The arts scene in Calgary is about to get a big, Stampede-sized boost.
Earlier this month, Arts Commons, the largest arts centre in Western Canada, appointed Sarah Garton Stanley as its new vice-president of programming.
The Commons, located in the heart of downtown Calgary, is a multivenue arts centre that includes five theatres, six gallery spaces and a 1,800-seat concert hall. It is the home to six resident arts companies, among them Alberta Theatre Projects, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, One Yellow Rabbit and Theatre Calgary. Currently, it is in the midst of the Arts Commons Transformation Project, a revitalization scheme that the centre is calling the “largest cultural infrastructure project in Canada.”
“The first time I went there, when the ATP did Angels in America [in 1996], I couldn’t believe what a great space it was – it felt like a shopping mall of theatres, and it blew my Toronto mind,” says Stanley, on the phone from Yarmouth, N.S.
Stanley comes to the Arts Commons after a decades-long career that has included being the first female artistic director of the queer theatre company Buddies in Bad Times, the founding artistic director of Canada’s first live-to-digital performance hybrid company spiderwebshow.ca and co-founder of the Festival of Live Digital Art.
Most recently, she’s been at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, where she led The Cycle, a seven-year project that examined performing arts practices in relation to Indigenous creation, deaf, disability and mad arts and climate. Since July, 2022, she’s been the artistic producer for the NAC’s National Creation Fund, which has funded huge works such as the two-part adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall on Your Knees, Mahabharata (which is travelling to the UK’s Barbican this fall) and Kid Koala’s The Storyville Mosquito.
Born in Montreal, Stanley has lived in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Yarmouth – she and her partner are co-stewards of the historic Birchdale property in Nova Scotia. As a director, she’s worked in every province in the country.
“But I feel so excited about being in Calgary and thinking about Canada from there,” she says. Stanley begins work at Arts Commons on September 20. She spoke with the Globe about the appointment.
How would you describe the Arts Commons to people who don’t know it?
It’s an idea for a space that can reflect both what Calgary is today and what Calgary wishes to be tomorrow. And it has a number of different spaces in which to do that. Yes, it’s a big complex where people can gather, go to the symphony or the theatre or see visual art. But it’s very much a place that’s working to be in conversation with the city. So it’s civic. It’s going to be a change from a position where I was trying to understand a national perspective to a place where I’ll be proudly digging in and asking, “Okay, what are we, Calgary? How do we want to be? Who do we want to speak to? How do we want to say it?” And I’m really stoked about that.
Are you going to be programming yourself, or overseeing programming?
Arts Commons itself has resident companies and a presenting wing, a social impact wing, an education wing. There are associate directors already working in those fields. I will definitely have a hand in the vision for how we program and will be responsible for ensuring that we fulfil the budgetary aims. Perhaps more important philosophically is how we’ll be thinking about programming. I think a lot about micro-programming for micro audiences; that doesn’t mean one audience member for one performer. It’s more about looking at all the different cultural enclaves and interests and thinking about programming specifically to those needs. If there is crossover, great, but I’m not trying to be general in the way we program. It’s about allowing a whole wide buffet of different selections that are very particular to groups. I struggle with the democratization of culture that says, “This should be good for everybody.” I’m much more into cultural democracy that says, “This came out of this place, and it’s probably really interesting to these folks, and possibly others.”
What came out of your work at the NAC on The Cycle, and has that affected your vision for the Commons?
The first thing that came out of that was the Indigenous Theatre Department at the NAC. The second thing was a wide-ranging approach to relaxed performances, different accessible performances and the need for them across the country. Climate was the trickiest and the most personal learning, because it happened at the apex of COVID and the murder of George Floyd. Looking at concepts like the climate emergency, and understanding how certain people have very different ways of understanding it has a lot to do with class, race, education, any number of determinants. It feels like we are at a precipitous moment, but I don’t know what that is going to mean.
The money for the creation fund at the NAC came entirely from private donors. Do you think that is going to play a bigger role in the arts going forward?
I hope so. A big part of my job during my last year there was to raise the profile of creation as an idea within the philanthropic and non-arts creative world – from people who appreciate the arts. It’s an interesting sell – difficult but necessary. Without it, we really are running out of options for creating new work from exciting new voices.
With the recent rise of intolerance against LGBTQ people, how do you feel as a queer person in a position of arts leadership out west?
I live in rural southwest Nova Scotia and we have been so welcomed here. The idea that rural means one thing, regarding tolerance, and urban means another is, from my experience, false. In taking on this role at Arts Commons, I anticipate being measured by the quality of my actions and the strength of my character. And that strength has been built over years of carving out opportunities for myself and all people of this land who have felt othered. So while I don’t anticipate more or less intolerance in Calgary than I would in Toronto or Ottawa, I believe that part of the reason I have been give this shot is because Calgary is a place that cares about action, it wants to see what’s possible, and it will back the rider who is truly willing to ride the horse.
Recent reports have shown that theatres, especially in North America, aren’t back to their prepandemic levels. Why is this – and can you see solutions?
There are so many reasons: an aging-out population, which happens cyclically anyway; changed habits, which could not have been predicted; policies that made it easier for people to get by during the COVID years are gone and now those same places and spaces are trying to make sense of how expensive it is to actually produce again; rising interest rates.
What does it mean to speak to an audience now, versus what it meant to speak to them prepandemic and presocial media? What does it mean that social media now won’t show this article? The crisis is here, and it’d be foolhardy to look away. The solutions will come. I’m not going to have them. But together, I think a whole bunch of us will.
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