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Alex Sarian is the CEO of Calgary's Arts Commons.Supplied

When Calgary City Council approved $200-million this week for its downtown revitalization project, the biggest chunk of money went to a theatre project. With the vote on Monday, Arts Commons was granted $80-million for the first phase of its transformation project, which will see a new purpose-built theatre complex connected by an elevated corridor to its current home across the street.

The idea of the Greater Downtown Plan is to bring vibrancy to the city’s core, currently suffering from soaring vacancy rates due to the economic downturn, exacerbated by the pandemic.

“What I found so magical about Monday is that the arts are embedded into that plan,” says Arts Commons President and CEO Alex Sarian, pointing to the large investment in the project. Arts Commons received more funding than went to financial incentives for office conversion and new residential development, more than went to improving public spaces. “What that says to me is that embedded in this larger hope for our city’s future is the fact that the arts need to be central to that.”

Arts Commons is a gigantic multi-theatre venue that takes up a full city block. When it opened in 1985, it was one of the largest performing arts spaces in North America. It now has six resident companies: Alberta Theatre Projects, Theatre Calgary, One Yellow Rabbit, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Arts Commons Presents and Downstage. In addition to the theatres, there are rehearsal spaces, administrative offices, a costume and set construction shop, and a box office. About 200 community groups also use the facility.

The expansion, in total a $450-million proposal known as Arts Commons Transformation (ACT), would see Arts Commons increase its seating capacity by about 35 per cent, with the brand new 150,000- to 170,000-square-foot adjoining facility, which they are calling The Roadhouse.

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The first phase of the Arts Commons transformation project will see a new purpose-built theatre complex connected by an elevated corridor to its current home across the street.Arts Commons

That is to be followed by significant upgrades to the current building, providing technical and lifecycle upgrades to the three biggest venues, including the Jack Singer Concert Hall, reimagining the basement Engineered Air Theatre and replacing the Motel Theatre and Big Secret Theatre with new state-of-the-art flexible performance spaces.

A top priority will be upgrading the lobbies and public spaces to become more welcoming and inclusive. The performance venues are currently connected by a labyrinth of not necessarily user-friendly public spaces. That’s once patrons manage to get inside.

“The parallel I always give is: if I said to you meet me at Lincoln Center, you and I probably both know it’s by the fountain. If I say to you meet me at Arts Commons, we’re going to be walking around for an hour, and we’re going to lose each other,” says Sarian.

Sarian comes to this comparison through experience. He came to Calgary last year from New York, where he spent seven years at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, ultimately as the senior executive responsible for the storied institution’s portfolio of arts education, community engagement and youth and family programming.

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The current Arts Commons building in Calgary.Arts Commons

He arrived in Calgary with big plans.

The new facility across the street, which will be built around a heritage building now housing a restaurant, will include a 1,000- to 1,200-seat theatre, plus two smaller performance venues. In addition to the $80-million granted this week, ACT had already secured $160-million in funding from all three levels of government for this project. It will launch a private fundraising campaign this year.

The pre-design phase is already underway, with a full project team, including lead architect, to be selected by this summer, a design unveiled by the end of 2022 and groundbreaking scheduled to begin in 2023 or 2024, at the latest.

Phase two would then see the modernization of the existing facility – to be known as The Resident House.

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The Arts Commons plan calls for the construction of a new facility, along with the modernization of the current building.Arts Commons

As to the main-entrance question, Sarian isn’t sure Arts Commons will ever really have one – it’s going to be too big for that, he says. But the better question might be: What should its focal point be? He’s thinking a lot about Olympic Plaza, which shares the block where The Roadhouse is planned and is across the street from the current building.

While timelines are obviously a work in progress, Sarian says he hopes to have the whole project completed in nine years at the very latest.

The elephant in the room in all of this is the economic downturn, not to mention the pandemic. Is this what a struggling Calgary really needs – or can afford: more theatre space? Might this elephant in the room be white?

Sarian says this has all helped create the right environment for the project – to demonstrate its need, to allow it to happen. It would also contribute to economic diversification and recovery, he says.

“One of the things that COVID has presented us with is this massive pause button in which we need to reevaluate the state of the world, and in evaluating the state of the world, we need to evaluate the relationship it has with the arts,” says Sarian. In supporting this project, he says the city is showing how important the arts are to its vision – a way to add to quality of life in the downtown, to attract and retain businesses and people.

“It’s important to invest in oneself in times of crisis, and the same is true from an infrastructure perspective,” he adds. “And there’s no better time to imagine a brighter future than when we have been given the gift of time to reflect.”

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