Room to Create

How new spaces are breathing life into Calgary art and culture

By Maureen McNamee

As dancers leap, stretch and creep across the floor of one of the studios in the new Decidedly Jazz Danceworks space, they appear as silhouettes against a bright downtown backdrop visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. The dancers are rehearsing their roles as insects in New Universe, which debuted last spring for the grand opening of the DJD Dance Centre.

The much-needed space was one of five new facilities to open in Calgary in the last 18 months as the result of an initiative called the Cultural Space Investment Process (CSIP). A 2007 inventory had found that Calgary’s major arts facilities were at capacity, with the city having fewer purpose-built visual and performing arts spaces overall (and fewer seats per capita) than Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Austin or Seattle. The number of performance-space seats per capita had fallen 25 per cent in the previous two decades. Calgary Arts Development (CADA) and the City of Calgary created CSIP to evaluate projects and make funding recommendations. In 2008 the City designated 5 per cent, or $165-million, of Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding it would receive from the province over 10 years to culture-related infrastructure.

Dance space was one of the priorities. Calgary is home to two major dance companies, Alberta Ballet and DJD, a degree program in dance at the University of Calgary and the international Fluid Fest presented by Springboard Dance. The number of dance organizations and attendance at performances has been rising, but growth has been hampered by the shortage of affordable and appropriate space—dance is a physical art form that requires sprung floors, good ventilation and open areas without pillars.

A professional dance company founded in 1984, DJD has 60 original productions under its belt as well as thousands of students of all ages, including some with Parkinson’s disease. But its old space on 4th Street SW was accessed by a narrow stairway. It had chips in the walls, desks so old they weren’t designed for computers, a costume room that looked like an overstuffed closet, and a dim and dingy changing room with repurposed lockers. The only bright spot was a hallway lined with framed DJD show posters illustrating the company’s long history. Executive director Kathi Sundstrom says the company was saving every spare dollar for what became a 10-year effort to build the new $26-million centre.

As of 2005 DJD’s rent was doubling every five years, she recalls, but the company couldn’t boost its revenue because the studios were heavily booked. Sundstrom says DJD supported artists—whether from the company or the community—by allowing them to use the studios for creative and rehearsal space whenever they were empty. “They often had to come after hours and late at night because that was the only time we had available,” she says.

The company decided it needed a philanthropic partner for a landlord. The Kahanoff Foundation, which provided affordable office space for non-profit organizations, became that partner. When the economy faltered in 2008, so did the plan. In 2012 the Kahanoff turned its assets over to the Calgary Foundation, and a new plan was hatched to create space for DJD on the first five floors of a new 12-storey build-ing next door to the Kahanoff Centre on 12th Avenue SE, with additional office space for non-profit organizations above.

DJD studios were heavily booked. Dancers “often had to come late at night because that was the only time we had available.”

The DJD Dance Centre received $5.5-million in cultural MSI funding through the city, with the rest coming from the Calgary Foundation, provincial and federal governments and private donors. The project broke ground in April 2014. When DJD moved in two years later, the company went from having 10,000 ft2 with three studios to just under 40,000 ft2 and seven studios—including one that converts into a 230-seat theatre. “We’ve never before been able to create a show in the same space it’s going to be performed in,” Sundstrom says.

New Universe, the title of the first show at the new DJD Dance Centre, was fitting—the space is nothing like the company’s former cramped quarters. Bright and spacious, it’s filled with natural light from the wall of windows on the north side of each floor that offer views of downtown from the inside and a glimpse of the action in the studios from the outside. The cityscape will provide a backdrop for some performances, but the theatre also converts into a black box. Behind the scenes is a large costume room and locker rooms with plenty of lights and mirrors. Participants in the Dancing Parkinson’s YYC classes can now access studios from an elevator on the main floor.

The new centre allows DJD to create more shows per season, each with a longer run. They can also double the number of classes to 80 and rent out studio and performance space to other organizations. “Dance has been one of those disciplines in the city that just didn’t have the appropriate space,” says CADA president and CEO Patti Pon. “The new DJD space gives recognition to their legitimacy as a dance company.”

