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A volunteer carrying archives from the flooded basement of the National Music Centre in Calgary. (Chad Schroter-Gillespie)
A volunteer carrying archives from the flooded basement of the National Music Centre in Calgary. (Chad Schroter-Gillespie)

Tears and resilience as Calgary’s arts community assesses the damage Add to ...

Two guys in white Tyvek coveralls are taking a break inside the entrance to the National Music Centre, one behind a desk, the other slumped on the stairs. On a scorcher of a day, the electricity remains shut down, so there’s no air conditioning, no lighting. A few steps away, in a makeshift meeting area, six pairs of rubber boots line the wall and there’s a Heintzman & Co. grand piano with a Canadian flag draped over it.

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“Welcome to our disaster recovery centre,” says NMC president and CEO Andrew Mosker, who a few minutes later would break down as he described what happened to the place – damaged historic instruments and artifacts, and a slew of cancelled events, ranging from student piano recitals to a fundraiser featuring Serena Ryder.

“I feel badly about not being able to serve the public like we have for the last 15 years. I can’t believe it,” said Mosker, his head in his hands. “I feel badly for the people that really care about this place and about this building. I just want to be able to give it back to them as soon as possible.”

As the Calgary Stampede is under way – minus KISS, Carly Rae Jepsen and a couple of other big-draw stadium concerts – some artists and arts organizations are struggling to get back in the saddle. With damaged collections and equipment, lost archives, cancelled shows and the scramble for new venues, it’s been hell after the high water.

The Calgary Arts Development Authority, which is tracking the losses to arts organizations and artists, has gathered a pile of horror stories: Years of work or rare materials used in art-making – gone. A shop full of rare and second-hand books – destroyed. A major music festival’s big weekend – cancelled. It all adds up, CADA estimates, to more than $3-million in damages – although it’s early days yet and that’s a conservative estimate.

“It’s still really difficult to tell because people are still tabulating,” says CADA president and CEO Terry Rock, who met with more than 35 agencies from around the province last week to create a concerted Alberta arts rebuild response. CADA has also established a Calgary Arts Flood Rebuild fund, which as of late last Thursday had received more than $100,000 in donations.

The damage figure will grow substantially once the National Music Centre’s losses are determined. The NMC – with its collection of more than 2,000 instruments and artifacts – has suffered several million dollars in damages (officials can’t be more specific than that at this point), surely making it the hardest hit arts organization in the city, in terms of dollars. The organization is insured, but the work ahead is staggering.

The NMC is scheduled to move out of its current home once the new centre – under construction, it was temporarily flooded but not damaged – opens in 2015. Officials were in the midst of negotiating a contract for an off-site storage facility when the flood happened. While the core collection (including the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio and Elton John’s old piano) was safe, more than 200 items – including 143 pianos plus electronic instruments, its entire collection of electronic parts and its archives – were stored in the basement, which was hit with up to half a metre of water.

Among the lost item: A Chamberlin tape replay prototype, invented by Harry Chamberlin, and described by Mosker as the first machine in the history of music to tape a sound and be able to play it back via a keyboard, so in essence, the first real “sampler.” Workers tried to save it that Thursday night before the building was evacuated by elevating it onto a riser, but it was futile.

“When I went down there on Saturday and saw it, this much of it” – Mosker holds his hands more than 30 centimetres apart – “still was in water. I found that heartbreaking.”

A square 1810 Kolbe piano made in Vienna and recently restored and in “beautiful working condition,” according to Mosker, was also damaged. Another instrument that sustained serious damage was a stunning art-deco-inspired Gaveau grand piano dating to 1926, with a sunburst design on the lid.

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