRT Station on Macleod Trail is a contemporary tipi inspired sculpture - the semi-circle design depicts the historic iconography of the Kainai, Piikani, Siksika, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. The sculpture sits on the original site of Stampede’s Indian Village which was Sun Tree Park.

Jack Shadbolt painting in the lobby of Eighth Avenue Place office tower is a great place to sit. There is a coffee shop right there.

Jack Shadbolt painting in the lobby of Eighth Avenue Place office tower is a great place to sit. There is a coffee shop right there.

The Cow Pasture is fun for people of all ages.

The Cow Pasture is fun for people of all ages.

There is public art on almost every block downtown, as well as in the lobbies of most office towers. Free artwalk!

There is public art on almost every block downtown, as well as in the lobbies of most office towers. Free artwalk!

Barclay Mall aka 3rd Street SW has numerous sandstone sculptures as it winds its way from Stephen Avenue to Prince’s Island.

Barclay Mall aka 3rd Street SW has numerous sandstone sculptures as it winds its way from Stephen Avenue to Prince’s Island.

Nickle Art Gallery at the University of Calgary

Nickle Art Gallery at the University of Calgary

The Esker Art Gallery has not only great exhibitions, but it is housed in a mixed-use building full of art.

The Esker Art Gallery has not only great exhibitions, but it is housed in a mixed-use building full of art.

For those interested in local art and design cSpace is a great place to visit as it has a diversity of studios from jewelry to fashion, as well as a craft shop and the main hallway is an intimate art gallery space.

For those interested in local art and design cSpace is a great place to visit as it has a diversity of studios from jewelry to fashion, as well as a craft shop and the main hallway is an intimate art gallery space.

There are numerous murals and street art scattered throughout Calgary’s City Centre, making it an outdoor art gallery.

There are numerous murals and street art scattered throughout Calgary’s City Centre, making it an outdoor art gallery.

Free Street Markets 

During the summer Calgary offers numerous street markets from 4th Streets Lilac Festival that attracts over 100,000 people to monthly Night Markets in historic Inglewood.

If you like the thrill of the hunt while mingling with locals, the Sunday morning Hillhurst Flea Market (Hillhurst Community Centre) is your place.  In the winter, the two gyms are full of treasures; in the summer the market spills out onto the plaza.  

Crossroads Market is a year-round farmers’ market, as well as antique and boutique market, with something for everyone.   

Link: A Sunday walkabout in Hillhurst

Link: Where on Earth Did You Get That

Inglewood’s Night Market fun

Inglewood’s Night Market fun

Hillhurst Sunday Flea Market

Hillhurst Sunday Flea Market

 Live Music

Calgary is home to not one, not two but three free Saturday afternoon blues jams – Blues Can, Ironwood and Mikey’s Juke Joint.  Beer is extra.  All three venues also have Sunday jams and live music Monday to Wednesday nights with no cover charge.  Tom Phillips’ Sunday afternoon jam at Mikey’s is about as authentic as it gets for country music jam.

The Ship & Anchor is not only Calgary’s iconic pub, but it also hosts live music especially on the weekends.  In Bowness, Hexters Pub has a fun Motown Jam on Sunday afternoons that will make you want to dance. 

Link: Nashville vs. Calgary: Music Cities

LInk: Hexter Pub

Link: Blues Can

Link: Ironwood

Tim Williams hosts the Saturday Blues Jam at the Blues Can. Wiliams won the 2014 International Blues Competition in Memphis not only as the best solo/duo performer, but as best guitarist.

Tim Williams hosts the Saturday Blues Jam at the Blues Can. Wiliams won the 2014 International Blues Competition in Memphis not only as the best solo/duo performer, but as best guitarist.

Ship & Anchor is always a good bet for local live music

Ship & Anchor is always a good bet for local live music

Free History Tours 

Stephen Avenue is a designated National Historic district with thirty plus early 20thcentury buildings along a 3 block stretch.  Information panels along the pedestrian mall help tell some of Calgary’s history. For more detailed information, get the City of Calgary printable self-guided tour map.

