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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 ...

There are other places to consume art here, including the Alberta College of Art & Design’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery, which does cutting-edge programming. The University of Calgary’s Nickle Arts Museum reopened last month in an impressive new location as the Nickle Galleries. The Esker Foundation opened its doors to oohs and ahs last June; it’s an airy 15,000-square-foot home for philanthropists Jim and Susan Hill’s vast art collection. There are excellent artist-run centres, good private galleries, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary.

Rebranded MOCA by artistic director Jeffrey Spalding, the facility does its best, but is restricted by its too-small, awkward space. Connected to Calgary City Hall, it’s convenient, certainly, but it’s not the right kind of space to realize Spalding’s ambitions.

Spalding, who was Evenden’s predecessor at the Glenbow before his abrupt departure in 2009, is very keen to be involved in the creation of a new contemporary art gallery.

In January, MOCA and the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art (IMCA), announced that the two groups had signed a memorandum of understanding and were reviewing a shortlist of potential locations for a new contemporary art museum, and that a joint steering committee would develop an implementation plan for a new facility and the establishment of a charitable foundation to fund it.

But this collaboration has quietly dissipated, according to Spalding.

Whoever runs it, it’s pretty clear: A contemporary art museum is overdue for Calgary, and for many people, it’s high on the cultural agenda.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we’re underserving that part of our cultural scene in Calgary,” says Terry Rock, president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development Authority, a city-owned corporation which, among other things, provides grants to local arts groups. “The big challenge when you’re sitting in my seat is operating dollars are not easy to come by, and in the current environment it’s very difficult to see where they’re going to come from.”

George Brookman has an idea. The past president and chairman of the Calgary Stampede co-chairs an organization called Transformation Calgary, which proposes adding 1 per cent locally to the goods and services tax for a limited time to fund specific cultural and recreational projects, to be identified and voted on in a referendum. The group, which models the so-called penny tax idea after an Oklahoma City initiative, hopes to have at least a general question about the idea (which requires federal and provincial approval) added to the municipal ballot next year.

“The best art shows in the world fly right over Calgary because we don’t have the facility,” Brookman says. “We’re supposed to be the boom city and the richest city in Canada. There’s got to be a better way.”

Spalding, who says he runs MOCA Calgary on an annual budget of between $300,000 and $400,000 (about half of which is in kind, such as forgiven rent and building services), says financial restraints are a tremendous problem for Calgary’s art institutions.

“All of us are doing tea and bake sales and casinos and bingos and everything else except running an art museum,” he says. “Something has to give – whether it’s more money coming in from somewhere, or the money may have to be rationalized in a different way.”

Collaborations, he says, could be the key.

“Government is only one part,” Alberta Culture Minister Heather Klimchuk said on Tuesday, about the question of funding. “When the community supports it and the private sector, you know, that’s when the magic happens. Because it’s the buy-in from everybody.”

Klimchuk points out that the Glenbow received a 7-per-cent increase in funding from the province last year. Deliberations for the provincial budget next year are under way.

Livingstone, who is on leave from the University of Calgary until March, isn’t pulling the plug on anything yet, but she isn’t plowing ahead either. It’s early days; she hasn’t even completely figured out the phone system, let alone determined whether the Glenbow should go ahead with its vision for a new building.

“We have an ambitious strategic plan right now,” she says. “We need to go through that and identify those areas that are really resonating with the community.”

Almost every Calgarian I meet is upbeat and optimistic about the city’s cultural potential – shaking off the monsters and going with the fairy tale. There is not just an appetite, but tangible growth. Rock points out that when CADA took over its funding role in 2007, it funded some 120 organizations. That number has now jumped to more than 190. At ACAD, Doz says more graduates are choosing to stay in Calgary, whereas not that long ago they would have had to go somewhere such as Toronto, Montreal or New York for their careers.

“I look at all this next generation and they’re very impressive and exciting,” Rock says. “So if people think that because there’s no gallery, there’s no contemporary art here, it’s just not true.”

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