In the last year and a half, four other high-profile facilities recommended for cultural MSI funding opened in Calgary: MRU’s Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts, including the 787-seat Bella Concert Hall; the National Music Centre in the East Village; the 85,000 ft2 Calgary Film Centre in the southeast; and the first phase of cSPACE King Edward arts incubator, a work in progress. “All of the spaces are stunning,” says Pon. “It feels like a culmination because now you’re starting to see a critical mass of these openings. We’re seeing the benefit of almost 10 years into a strategy.”

The Centennial Planetarium, recognized for its brutalist architecture, was built in 1967. (photo: Richard White)

Unlike the new facilities, cSPACE King Edward is a century-old sandstone school in South Calgary that is being transformed into an “arts incubator,” with offices, studios and exhibition space for artists, arts organizations and non-profits. cSPACE is part of an initiative started in 2011 by CADA in partnership with the Calgary Foundation to make room outside the city centre for emerging and established artists alike in a multitude of genres. The plan is to retrofit existing buildings in inner-city neighbourhoods to develop a network of affordable, sustainable, multi-tenant workspaces across Calgary.

Pon says the program will encourage graduates coming out of arts programs at the Alberta College of Art + Design, the
U of C and Mount Royal University to stay in the city. “What are we doing to keep them?” she asks. “Creating space literally and figuratively for emerging artists is really important.”

Reid Henry, president and chief executive of cSPACE, describes the project as a “social enterprise” and strategic response to the need for arts and cultural space. cSPACE King Edward—the first project to launch under that larger program—is a 47,000-ft2 facility complete with an outdoor sculpture garden. The building has rental units as small as 250 ft2 and as big as 830 ft2 that can be used for offices, studios, exhibitions and rehearsal space. Reid says King Edward will not only provide space for artists to work and interact but for the community to gather. The project received approval for $5-million in cultural MSI funding through the city in 2011 and another $1.5-million in 2015.

The first phase of the project was completed in December 2016 and the first tenants arrived in January. The second phase, slated for completion by fall 2017, is the addition of a modern west wing with space that can be rented for revenue to help cover King Edward’s operating costs—meeting rooms, co-working space for freelancers or tenants who need occasional extra space, event space and a 125-seat theatre. The old three-storey building’s character has remained intact. The wide corridors are flanked by classrooms that feature the original blackboards and mouldings. In several areas, sections of original brick are left exposed. Large windows on the north side provide natural light as well as views of downtown. Beneath the surface are many changes. The building now meets LEED Gold standards for energy efficiency, walls have been reinforced for hanging artwork, the wiring and heating have been updated and hallway lighting can be adapted for different uses, including highlighting or projecting artwork.

The smallest spaces are found in the “hive” on the top floor, where the attic has been turned into studios for working artists. One of those artists, Arkatyiis Miller, was giddy when she first saw hers. A graduate of ACAD, she needed an affordable space to create her large, abstract conceptual drawings, and the idea of interacting with other artists in the same building appealed. “I want to do something really, really grand and there just isn’t space to do it anywhere else,” she says. “It’s perfect for me in every way.”

Nikki Loach of Quest Theatre, another tenant, says she was drawn to King Edward not only because the space is subsidized and affordable but because it offers a sense of community. Quest Theatre, Loach says, looks forward to working with its new neighbour, the Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society, which has an office in the building and will share rehearsal space.

The project has not been without hurdles. To help offset the cost of the land purchase and renovation, a portion of the school site was to be sold to a developer for affordable live–work artists housing. The $33.5-million budget was higher than expected and funding came in slower than anticipated. Construction was delayed and the original plan had to be revised. Instead of artist housing, the residential portion of the site will now include seniors housing on the east side and luxury condos on the west. Meanwhile, some of the arts organizations that initially wanted to become tenants made other arrangements.

Quickdraw Animation Society was interested in cSPACE King Edward at the outset, but executive director Peter Hemminger says they weren’t sure the building could meet their space or budget requirements. When the project was delayed, they couldn’t wait any longer. Quickdraw was on a month-to-month lease because their landlord planned to tear down the building and redevelop the site. Like DJD, Quickdraw didn’t want to invest money in a temporary space. In the meantime the 32-year-old organization was running classes in rooms with no flooring.