9thAvenue (originally known as Atlantic Avenue) is Calgary’s first main street.  Today it still has much of the charm it did early in the 20thcentury with its mix of shops, cafes and restaurants.   

Three proud Calgarians aka “Walk The YYC” with lots of travel experience offer both free and paid tours.  Check their website to see what they are offering.

Link: Discover Calgary’s Secret Heritage Walking Tour

Link: City of Calgary Self-Guided Tour

Link:  WalkYYC Free Tours

Stephen Avenue Walk (8th Avenue from 1st St SE to 3rd St SW) is lined with historical buildings from the early 20th century.

Stephen Avenue Walk (8th Avenue from 1st St SE to 3rd St SW) is lined with historical buildings from the early 20th century.

In the summer you will want to be on Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour when 10,000+ people walk the walk. It is full of patios and vendors that create a festival-like atmosphere.

In the summer you will want to be on Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour when 10,000+ people walk the walk. It is full of patios and vendors that create a festival-like atmosphere.

The Hudson’s Bay Company department store is the jewel of the Stephen Avenue Historic District..

The Hudson’s Bay Company department store is the jewel of the Stephen Avenue Historic District..

Memorial Park Library is just one of dozens of historic sandstone buildings in Calgary’s City Centre.

Memorial Park Library is just one of dozens of historic sandstone buildings in Calgary’s City Centre.

cSpace is a must see for anyone interested in historical preservation and repurposing. It is fun to visit anytime, but on Saturdays in the summer is has a farmers’ market that adds a nice buzz.

cSpace is a must see for anyone interested in historical preservation and repurposing. It is fun to visit anytime, but on Saturdays in the summer is has a farmers’ market that adds a nice buzz.

Window shopping in historic Kensington Village is free and fun.

Window shopping in historic Kensington Village is free and fun.

Exploring Calgary’s Chinatown is fun. Be sure not to miss the ceiling of the Chinatown Cultural Centre.

Exploring Calgary’s Chinatown is fun. Be sure not to miss the ceiling of the Chinatown Cultural Centre.

Walk around downtown and you will discover an intriguing mix of old and new architecture.

Walk around downtown and you will discover an intriguing mix of old and new architecture.

Free Wading  

In the summer, there is free wading (no lifeguards) in the Bow River at Edworthy Park and along the Elbow River at Stanley Park and Sandy Beach (which isn’t actually sandy).  Free wading pools can be found in Bowness Park, Eau Claire Plaza, Prairie Winds Park and Riley Park.  Memorial Park as some fun small fountains that kids love to run through.  

Link: City of Calgary Wading Pool and Splash Parks

Wading fun downtown on St. Patrick’s Island.

Wading fun downtown on St. Patrick’s Island.

Riley Park wading pool

Riley Park wading pool

Memorial Park fountain fun.

Memorial Park fountain fun.

There are pebble beaches all along both the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

There are pebble beaches all along both the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

Free Skating

The Shaw Millennium Park has one of the world’s largest free public skate parks (skateboarding and BMX biking) – with separate areas for beginners, intermediates and experts.  In the winter, free ice skating at Bowness Park and Olympic Plaza is very popular.

Link: Shaw Millennium Park

Link: Bowness Park

Link: City of Calgary outdoor rinks

Bowness Park skating fun

Bowness Park skating fun

Olympic Plaza skating fun (photo credit: todoCanada)

Olympic Plaza skating fun (photo credit: todoCanada)

Skateboarding fun at Shaw Millennium Park

Skateboarding fun at Shaw Millennium Park

Roller blading along East Village’s RiverWalk…

Roller blading along East Village’s RiverWalk…

Free +15 Skywalks

Explore Calgary’s +15 walkway, the world’s longest elevated indoor walkway (20km) with 60+ bridges connecting over 100 buildings in the downtown.  This is an especially great idea for a winter adventure when too cold to walk outside.  It is known as the Plus 15 because the bridges are 15 feet above the sidewalks. It is like a futuristic indoor city with shopping, cafes, gardens, hotels and lots of public art.  

