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Donna Livingstone Interim President and CEO, of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary (Chris Bolin Photography/Chris Bolin)
Donna Livingstone Interim President and CEO, of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary (Chris Bolin Photography/Chris Bolin)

CULTURE

Calgary arts scene awaits its masterpiece Add to ...

In an interview with Kirstin Evenden last September, the Glenbow Museum president and chief executive officer exuded confidence and optimism. There was an exciting show opening at the end of the month – Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination. And planning for a new facility for the Glenbow was still on track, she said, even in the wake of summer layoffs and a decision to close the museum on Mondays in a cost-saving exercise.

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“The current financial challenges should not impede our ability to think about the future, and in fact the actions we took recently are about the future. They’re about securing a financial future for the organization,” said Evenden, immaculate in an ivory pantsuit.

Hours later she participated in an annual general meeting where it was revealed that the Glenbow had posted a $1.67-million operating deficit for 2011-12.

“I’m excited about the potential of what Calgary could be and what Glenbow could do for Calgary in the long term,” she said.

For Evenden, the long term was cut short last week when she resigned her Glenbow post after 19 years with the institution, nearly four at the helm. Her resignation followed a vote of non-confidence in her leadership by unionized workers at the Glenbow, whose Canadian Union of Public Employees local then sent a letter to the museum’s board.

The Glenbow is characterizing the change at the top as a fresh start. “[It is] a unique opportunity to reset and refresh its place of significance in the arts and culture community,” says a news release announcing the resignation, and the appointment of Donna Livingstone as interim president and CEO.

“Glenbow’s in its 40s, when you tend to make an assessment of where you are and where you want to go,” said Livingstone, a former vice-president of program and exhibit development and board member with the Glenbow, in an interview this week.

“I also look around at Calgary and see how much it’s changed. So Glenbow’s role in that has changed. So how can we be relevant and connect with the new Calgary?”

A few months before the Glenbow bombshell, a troubled portrait of the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC) – not quite two blocks west – began to emerge, with a lawsuit, and later criminal charges, brought against Valerie Cooper, the AGC’s former president and CEO. In a civil suit filed March 30 by the AGC, Cooper was accused of bilking the institution of nearly $500,000.

These were not the kind of developments the city might have envisaged for 2012, its year as a cultural capital of Canada.

Calgary, with its booming economy and determination to prove itself as a cultural force, has a visual arts deficit. While Edmonton enjoys the sparkling, not-quite-three-year-old Art Gallery of Alberta, Calgary’s chief art facility is a museum with an identity crisis stuck in a lacklustre facility; the AGC is embroiled in a case of alleged fraud; a high-powered collaboration to build a new contemporary art gallery has fizzled; and that once-exciting promise of housing the country’s National Portrait Gallery is a memory, with the project quietly scrapped three years ago. It’s not a pretty picture.

And yet with its thriving theatre community, exciting new works commissioned by its opera and orchestra, and a provincial ballet company attracting international attention, the city has demonstrated a remarkable cultural appetite. Thousands came out for the inaugural Nuit Blanche this year. There’s a new $132-million National Music Centre in the works, with a groundbreaking scheduled for the first quarter of 2013 and an opening for 2014. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is famously arts-friendly. How is it that a great visual art museum has eluded this place?

“What you’re seeing here is the transformation of the city from a teenager to something more mature,” says Daniel Doz, president of the Alberta College of Architecture and Design. “There’s a deficit [for] a city of this size in terms of the large [cultural] infrastructure,” he adds. “For a city like Calgary that wants to play an international role, there’s a definite need and you’re starting to see a thirst for it.”

The Glenbow has for many years struggled for an identity as part museum, part art gallery, part library and archives. In 2009, the museum – housed off a lobby, deep inside a 1970s Brutalist building – began a strategic planning process that resulted in identifying six key priorities, including to “develop a vision and plan for a new facility that meets the needs of our visual arts program.”

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