A new kind of art museum

For anybody who thinks Calgary’s Glenbow is just a museum think again. In February 2014 under the leadership of president and CEO Donna Livingstone Glenbow announced a new direction: “to provide visitors with a new kind of art museum experience.”

“We’re trying to find new ways to connect people with the exhibitions” says Jenny Conway Fisher Glenbow’s manager of marketing and communications. “Over the past two years we’ve been focusing on why the Glenbow is special and meaningful to Calgary. What does Glenbow do that is unique and how do we share that with people? We’re getting closer and closer to an answer.”

Conway Fisher says part of that answer lies in “activating objects” adding that museums worldwide are re-examining traditional approaches in order to be viable in contemporary culture. “We don’t want to be this place that just puts stuff on display. How do you engage people? How do you make it relevant?”

For starters Glenbow offers an extensive and varied menu of programs for both adults and families from launch parties to behind-the-scenes tours. “The whole point of why we have programs is to break down the idea of museums as didactic places…. It’s not about us being the arbiters of taste; it’s about opening the door for people to enjoy art for themselves” says Conway Fisher.

Glenbow has three feature exhibitions per year — starting in September January and May — and each involves some 15 to 20 special events starting with a launch party. “The launch parties involve taking down the boundaries and opening up the museum experience to something that’s a bit more relaxed and fun” says Conway Fisher of the all-ages pay-what-you-can party that features a bar appetizers and performances by local musicians.

One of Glenbow’s newest programs Art on the Rocks allows members of the public a chance to be the artist accompanied by wine and the beat of a DJ. In June for example in conjunction with the Masterworks exhibition attendees tested their talents at portraiture under the direction of accomplished Bee Kingdom artist Tim Belliveau.

Another unique program is Art for the Senses: Each season a chef or someone with a particular culinary specialty connects food with a current exhibition. “It gives people a different way of experiencing food and art together” says Conway Fisher.

Glenbow is also making itself more accessible by offering programming that meets the varied and often busy schedules of Calgarians. With the Out for Lunch tours for example people can squeeze in a visit to the Glenbow with a focused tour over the lunch hour.

Conway Fisher says the behind-the-scenes tours are also popular with the public. “People can get a tour of some of the one-million artifacts we have and where they are stored. It’s really magical back there” she says adding that each tour is unique and geared toward a current exhibition.

For the past few years Glenbow has also been strengthening its connections with Calgary’s broader arts community which has resulted in some multidisciplinary museum offerings. In 2014 Glenbow partnered with the Exposure photography festival and then Sled Island to host film screenings in its theatre. “Films shake up the idea of what you’re doing when you’re in a gallery” says Conway Fisher.

Melanie Kjorlien Glenbow’s vice-president of access collections and exhibitions says collaborations expose Glenbow’s audience to what other organizations do and vice versa. In fact she adds talks are underway for a possible collaboration with the Calgary Underground Film Festival.

Glenbow has also been the site of recent book launches which in turn highlights its own collections. “We have people doing research in our library and archives for books that relate to Western Canadian history. We’ve decided to partner with publishers and do book launches at the Glenbow to support the authors but also to highlight that our collections can be used in a lot of different ways” Kjorlien explains.

Glenbow’s desire to offer “a new kind of art museum experience” is evident not just in its special programming but in its exhibitions as well. Opening in September 2014 Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art 1775 – 2012 will incorporate photography sculpture and painting that examines the melting of the ice caps. “It really does make a comment on man’s impact on the environment and the loss of Arctic landscapes…. It works for Glenbow’s visual arts mandate but it’s also socially relevant” says Kjorlien.

“There are going to be some really fun programs about environmental issues and personal impacts exploring what an iceberg in the High Arctic has to do with us in Calgary” Conway Fisher adds.

The featured exhibition will be complemented by an exhibition of items from Glenbow’s own collection relating to the search for the Northwest Passage and the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. “We want to use our own collections more often…. That’s feedback we get from Calgarians all the time” Kjorlien explains.

Another upcoming exhibition about which Kjorlien is particularly excited is Oh Canada a travelling exhibition coming to Calgary in 2015 that celebrates contemporary Canadian art. The Glenbow is partnering with the Esker Foundation the Illingworth Kerr Gallery and the Nickel Galleries at the University of Calgary to present it. “It’s one exhibition that will show jointly across four venues. We’ll also be developing joint programming” says Kjorlien adding Glenbow will also reach out to other arts organizations in Calgary “to get the entire community interested in exploring the best in Canadian art on a broad scale.”

Another highlight of Glenbow’s 2014-15 season is the final instalment of the Made in Calgary series a five-part installation that kicked off in the spring of 2013. “It’s the largest exhibition series we’ve done featuring Calgary artists…. We’ve been able to highlight what’s been happening in art in Calgary for the past 50 years” says Kjorlien. “We also want to demonstrate to the community that the Glenbow is very committed to collecting and exhibiting work by Calgary artists.”

Glenbow’s move towards exploring what Kjorlien acknowledges is more “populist” programming may not only result in increased attendance but also help distance the museum from the financial and management controversies that have dogged it over the past few years.

As Conway Fisher explains “What will get people excited and make them perk up their ears? That underlines everything we do.”