Make it a treasure hunt. Without going outside, can you find the bush plane hanging from the ceiling (at Suncor Energy Centre) or the hanging Chihuly glass sculptures (over the infinity pool in Jamieson Place winter garden), the First Nations masks (in Devonian Gardens), the painted cows (in the Centennial Parkade) and the etched poetry on the glass (on the bridge from First Alberta Place)?  Don’t worry if you get lost.  Calgarians are very friendly and they will help you find your way.

Link: Calgary’s +15: Love It or Hate It?

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The Core Shopping Centre is the hub of the +15 system with four floors of shops.

The Core Shopping Centre is the hub of the +15 system with four floors of shops.

Bush Plane hanging from the ceiling of the Suncor Centre office tower lobby.

Bush Plane hanging from the ceiling of the Suncor Centre office tower lobby.

There are lots of cafes and places to grab a bite to eat while you explore the +15 maze.

There are lots of cafes and places to grab a bite to eat while you explore the +15 maze.

The +15 system is full of atriums that become an urban oasis in the winter. Brookfield Place Atrium.

The +15 system is full of atriums that become an urban oasis in the winter. Brookfield Place Atrium.

Some of the +15 bridges are like walking through a work of art like this one linking the Municipal Building to Arts Commons. Each of the 60+ bridges are different.

Some of the +15 bridges are like walking through a work of art like this one linking the Municipal Building to Arts Commons. Each of the 60+ bridges are different.

The + 15 is full of fun fountains, waterfalls, plazas, winter gardens and public art.

The + 15 is full of fun fountains, waterfalls, plazas, winter gardens and public art.

Free Recreation 

For a real challenge, join locals on the Memorial Drive stair climb.  There are 167 steps divided into 11 flights and make for a great workout whether you walk or run them! Maybe even take the “10 laps stair” challenge, starting at the bottom and finishing at the top.  Do it in under 17 minutes and you are an Olympic athlete. Supposedly, 28 to 35 minutes is average but personally I think if you can’t finish, you are average.

Calgary also offers over 1,000 km of free cycling, running and walking trails throughout the city. You are never very far from a pathway.  

For those who want a real challenge, there is the 130km Rotary/Mattamy Greenway pathway that that encircles circles the entire city. 

Memorial Park stair challenge

Memorial Park stair challenge

The climb to the top is worth it as it offer a spectacular view of the city’s skyline, the mountains and the Bow River valley.

The climb to the top is worth it as it offer a spectacular view of the city’s skyline, the mountains and the Bow River valley.

Running along the Bow River is a popular recreational activity with the Peace Bridge being one of the highlights.

Running along the Bow River is a popular recreational activity with the Peace Bridge being one of the highlights.

The Edworthy Park Hill challenge - run or ride - up or down!

The Edworthy Park Hill challenge - run or ride - up or down!

The Rotary Mattamy Greenway is family friendly with lots of playgrounds and other places to stop and play.

The Rotary Mattamy Greenway is family friendly with lots of playgrounds and other places to stop and play.

Free fly fishing along the Bow River - bring your equipment!

Free fly fishing along the Bow River - bring your equipment!

Bow River Promenade

The quintessential Calgary experience is to walk along the 3 km Fort Calgary to the 14th Street Bridge. Not only will you get to enjoy the majestic Bow River, but you will also discover the quaint linear Nat Christie Sculpture Park, The Wave (river surfing) at the 10th Street bridge, the iconic Peace Bridge by Santiago Calatrava, Barclay Plaza with its wading pool, Jaipur Bridge to Prince’s Island, catch a glimpse of the beautiful Chinatown Cultural Centre and Sien Lok park, the historic Centre Street Bridge with its majestic lions, the historic Simons Building in East Village and the very cool George King Bridge to St. Patrick’s Island with its pebble beach, public art and other amenities.  Final destination - Fort Calgary where the Elbow River flows into the Bow River.  

