Underdog has eye on the prize

Contemporary Calgary preparing for the next step

The announcement that the city of Calgary had chosen a pitch for a new contemporary art gallery at the old planetarium as the top contender for the space was heralded by many as the long-awaited prize at the end of an arduous journey. But as those involved in the project know all too well it’s just another step in an ongoing process.

“The first step in all this was to bring a number of very committed groups of people together who were all seeking to see something stronger happen in the visual arts in Calgary but if we all continued to work by ourselves we would fracture the effort we all need to unify and become something stronger” says Jeffrey Spalding chief curator at Contemporary Calgary (CC) the new organization resulting from the recent merger of MOCA Calgary the Art Gallery of Calgary and the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art.

The merger which brings the former AGC space on Stephen Avenue and MOCA space at City Hall (now called C and C2 respectively) under one institution was thought necessary for a successful pitch for the planetarium which has been sitting vacant since 2011. Spalding says Calgarians have been expressing their desire for a larger contemporary art gallery for 30 years. “We understand fully that people aspire to see Calgary join the world dialogue about contemporary art and perhaps a larger or stronger unit can help us with our bargaining power to be able to attract and present things of a more compelling and higher nature.”

There is no guarantee however that the planetarium will be suitable for a gallery. “We made a bid for it and obviously believed in it but there’s a lot of diligence that needs to be done… in terms of operating and on the ground” Spalding says.

Regardless of the outcome he says the merger is a step forward because it enables CC to focus its efforts and resources on presenting the type of art the public is hungry for. “We are aspiring to do things that may not have been possible in the past so we’ll be looking a little farther afield across the nation and across the world trying to attract really interesting exhibitions that connect us up to what people are talking about worldwide” he says.

“And that has a different order of magnitude of monetary need than if you were to do very fine exhibitions of artists from this region…. We definitely want to raise money that will bring us more impactful programming.”

To that end Contemporary Calgary will be hosting its first big fundraiser Cinco de Mayo on Saturday May 3 at the main gallery space. It’s an appropriate theme according to Spalding because it originated as a celebration of the underdog coming out ahead in the face of adversity. The event being held in conjunction with the Consulate of Mexico in Calgary will include live music Mexican wrestlers a back-alley barbecue tequila tasting a margarita-making competition a silent auction and more.

While there will be plenty of art on display for the auction there won’t be any on the walls. CC has learned a lesson from the AGC which came under fire for hosting events in the gallery space alongside exhibitions. Spalding says CC will honour previous commitments by AGC to rent the space but the walls will be bare and it won’t rent it out in the future. The policy will reassure individuals and organizations that the artwork will be protected as well as enable the gallery to bring in exhibitions that otherwise would not be made available.

“I know that simply institutions have to do all sorts of things to try and survive. This however was an unfortunate solution that actually doesn’t in the long run help” he adds. “It was really imperative for us to demonstrate to our profession and to the artists and to our public that we mean business and that our business is art not events.”

That commitment may also go a long way in helping CC achieve its other goal — gaining community support. “Raising funds is very important but it’s also important to remember that we have to raise friends as well” says Spalding.

Although the city’s support for CC’s bid brings the possibity of a new contemporary art gallery closer to reality he cautions that it won’t happen unless the public is on board. “That’s an enormous step but it isn’t over and it isn’t done and it isn’t delivered — and it isn’t delivered until the city feels absolutely certain that we can proceed. What I think we all need to do now is declare and declare that we do want to see this happen….

“If we don’t want it there you go just sit on your hands. But if you are excited about it and interested in it there’s no time like the present to show people that you care.”