FFWD REWNews & Views

City arts authority reviewing policies

Vacant buildings could become multi-use arts hubs

“Calgary has no arts scene.” It’s a bold oft-heard statement as stale and old as it is disingenuous.

However the fact remains that many of Calgary’s artistic talents struggle to find adequate spaces to hone their skills. Low annual incomes pricey rental spaces and a maze of confusing zoning bylaws often send local artists packing to more art-friendly cities such as Montreal and Vancouver.

While Calgary’s few non-profit artistic spaces offer some glimmer of hope they often come with an expiry date. Artpoint Gallery and Studios in Inglewood is in the path of the future southeast LRT line; the Ant Hill building in Kensington home to the bimonthly Market Collective is slated to make way for a multi-use development; the 8000-square-metre Seafood Market in the East Village now houses 14 studios but it too is scheduled for the wrecking ball.

Meanwhile publicly and privately owned buildings such as the old A&B Sound on Stephen Avenue and the iconic Cecil Hotel sit shuttered awaiting new tenants or perhaps even demolition.

It’s those unused spaces that appeal to local theatre company Swallow-a-Bicycle. “That’s all we want to do” says Mark Hopkins the theatre’s co-artistic director . “We see these beautiful gorgeous interesting empty buildings everywhere that are sitting empty that in my opinion are way more interesting than a lot of theatres.”

“Certainly any lack of art spaces has been a detriment to the arts community and all of its genres not just performing arts but visual arts studio spaces rehearsal spaces and performance spaces” he adds.

But the Calgary Arts Development Authority and the city are aiming to fill some of those empty spaces. CADA recently wrapped up its Space Demand and Preferences survey of Calgary’s arts community while the city is reviewing leases on all its properties and is expected to report back to council in June 2011.

“We’re trying to create a better enabling environment” says Reid Henry CADA’s director of art spaces initiatives. “That’s a soft way of saying ‘We’re going to look at zoning temporary spaces and also look at fairly large-scale development projects that we can facilitate and work on to create really stable environments for arts work in the city.’ ”

Henry moved from Toronto to Calgary six months ago leaving behind his job at Artscape a non-profit real estate development organization aimed at building affordable stable facilities for artists such as live/work studios small theatres and rehearsal spaces.

He now plans to apply the same techniques developed in Hogtown to Cowtown’s arts community. First up examining and modifying the existing licensing permits building codes and bylaws.

Agility and flexibility are required for small arts organizations and collectives to be able to sustain themselves says Henry. “That’s difficult to typically manage in a zoning environment which is not about flexibility” he says.

Angel Guerra co-founder of the Market Collective agrees saying that some of the zoning issues are confusing and complicated. “In Ant Hill we can have a market but you can’t have a theatre project because you can’t have permanent seating but if people are walking around it’s OK” she says. “I think most people would look at the system and quit because it’s not that clear.”

Despite all the bureaucratic hurdles and pending demise of the Ant Hill building the Market Collective is one of the great success stories in Calgary’s arts community. Its bimonthly weekend market regularly draws 3000 to 4000 patrons. Dozens of artists and musicians sell their wares and perform. Another 63 artists sit on a wait-list hoping for a coveted spot at an upcoming event.

At one point Guerra and her co-founding partner Angela Dione considered renting the building from the Calgary Parking Authority then subleasing studio space between markets. However red tape discouraged them from following through.

“It was one of our issues with taking it on full time. We would have lots of people wanting to use the building but would not be able to rent it for some reason or another” says Guerra.

Another solution says Henry is to develop a policy with the city’s corporate properties division to use city-owned buildings as temporary art spaces — similar to the Seafood Market in the East Village.

But even within the pool of city-owned buildings there are at best a dozen that would fit the bill says Henry.

“It’s not a treasure trove of spaces” he says. “When you tour some of these semi-temporary spaces in the downtown core the quality of the spaces is in pretty rough shape because that’s what’s affordable.”

It’s a similar undertaking in which the city and CADA commissioned a report in 2007 aimed at helping the city understand what kind of city spaces were needed for artists.

That work resulted in the Arts Spaces Investment Program in 2008 which saw 14 projects receive funding for cultural infrastructure.

In 2007 the province pledged $3.3 billion to the city over 10 years through the municipal sustainable initiative (MSI) grant program. City council then allocated $165 million of the MSI fund to capital infrastructure projects for arts and culture.

About $75 million of that has been “tentatively allocated or firmly committed” to various projects including the Cantos National Music Centre the Pumphouse Theatre expansion the Folk Festival Hall in Inglewood and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame says Beth Gignac manager of arts and culture for the city.

Within the first quarter of 2011 the city and CADA will put a call out for new proposals “for the next round of cultural spaces investment program” says Gignac.

“This is a community process” says Gignac. “It is incumbent upon the community to declare to us CADA and the City of Calgary where they think the investment should be placed and it’s incumbent upon the community to provide proposals to direct our investment.”

The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation’s initiative in the East Village is a perfect example of what should be happening in Calgary with derelict buildings says Hopkins. In 4 CADA convinced the CMLC to let artists use the Seafood Market until it is demolished.

“Really I’m just fascinated to find out what the results of the study are because I know what I would like to see as an artist in the city but I’d like to know what the issues are that are facing other artists” says Hopkins. “Just because I would love to get a warehouse to use and love to get that bylaw relaxed maybe that’s not the best use of resources.”