Along the way, enjoy Calgary’s stunning skyline with iconic towers by international architectural firms like Norman Foster, Bjarke Ingles (BIG) and SOM. In the summer, especially on weekends, you will be joined by hundreds of colourful rafts floating down the river. 

Link: Calgary: A Bow River Bike Ride

Link: Bridges Over The Bow

You will find lots of public art as you walk along the Bow River like these pieces near the 14th Street bridge.

You will find lots of public art as you walk along the Bow River like these pieces near the 14th Street bridge.

River surfing at the Louise Crossing Bridge wave.

River surfing at the Louise Crossing Bridge wave.

Enjoy a sunset at Eau Claire’s pebble beach with the Peace Bridge in the background.

Enjoy a sunset at Eau Claire’s pebble beach with the Peace Bridge in the background.

The Eau Claire Promenade is the perfect spot for a leisurely walk and some good people watching.

The Eau Claire Promenade is the perfect spot for a leisurely walk and some good people watching.

There are lots of great places to sit in Prince’s Island.

There are lots of great places to sit in Prince’s Island.

Historic Centre Street Bridge

Historic Centre Street Bridge

One of the best spots to stop along the Bow River for refreshments and people watch is at the Simmons Building in East Village.

One of the best spots to stop along the Bow River for refreshments and people watch is at the Simmons Building in East Village.

There is a great roof top patio on the roof of the Simmons building but it isn’t free.

There is a great roof top patio on the roof of the Simmons building but it isn’t free.

Free chaise lounge chairs

Free chaise lounge chairs

You never know what you will happen upon when exploring Calgary’s Bow River pathways.

You never know what you will happen upon when exploring Calgary’s Bow River pathways.

While walking along the Bow River you will find several pedestrian bridges allowing you to criss-cross back and forth to enjoy the river and downtown architecture from different perspectives.

While walking along the Bow River you will find several pedestrian bridges allowing you to criss-cross back and forth to enjoy the river and downtown architecture from different perspectives.

Central Library

Calgary’s newest free fun thing to do is to hang out at the new Central Library, stunning inside and out.  Built over a transit tunnel, kids will love watching the trains disappear and emerge from the tunnel from the brow of the building (shaped like a fly-fishing float boat or a luxury cruise ship).  There is also great children’s play area.  The TD Great Reading Room pays homage to the library tradition of having a communal place for patrons to read at long communal tables.  As well, the Calgary’s Story area will appeal to anyone interested in local history. Grab a book, find a chair and read to your heart’s content.

 Link: Step Inside The World’s Most Futuristic Libraries

Calgary’s new Central Library is being heralded as one of the most beautiful new buildings of 2018. photo credit Architectural Digest

Calgary’s new Central Library is being heralded as one of the most beautiful new buildings of 2018. photo credit Architectural Digest

Free Train Ride

Calgary’s LRT trains are free in the downtown, so walk from one end of downtown to the other (about 2km) and then take the train back. Or take the train both ways.  Kids love hopping on and off.  You can do it as many times as you want - for FREE.

Link Downtown Calgary’s 7th Ave Corridor: Good but not great!

Hop on and hop off the LRT in downtown Calgary as many times as you wish for free.

Hop on and hop off the LRT in downtown Calgary as many times as you wish for free.

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Last Word 

So, there you have some my picks for FREE fun things to see and do in Calgary.  I hope this list will be useful not only to anyone planning a visit toCalgary, but also to those who live in Calgary and have visiting family and friends looking for some fun things to do.

Remember, if you have others, let me know and I will add them to my list. 

Here are some links to other blogs that will be helpful to tourists or visiting family and friends looking for things to see and do.

The Streets of Calgary

Fun Calgary Restaurants

Uniquely Calgary Shopping Experiences

Calgary Military Museums

 

Rennie Museum: Dares to be different!

While most art museums allow you come and go as you wish, wandering the galleries at you own pace, this is not the case at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver. And that is a good thing. 

