Calgary more open-minded than it looks

City’s ‘cowboys and CEOs’ just need to be enticed

Throughout 2010 Fast Forward Weekly is tapping into Calgarians to get their take on Calgary’s future.

What would you be doing if you weren’t working at the Calgary Folk Music Festival?

I once thought I wanted to work at the CRTC or the Canada Council being their music officer. Or in radio that’d be the other possibility — I used to have an idea that I’d be a producer at CBC radio.

What’s the best movie you saw last year?

In the Loop . I love all the sarcastic comments. It’s a really political film and I love how the Brits just take each other apart.

What was your most memorable birthday?

For my 40th birthday we had a 40 in ’04 party. There were five of us turning 40 around the same time and we had a big party at the Uptown. People wore outfits from the ’60s and we had food that we thought you would eat in the ’60s like what do you call it… celery with Cheez Whiz and raisins.

On the surface Calgary looks like cowboys and CEOs. When you scratch that surface though you realize you can go out on any night in Calgary and there can be four or five really wonderful unknown bands playing with crowds at every one of them. Sometimes I get disheartened when there’s thousands of people who go to the Saddledome for something I don’t see as very interesting and then there’s only a hundred people at a really great artist but I think that’s just what you get with non-mainstream culture. On the whole Calgary audiences are actually quite open-minded.

I’m a downtown person though and there is a disconnect between the downtown and the suburbs. I know there’s been some work with the cultural district and trying to convey that “Hey it’s cheap to park downtown and it’s not that scary.” But if people come downtown to see our festival and they have a good time or they come downtown to a great restaurant theatre piece restaurant or a club those are the kinds of things that change your mind. You can only stomp your feet and yell for so long.

It’s like with the folk fest. We used to say “You know it’s not just folk. You might really like it.” But you have to actually make people want to come; you have to program a great event with a great vibe. You don’t have to scream and yell that it’s really cool and you’re going to love it. — they’re going to come and see it and decide for themselves if they love it.

The best art shakes people out of their comfort zones and makes them think but you don’t necessarily have to let people know that you’re shaking them out of their comfort zone. As much as I get angry with Calgary’s abundance of Hummers and the lack of bike racks and dedicated bike lanes there are certain ways to approach things that tend to be more positive. You don’t say to people “You’re not cool we’re cool.” That didn’t work in high school and it doesn’t work now — you have to actually make people want to participate in art and culture.

Right now there’s just a lot happening in Calgary in terms of the number of festivals and venues and artists in all disciplines. It’s very exciting but maybe there’s a bit of the Darwinian thing happening. It’s not quite survival of the fittest but if some events don’t capture the public’s attention don’t sell enough tickets or aren’t sustainable themselves then some may go away. There’s definitely a benefit to having so many festivals in town though. They tend to increase the city’s prominence and respect — I think that both folk fest and Sled Island have changed the way that people think about what Calgary has to offer.

I don’t think touring festivals like Virgin Fest really add to the city’s culture. What they do say though is that we’re a pretty international place and there’s a lot of competition in the market and that we’re seen as a destination with large and open-minded audiences. Festivals like that wouldn’t come here if the scene wasn’t strong if the city wasn’t strong for ticket sales and audiences.

Projects like the new Cantos building and the folk fest hall are really important and I think they’re very exciting. Cantos especially just because of how grandiose it’s going to be and the beauty of the architecture; it’s going to really enhance the scene and also bring attention to Calgary on a larger scale. A lot of the great cities in the world have a key building that attracts attention and tourists like the Sydney Opera House or the Seattle Experience Music Project and I think Cantos might be that building for Calgary.

It’s been identified that there’s a lack of cultural spaces in the city — I don’t think this takes away from all the really great clubs in Calgary but it’s important that there are options for performers in terms of the type of venues they can play and that there are places where what’s presented isn’t necessarily driven by bar sales. Because so many times you run into people who want to do a CD release or do something collaborative that’s outside of the box with another organization and there isn’t an obvious venue for that. Or if there is it’s just too pricey and that’s something we hope to change with our festival hall.

Even still one of the strengths of Calgary’s culture overall and particularly in music is a strong DIY ethic. You don’t sit around and wait for government funding. If people think they have a good CD they’re going to put it out anyway and they’re going to sell it at their shows and they’re going to tour. They’re going to make it happen.