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.
It’s going to have to meet new standards. In the wake of the devastation in Alberta, the underwriter for the Canadian Museums Association insurance program – which has paid out nearly $3-million as a result of the catastrophe – is now excluding from coverage flood losses or damage sustained in basements or subterranean locations.
The change went into effect this year for all renewals (although museums not in a flood zone may qualify for an exemption). The CMA is asking the insurer to review the policy.
The Highwood’s experience has become a case study for other museums. Among the lessons learned: make sure tags are attached to items so they can’t be separated from the artifacts, their provenance suddenly becoming a mystery.
“Many museums are reviewing their contingency plans, their storage plans, their standards – and the insurance industry is probably going to demand that. And as we continue to see strange weather patterns, we can’t take anything for granted any more,” says CMA executive director John McAvity.
“I hate to be the guinea pig,” says Kerr. “But if something good comes out of it, that would be one [positive] thing.”
Incalculable loss of heritage
The losses at the National Music Centre in Calgary were also staggering: $2.5-million to its collection (based on the insured value of the artifacts; the historical value, the museum says, is incalculable).
“Some things went right into the garbage bin,” says president and CEO Andrew Mosker, including pianos, organs, electronic instruments and archives – all stored in the basement. Most of the collection was safe, because water never reached the public exhibition space on the second floor, where you can find precious artifacts including a 16th-century harpsichord, and Elton John’s old piano. But 10 per cent of the collection was damaged; they’re still going through it to see what can be salvaged.
There was also a loss of revenue; with the building closed for 42 days, 21 events were cancelled.
The NMC has insurance coverage, but the slog of the recovery effort and the heartbreak of tossing out historic instruments comes with a different kind of cost. Further, the NMC is in the middle of constructing a splashy new facility, set to open in 2016. Some of the collections team, preparing for a huge move and launch, was suddenly diverted to a massive conservation effort.
If there is some good news, the new facility wasn’t damaged – the construction site took in 1.54 million gallons of water, but it drained naturally. The NMC figures the flood probably gave the centre some profile, resulting in an increase in donations – although they were careful not to solicit funds after the flood. The support they received – from donors, volunteers, the public – gave weary staff a vital boost.
“To go through the flood for me, it was nourishment to keep going,” says Mosker. “People do really care about what we’re doing.”
‘Nobody rains on our parade’
The return of Sled Island this week was triumphant and far from a certainty. The alternative music and arts festival could have easily succumbed to its terrible luck, after most of the 2013 festival was washed out by the flood. It survived thanks to a generous lifeline thrown out by its fans and others.
As the festival’s basement offices were evacuated that Thursday afternoon, the team was also mobilizing to move shows planned for venues that were being shut down. So John K. Samson performed that night at a movie theatre, a sound system sourced and hastily connected. At the Fairmont Palliser hotel – where Sled Island set up a temporary office and many of the 250 acts were staying – musicians hung out, lit by flashlights and glow sticks; the festival’s executive director, Maud Salvi, remembers Joel Plaskett playing in the darkened lobby. It was a magical night before the misery of the next morning, when Salvi woke up to an e-mail from the city, cancelling Sled Island’s permit for Olympic Plaza.
“When I read that, I knew what it meant,” she says. The festival had to be cancelled, full stop.
“We immediately started doing the math,” says Salvi. Refunding all of its 1,400 passholders would cost well over $200,000 – financial suicide for the tiny organization.
Passholders were offered their money back, but were also asked to consider forgoing the refund – or donating it to Sled Island through a local crowdfunding platform. They had a month to decide. As the deadline neared on that last day, Salvi hovered over her computer, hitting refresh repeatedly.
Only 30 per cent of passholders asked for a refund.
“Purely financially it was a huge relief,” says Salvi. “But also it was a very strong message to us.… That was the first really big step for our recovery.”
Also key: Artists who sent deposit money back to Sled, deducting only their hard costs; and suppliers who forgave any payment beyond the deposit. The Calgary International Film Festival offered passes to the first 200 people to forgo their refund, and challenged other arts organizations to join in. Several did.
The whole thing brought the arts community together in a new way, and also boosted the festival’s profile. “The funny bright side … is it really put us on the radar,” says Salvi. “Some people have now heard of us because of the flood.”
Eager to move forward, the team considered not referencing the flood at all in this year’s marketing, but also felt they couldn’t pretend it never happened. In the end, they came up with a tagline they felt was just right – defiant yet positive, with a splash of whimsy: “Nobody rains on our parade.”
A national wake-up call
The near-death of the music festival has sparked an urgent conversation. “Sled Island’s experience was a wake-up call to all of us,” says James Boyle, executive director at Halifax Pop Explosion – also a multivenue urban festival. “If it could happen in Calgary, it certainly could happen in Halifax during hurricane season.”
Knowing that if something happened to knock power out in Halifax for four days, they would not have adequate insurance, the festival upped its coverage.
As planning began for Sled Island 2014, organizers considered whether to bring back all the acts that were unable to play last year. They chose not to – too complicated, too backward-looking – although they did bring Plaskett back.
Jerusalem In My Heart was back too, hitting the stage late on opening night with the performance that never happened last June, that was re-shaped at the NMC this week, and that will likely form the basis of their next album, If He Dies if if if if if if.
“It was amazing how many people came up and said, ‘I was there last year and I was really bummed, and we just had to be here,’” said Moumneh on Thursday, on his way back to Montreal. “It was like someone just hit pause for a whole year.”