It is just one of ways the Rennie Museum dares to be different.

Catherine Opie, 700 Nimes Road exhibition

Catherine Opie, 700 Nimes Road exhibition

First off, the Rennie Museum isn’t a public art museum. It’s a private museum with rotating exhibitions from the extensive collection of international contemporary art of Vancouver art collector, Bob Rennie. Second, there is no curator of the exhibitions. Rather Rennie self-curates from his collection what pieces he wishes to exhibit.  Thirdly, the museum is only open on Saturdays and only to those making a reservation for one of the day’s tours. And it’s also always free! 

A bit elitist? Maybe? But, I love to explore off the beaten path places, which is the case for the Rennie given its unassuming location in Vancouver’s Chinatown - not exactly the place you would expect to find a contemporary art museum.  

Saturday tour at Rennie Museum.

Saturday tour at Rennie Museum.

Collecting

Spring 2019: Collected Works consists of four exhibitions featuring the works of four artists - Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie.  The common theme is portraying the spirit of collecting in our everyday lives.  There is also a secondary theme that speaks to the importance of objects to humans and how they often define a person. 

In the main floor gallery, hang four small scale paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie that at first look like photographs because of their small size (25.7 x 33.3 cm)and life-like detail. 

On the opposite wall, is a selection of photographs by American artist Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings, and which cleverly play off Grassie’s work, depicting art an art collector’s apartment and the same artworks in packing crates in a warehouse.

Personally, I related more to Lawler’s photos which seemed more intimate and voyeuristic compared to the rather mundane and esoteric Grassie paintings.

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Elizabeth Taylor

On the second floor are two other exhibition galleries and a video space.  The most interesting exhibition to me was that of American photographer Catherine Opie who was allowed access to Elizabeth Taylor’s home shortly before her passing.  The exhibition titled “700 Nimes Road (2010-2011)” (the title being Taylor’s home address) is an intimate portrait of Taylor’s life via the objects she collected and how she displayed them in her home.  Each photo is a vignette of Taylor’s everyday life, from her collection of shoes and cat, to her make-up table full of brushes.  Some reflect her glamorous life, but many are familiar things like photos of family and friends found in most homes. The twist being Taylor’s photos include people like Michael Jackson and one of the objects lying around is a letter from Paris Jackson.  Opie’s photos are a reminder not only of the importance of objects in everyone’s lives, but also how these objects document what is important to us and to some extent who we are. 

It was here I realized the value of our tour guide. A couple of Opie’s photographs of Taylor’s jewelry were very blurry, making me wonder why the artist kept these photos and why anyone would want to collect them.  I expect most visitors would have shaken their heads when they saw them and thought “anyone could do that!” and moved on quickly.  

However, our guide explained the works were intentionally out of focus as Opie wanted to convey that after a person dies, the memory of the person fades away; we lose focus and clarity of the them. How clever. I would never have figured that out.  It was just one of the many insights our guide provided during the tour.  It would have taken huge didactic panels to share all such insights.

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A complete list of the photos in the exhibition give you a sense of the objects Opie chose to photograph from everyday things to special mementos.

A complete list of the photos in the exhibition give you a sense of the objects Opie chose to photograph from everyday things to special mementos.

Alexander Iolas

In the second upper gallery was an exhibition of 22 photographs by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depicting the Athens home of the iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas, who had hoped one day it would become a museum.  The huge home housed over 10,000 ancient and contemporary artworks. However, the Greek government rejected the offer of his villa and collection and when he died in 1987 the collection was plundered, looted and the villa vandalized.  

Half of the Jones’ photos were taken in 1982 and half were taken in 2016 after Iolas had passed away and his home was in ruins. Jones’ photos successfully depict how Iolas lived an extraordinary life collecting and exhibiting the works of Duchamp, Warhol, Magritte, Ernst and sadly it all ended up in ruins. The exhibition also includes the 30-minute film “Fall into Ruin” (2017) which combines the photographs of Iolas’ home with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum, providing another layer of context of how art collections define time, place and person.  

