Contemporary cause

Visual arts organizations join forces and face challenges

The December 19 2013 announcement that three of Calgary’s public contemporary arts institutions were merging was celebrated by some as an overdue move though questions linger as to how it will work and whether it can succeed.

During the institutions’ respective annual general meetings in December the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary (MOCA) the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC) and the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art (IMCA) each elected to come together to form Contemporary Calgary a body that aspires to be the city’s focal point for contemporary art. While they hope to eventually set up shop in the former planetarium in downtown Calgary’s west end for the time being Contemporary Calgary will operate out of the AGC building on Stephen Avenue.

“Based on months of organizational and competitive analysis on the part of all three merging organizations we all believe that the time has come for a signature contemporary and modern art institution in our city” says former IMCA director and current Contemporary Calgary co-chair Daryl Fridhandler.

Calgary’s arts community has long bemoaned the lack of a public collecting contemporary art gallery in the city. Former MOCA director and current Contemporary Calgary co-chair Carol Ryder says lack of funding was always the main hindrance.

“Arts funding is shrinking not just because of government cutbacks but because of the fact that there’s less dollars and many causes and people want to spend their dollars wisely…. In order to survive we need to not be in competition” she says. Ideally the amalgamation means the three groups can work together for the same donor dollar rather than competing against each other for it as they have done for the past 20 years of their shared existence.

Contemporary Calgary’s interim managing director Terry Rock agrees.

“When it’s fragmented it’s tougher” he says adding that when it comes to visual arts “revenue generation opportunities are lower than in other sectors of the arts.”

Yet Contemporary Calgary faces perhaps some greater challenges. IMCA though 20 years old is barely known to the general public. MOCA enters the merger with only two paid staff members and an artistic director Jeffrey Spalding justly preoccupied by his battle with cancer. AGC has always struggled financially and with the perception that it has poor management never more so than when its CEO of eight years Valerie Cooper was charged in 2012 with defrauding the gallery of $500000 — she pleaded guilty in 2013 to defrauding the gallery of $100000 and is serving a one-year jail sentence.

When the amalgamation was announced last month the AGC was operating at a deficit without a permanent senior manager and carrying a $1.6 million mortgage on its Steven Avenue headquarters.

“Val Cooper did everyone such a major disservice in the arts community…. [It] put a really permanent bad dent in the Art Gallery of Calgary” admits Ryder though she is quick to change the subject to dreams of a better future.

“Once [Contemporary Calgary is] registered there is no AGC there is no MOCA it’s just going to be Contemporary Calgary” says Ryder. “We’re going to do it well. We’re refinancing. We’ll be doing some major fund development. We’re getting new partners…. We’re going to have really good board governance.”

Rock is aware of the problems the three institutions are bringing with them into this merger but he also knows how much Calgary wants a single strong contemporary art gallery.

In 2012 while Rock was still the president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development he organized meetings between top donors and representatives of the city’s visual arts organizations to discuss how to build support for contemporary art.

“We had a bunch of funders around the table on one side and a bunch of arts organizations on the other side. We just started the dialogue and it was clear that there was a desire to bring contemporary art to the fore in Calgary and work together as a group to do it” says Rock. With the creation of Contemporary Calgary Rock shares Ryder’s eagerness to move forward.

“Everyone is focused on the future” he says. “All the effort’s going to be in just looking forward and having a conversation with the funders and saying that the past is past and this is what the plan is for the future.

“I hope that there’s a honeymoon period with this group. This is not a simple thing to do to consolidate three organizations and we really I think need people to stay patient and watch for what we do and not speculate” he says.

Contemporary Calgary intends to retain all of IMCA MOCA and AGC’s current staff. A 2014 programming and events schedule is expected to be announced in January or February.