Public art museums are some of the most exciting and dynamic spaces being built these days.

The same economic downturn that delayed King Edward also delayed plans to tear down Quickdraw’s building. That bought some extra time, during which vacancy rates and affordability improved. The society recently moved to a space in Sunalta that has offices at the front and a warehouse at the back with the 12-foot clearance required for animation equipment. Quickdraw is now neighbours with other organizations that found affordable space: Truck Gallery, Beakerhead, Emmedia and three theatre companies—Ghost River, Green Fools and Calgary’s Young People’s Theatre—that came together to share a space they’ve named West Village Theatre.

As for cSPACE King Edward, the final list of 29 tenants includes a mix of emerging and established visual artists and designers, non-profit organizations and a preschool. The Maria Montessori Educational Centre for children age 19 months to 6 years will occupy the largest space in the building. The Alberta Craft Council, which operates a large public gallery in Edmonton, will open a long-awaited exhibition space in Calgary. Quest Theatre and Making Treaty 7 will be joined by the Forte Musical Theatre Guild and Theatre Encounter. Alliance Française, the Alexandra Writers’ Centre, the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association and the Calgary Association of Lifelong Learners will all rent office space.

Under CADA’s strategy, 450,000 ft2 of arts and cultural space has been added to the city centre and seating capacity has increased by more than 1,800. Joni Carroll, CADA’s arts spaces consultant, describes CSIP as a “small but mighty” tool that has helped projects attract further investment from provincial, federal and private sources. Combined, the projects have leveraged six times the MSI funding designated for cultural spaces, she says.

Nonetheless, gaps remain. Calgary’s 2007 inventory found that attendance at visual arts exhibitions was increasing exponentially, while at the same time Calgary still lacks a contemporary art museum. But progress is being made. In 2014 three visual arts organizations merged to form the new Contemporary Calgary in an effort to gain support for a bid to turn the Centennial Planetarium at the west end of downtown into a public gallery for contemporary and modern art. The building, recognized for its brutalist architecture, had been vacant since 2011 when the science centre moved.

Contemporary Calgary plans to turn the iconic building into a public gallery for modern and contemporary art. (photo: Grant Hutchinson)

In April 2016, two years after Contemporary Calgary won the bid for the planetarium, the city approved $24.5-million in cultural MSI funding for the organization. The money will help cover the cost of renovating a wing added to the original structure, previously the Creative Kids Museum, to operate as a “Temporary Contemporary” gallery. Director and CEO Pierre Arpin says the funding is a milestone that will enable Contemporary Calgary to move forward with its vision as soon as it has provincial approval and a lease from the city. “It’s such an iconic building and it’s great that we’re able to do something with it,” says Arpin. He adds that the building’s unique spaces will lend themselves to different contemporary art practices—from hanging artwork on the walls of the rotunda to projecting artwork onto the dome. “We don’t always have to work in boxes.”

The organization expects to move on site and open Temporary Contemporary in 2017—50 years after the Centennial Planetarium itself opened in 1967 for Canada’s 100th anniversary. Contemporary Calgary will run exhibitions at Temporary Contemporary while raising money for phase 2, which will bring the rest of the building up to code. The final phase involves installing specialized systems to control temperature and humidity in specific areas of the building—including the addition and the rotunda—so they meet the class A standards required to host international exhibitions. Arpin estimates renovations will be completed sometime in 2020 at a total cost of about $82.5-million—provided there are no surprises. “One of the challenges is we’re dealing with a historic structure,” he says. “We have to be very careful.”

Arpin says public cultural spaces like Contemporary Calgary have the potential to impact the way people interact with art and each other—from their first impression when they walk in the door to their viewing of the art itself. As a child growing up near Ottawa, he recalls his visits to the National Gallery and what are now the Museum of Nature and the Museum of History as “transformational.”

“Public art museums are some of the most exciting and dynamic spaces being built around the world these days. These spaces become magnets for people,” he says. “If we’re working well as civic leaders, if we’re able to provide our citizens with these great spaces… then we’re doing our jobs well.”

Maureen McNamee is an associate editor at Alberta Views.


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