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Art & Object

Also, in the large gallery with Jones’ photos is Louise Lawler’s huge black and white digital drawing titled “Pollock and Tureen” created in 2008.  The top of the piece is a computer-generated tracing of shapes of the paint drops of a Jackson Pollock drip painting creating a network of flowing lines and shapes that is both playful and perplexing.  At the bottom is an everyday tureen using the same technique which captures the shapes of light reflecting off the surface of the object. Together, it looks like an abstract still life - with the tureen sitting on a credenza with the Pollock painting on the wall behind.  It is impressive not only in size and simplicity of concept, but how it juxtapositions art and object. 

The piece exists as a digital file that can be printed on vinyl to any size for exhibition and then discarded at the end of the exhibition. In the Rennie Museum’s case the piece a humungous, I’d estimate it at 60’ by 30’. 

Sharing the gallery space with Jones’ photos of Iola’s 20thcentury masterpieces and century old antiquities, Lawler’s work reminds us of how modern artifacts have become much more disposable than those of previous generations. 

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Importance of a tour guide

Throughout the tour, our guide used the art to illustrate how almost all humans over time have been collectors of something and that on some level, we curate our own lives with the objects that we surround with. Whether it is collections of high-priced art or something as simple as a collection of seashells. She often posed open ended questions like: What do these objects say about us? What kind of portrait do they construct of their owners? We were left to ponder.

 Tour participants were asked to think about what happens to one’s objects when passes away.  Are they preciously packaged and sent off to high value auctions as was the case with Elizabeth Taylor's jewels? Or, do they become victims of carelessness and vandalism as was the case with Villa Iolas.  Or do they end up in thrift stores, garage sales and landfills?

Our tour guide, Fiorela Argueta who is currently finishing her BA in Art History at the University of British Columbia struck the right balance of enthusiasm and education. It was much better than reading dry didactic (and often too academic) information panels. 



Last Word

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I was told the reason the Rennie Museum is by tour only is that Bob Rennie wants people to have a thoughtful experience with the art and not just the quick “glance and go” experience so typical of many visitors to art galleries and museums.  I respect that.

Perhaps, “tour only” is something more galleries and museums should think about to create more value to their visitor experience.  Maybe instead of having somber-looking security guards positioned in every gallery, educators could be hired to give small group tours every 15 or 30 minutes and therefore no need for security.  Might commercial galleries benefit from at least offering to take visitors on a short say 5 minute, guided tour of the artworks rather than letting people aimlessly wander the gallery while they sit behind their desk? 

Spring 2019: Collected Works runs until June 15, 2019. The Rennie Museum is located in the Wing Sang Building, 51 East Pender Street, Vancouver. Expect your tour to last about an hour with time at the end to further explore the exhibitions and video on your own.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by Galleries West Magazine.

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

Glenbow: Paul Hardy A Stroke of Genius

Staircases as art!

Montreal Museum of Modern Art: The Human Hand

 

 

 Glenbow’s Fabulous Free First Thursday Nights

I am guilty as anyone when it comes to only visiting the Glenbow when it’s free. I can’t remember the last time I paid admission to go to the Glenbow.  I even used to be part of the Calgary’s visual arts community! And I am pretty sure I am not alone as I can’t recall when a friend or colleague last said, “We were at the Glenbow and saw this amazing exhibition. You must go.” 

Meryl McMaster’s “Dream Catcher” welcomes you to her provocative exhibition “Confluence” one of several worth seeing exhibitions on at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

Meryl McMaster’s “Dream Catcher” welcomes you to her provocative exhibition “Confluence” one of several worth seeing exhibitions on at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

First Thursday Fun

A visit to the Glenbow on March 7 for their “FREE First Thursday” (i.e. 5 to 9 pm the first Thursday of each month - thanks to sponsor Servus Credit Union) was very enlightening. The place was packed by 6:30 pm with over 700 people already having been through the Christian Dior feature exhibition (a fact direct from the security woman with the clicker in her hand). I’d guess there probably were a couple of hundred people in the gallery looking at the exhibition (not sure how you could see much as it was shoulder-to-shoulder people) and another couple of hundred in a line-up that snaked its way past three other exhibitions.  

