When the order came, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh thought it was a joke. He was sitting on a terrace with a post-soundcheck glass of wine before a Thursday-night show at Calgary’s Sled Island festival. His music-and-visuals project, Jerusalem In My Heart, was to premiere the work he and his collaborators had created during a residency at the National Music Centre. It was a pleasant evening; the air was warm, there wasn’t a drop of rain in the sky – but they were told they had to leave immediately – concerns about a flood. Disbelieving, they returned to the NMC, where they had spent the week working with its rare and historic instruments. They threw everything in the back of a truck, their gear an entangled mess, and drove out to the hillside neighbourhood where they were staying, north of the river. At the time the Montreal-based artists were supposed to be playing their Sled Island set, they stood on the hilltop and watched as the river raged downtown.
“The streets just literally disappeared, in front of our eyes,” says Moumneh.
This week, Jerusalem In My Heart was back at the NMC to complete the interrupted residency and finally play that Sled Island gig.
“It felt really, really good to come back and show support and solidarity with the place,” says Moumneh, taking a break from a long, productive day at the NMC earlier this week. “To come back and … give them the gift of the show.”
A year after southern Alberta’s catastrophic flooding, artists and arts organizations are finding some closure, even as they continue to take stock. Dig deep into the goop and silt, and there are silver linings to be found – including support in the form of $530,000 raised for artists and arts organizations through the Alberta Arts Flood Rebuild Fund – and lessons that have drifted far beyond the province.
A case study in catastrophe
High River remains a town under construction. Where roads once stood – and will again – excavators roar behind blue fencing. Signs with pronouncements such as “THRILLED To Be BACK!” are strung over still-closed storefronts on the downtown strip.
But the doors, improbably, have been open since September at the Museum of the Highwood – where the exhibition Highwood Leaps its Banks! opens this weekend, about the town’s “floody history.” It includes Calgary Stampede co-founder George Lane’s saddle, sitting proud and no longer mouldy after 30 hours of a conservator’s attention. A gingham dress – caked in mud up to about chest-level, the pink-and-white checks pristine up top – offers a visual clue to the devastation that swept through the place on June 20, 2013.
When the staff were finally allowed back inside 11 days later, both the museum’s basement and the off-site storage facility were in ruins – shelves squished down, pieces of the ceiling everywhere, artifacts hurled by the rushing water – mighty pieces of furniture warped, mangled and hurled by the rushing water – a table stuck up in the ceiling of the storage facility.
“Everything just went topsy-turvy. When you think how hard it is to move this stuff, and it just, like, floated around,” says director/curator Irene Kerr. “Just imagine the force of the water.”
It took seven 12-hour days to go through the collection, determining whether each of the 10,000 items should be washed, stored in the freezer truck to be dealt with later, or thrown right into the dumpster. They considered several questions, as advised by the insurance adjuster: Can it be saved, do you know the provenance, will it ever be put on exhibit or used for research, was there anything else like it, and can you afford to restore it?
About 80 per cent of the collection was lost.
Exact numbers can’t be nailed down, because so many items became separated from their tags, and the process of going through the collection is still under way at a makeshift storage facility in an old western-wear shop in a strip mall. They’ll launch a capital campaign later this year with a crucial, if not exactly sexy, goal: a new storage facility.