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Gallery Views

Calgary: a visual arts scene takes flight
(part one of a three-part series)

By MARYSE DE LA GIRODAY
nano@frogheart.ca

Cynthia Girard, Justice

Cynthia Girard, Justice (2013), detail Courtesy of Esker Foundation, Calgary / Photo: Guy L’Heureux


Calling this a history-making time for Calgary’s visual arts scene is an understatement for many reasons. Here are four.

The Glenbow’s president and CEO, Donna Livingstone, staff, volunteers and board are transforming the venerable organization from within. Glenbow’s focus is shifting from an art and history museum to a new kind of art museum promoting creativity and the art of making (or “maker culture,” as the science/technology community would have it). Livingstone is also on the board of Calgary’s new festival, Beakerhead, a smashup of art, science and engineering. As she enthuses, “Calgary is coming of age as a contemporary arts centre.” And so is the Glenbow, remaining in its current location while increasing exhibit turnover, expanding a second entrance and preparing for its 50th anniversary in 2016.

It seems fitting, with its mobile name, that the artist-run centre Truck marked its 30th anniversary by doubling its size with a move out of its basement premises earlier in 2014. Renato Vitic, Truck’s executive director, reflects, “I think there are some large things on the horizon for Calgary, but I also think there’s going to be a long road ahead.”

Meantime, Truck recently co-hosted, with the Alberta College of Art + Design, members of “Postcommodity,” a US-based, transdisciplinary aboriginal artists’ collective. And in early September 2014, Truck will be participating in Calgary’s Intersite Visual Arts Festival where “an unsuspecting public and advocates for contemporary art practices” will be engaged in the visual arts.

By contrast with Truck and other arts institutions that rely on government funding and their own fundraising acumen, the Esker Foundation enjoys the luxury of a unique business model. The gallery – the largest privately funded (oil and gas money) contemporary art space in Calgary – finds fundraising and grant writing unnecessary. Opened in 2012, it occupies the top floor of its own building, renting out space to tenants willing to pay above-market value rent for the privilege of being close to a gallery that regularly has lineups for opening night.

Naomi Potter, the Esker’s director/curator, says, “All of our activities are designed to be additive. We address the gaps in the local, regional, national, and international arts scenes.” They have an upcoming Terms of Engagement exhibit featuring photography from three artists embedded with Canadian troops in hot spots such as Afghanistan.

Finally, Contemporary Calgary stands as an example of the dynamism and toughness of Calgary’s visual arts scene. After the Art Gallery of Calgary’s (AGC) former CEO, Valerie Cooper (an accountant by profession), was convicted of embezzling $100,000 from the organization and sentenced to a year in jail in 2013, a group of Calgarians decided this was an opportunity for creative destruction. The AGC was joined with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art (IMCA) to become Contemporary Calgary (CC).

Today, the newly risen CC is the selected proponent in the city’s plan to revitalize its former planetarium and science centre. While maintaining two gallery venues, CC is preparing a November 1, 2014, fundraiser – “Occupy the planetarium (in raw form)” – in hopes of moving into the building’s 7,000-square-foot annex by the second quarter of 2015. Daryl Fridhandler, art collector, lawyer and CC board co-chair, is referring to more than just the new location when he says, “It’s amazing how something ugly can be beautiful.”

Calgary’s current visual arts scene: history-making, aspirational and gritty are the least of it.

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