It was so crowded, I almost thought I was in Disneyland. 

And, it wasn’t just the Dior exhibition that was busy. The entire museum was buzzing with hundreds of people of all ages, enjoying the other exhibits be it the Mavericks exhibitions on the third floor (that’s been there for 12 years), the exhibition of new works by Chris Cran, one of Calgary’s most respected visual artists or the historical art exhibitions.  I wonder how many, like me, came for the Dior exhibition like me, but weren’t going to wait in line.  No matter, they were looking at the art and seemed to be enjoying it.  

In fact, as it turned out, Zoltan Varadi, Glenbow’s Communication Specialist reports that over, 3,000 people visited the Glenbow after 5 pm that day, exceeding the average First Thursday attendance by 1,000 people.  

The Christian Dior exhibition is in the background the people in the foreground are the beginning of a long line-up of people waiting to get into the exhibition.

The Christian Dior exhibition is in the background the people in the foreground are the beginning of a long line-up of people waiting to get into the exhibition.

There is obviously a pent up demand to visit the Glenbow.  

I am pretty sure the Glenbow doesn’t look like this on the other Thursday nights, unless there is a free members and guest opening reception for a new blockbuster exhibition. In fact, if my math is correct (based on their 2018 Annual Report), the Glenbow’s average daily attendance is about 350 people (excluding school programs). 

Question: How do you go from 350 a day to 500 an hour?

Answer: Offer free admission. 

At any given time the Glenbow’s second floor art gallery offers several exhibitions on different aspect of the visual arts, from historical to contemporary.

At any given time the Glenbow’s second floor art gallery offers several exhibitions on different aspect of the visual arts, from historical to contemporary.

Kent Monkman’s installation titled, “The Rise and Fall of Civilization” with its three figures at the edge of a cliff makes multiple references to civilizations past and present.

Kent Monkman’s installation titled, “The Rise and Fall of Civilization” with its three figures at the edge of a cliff makes multiple references to civilizations past and present.

The exhibition of Blackfoot traditional clothing is a clever juxtaposition to the Christian Dior exhibition.

The exhibition of Blackfoot traditional clothing is a clever juxtaposition to the Christian Dior exhibition.

Obviously, people want to visit the Glenbow, just not pay for it, or at least not pay the current admission fees. 

Are admission fees too high?  Why won’t we pay $18 (adult), $12 (senior - 65+), $11 (youth - 7 to 17) or $45 (family – 2 adults and 4 kids)?  (Note: children under 6 are free.) Why don’t more Calgarians buy a Glenbow Membership $55 (adult), $75 (couple), $20 (student), $40 (senior), $65 (senior dual) and $90 (family).  Currently, only 2,700 of Calgary’s 559,000 households have Glenbow Memberships. That’s less than 1%. 

FYI: I think this schedule is unfair to single Calgarians.  If a couple can buy at membership for $75 then a single should get one for half that price - same for seniors. 

We don’t seem as price adverse for other recreational and entertainment activities. For example, most Calgarians willingly pay $14 for a 2 hour movie at the theatre? We don’t blink an eye to pay $20 for brunch or lunch at a restaurant. Heck, a good glass of wine at diner these days is $12. A round of golf is $50+ for four hours.  A drop in class at a good yoga studio is about $20 for 90 minutes. 

But $18 to visit the Glenbow? No way. 

Couple enjoying Chris Cran’s fun new works.

Couple enjoying Chris Cran’s fun new works.

Let’s get creative…

The Glenbow’s admission prices are slightly higher than those at Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta and the Winnipeg Art Gallery but lower than those at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  It should be noted to that the Glenbow is both a public gallery AND history museum so visitors get two experiences for the price of one.  Perhaps there should be one price for the gallery, one for the museum and then a discounted combined price? 

  • I wonder what would happen if the Glenbow was free every day. Would that break the bank?  Would that create opportunities for more corporate sponsorships to make up for the loss admission revenue? 

  • What about experimenting with having every Thursday evening FREE? Would Servus Credit Union sponsor all of them? Or their could there be a different sponsor each week or each month?   

  • What about a free Family Sunday once a month. Yes, adults would have to bring a child under 18 to both get in free. What about free for all children under 18 all the time?  Don’t we want our children to be exposed to the visual arts and know about our local culture?

  • Maybe a couple of free teen days during the year.  Parents could drop them off at the Glenbow and then go do some shopping or have lunch downtown.  Win-win for downtown businesses! Perhaps the Calgary Downtown Association and the Chamber of Commerce might want to sponsor this one. 

  • What about 2-for-1 days?  Maybe a “pay what you want” day in the middle of the week - or one weekend a month.  Theatre Calgary offers a limited number of Pay-What-You-Can tickets on the first Saturday matinee during the run of each the five Mainstage productions.

  • What about a $2 lunch admission for downtown office workers? They aren’t going to pay $18 when they only have 50 minutes or so. 

  • What about $3 after 3 pm?  Happy hour pricing at an art gallery? Given the Gallery closes every day at 5pm (except Friday), this would give people 2 hours to view the exhibits – probably plenty of time for most people.  

  • What about using social media to announce fun special admission rates?  Maybe something like “Show this Glenbow tweet and get in for half price today or tomorrow.” 

  • Perhaps a monthly “Bring a Friend to the Glenbow” day for members.  It would be an added benefit for buying a membership and introduce more Calgarians to the Glenbow’s excellent exhibition and gift shop.  


On Location: Artists Explore A Sense of Place, curated by Sarah Todd provides a past and present overview of life in Canada.

On Location: Artists Explore A Sense of Place, curated by Sarah Todd provides a past and present overview of life in Canada.

Glenbow’s Conundrum

The Glenbow’s attendance has grown over the past five years, from 117,379 to 150,736 (Glenbow’s 2018 Annual Report). However, it begs the question: Has most of the growth been due to Free First Thursdays (2,000/mth X 12 = 24,000) since its introduction in 2016? 

The Glenbow also reports that 50,000+ of the 150,000 attendance is due to the Glenbow’s great school programs. Do the math and the actual paid museum admissions turn out to be about 75,000 (150,000 – 50,000 school tours and 24,000 Free Thursdays). In other words, just three times what is achieved in four hours on Thursday nights once a month.   

Here’s the conundrum. The Glenbow invests millions of dollars each year curating and presenting entertaining and enlightening exhibitions for which there is obviously a huge interest, but there is a huge barrier for people to see them – the price of admission.  At the same time, the Glenbow struggles to generate revenue as government grants have been frozen for many years and corporate donations are not easy to come by. So, they desperately need more admission revenue.  

This flies in the face of more free or discounted admission - or does it? Experimenting with a more creative admission schedule could result in more corporate sponsorship opportunities like the one with Servus Credit Union. Some of the above ideas could actually attract more paid visitors to the gallery (at a discounted price) who would never come at $18, so it means increased admission revenue. 

When Donna Livingstone was first appointed to the position of President and CEO of the Glenbow in May 2013, she said wanted to create “a new kind of art museum.”   In many ways she has done that when it comes to the exhibition, education, event programming and gift shop. 

But little has changed when it comes to admission fees.  Significant research has been done on the pros and cons of free and discounted admission, without any definitive conclusions as every gallery and museum has a different funding model and a different audience. Perhaps now is the time for the Glenbow to experiment with a creative admission fee schedule that would entice more Calgarians and tourists to visit our city’s largest and oldest cultural institution. 

An added benefit of having discounted admission more frequently – it would reduce the number of visitors on the Free First Thursdays, thereby making for a better experience as they have become too crowded. 

Just a suggestion!

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

Glenbow: A new kind of art museum

Glenbow: Stroke of Genius

Postcards: Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum