Epcor Centre is now Arts Commons

Epcor Centre will now be known as Arts Commons reflecting not only its current reality as home to more than the performing arts but also its aspirations for the future. The name change which follows the loss of Epcor as a naming sponsor was announced December 17 and is just the first of several changes — and challenges — yet to come.

“I think it’s a very good description of where we are and what we’ve become over time and what we want to be in the future” says president and CEO Johann Zietsman.

While Arts Commons will continue to be a home for performing arts — and Zietsman says he is proud of the calibre of work presented by its resident companies (Alberta Theatre Projects Theatre Calgary Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Calgary International Children’s Festival Downstage Theatre and One Yellow Rabbit) — the facility is also a hub for visual and media arts and community and cultural events. Zietsman says over the past five years the number of groups using the facility has increased to 189 from 140 — about 600000 people pass through its doors annually.

“We deliberately set out to be welcoming and inclusive more than just to people who have tickets to performing arts shows. We wanted people who do not necessarily come here for that purpose to come here for other purposes to feel welcome to feel that they could come here and celebrate their own cultural expressions be that a community cultural event or a celebration of a particular time of the year by a particular community or a local dance group or a choir or a corporate event or a wedding or all kinds of things” he adds.

“…Even though our building is far busier than any other performing arts centre in Northern Amercia — and I know this because we benchmark this — we have found ways to accommmodate and give access to all those groups and all those people because we want people to feel that this place belongs to them and it isn’t exclusive.”

The design of the new brand and logo has the ability to accommodate any future naming sponsor (Zietsman says the organization is pursuing a few) but the title Arts Commons would remain unchanged. The logo also combines a fixed identity with a creative element that is flexible and will change regularly — for example there will be a different version on each of the building’s four corners. Zietsman says the idea is that like the building the brand is not just one-dimensional.

“All around the world centres like ours are beginning to feel that they need to connect with community in much more open ways and much more permeable ways and genuine ways and authentic ways. We’re no different and in many respects we’re kind of leading that charge and really enjoying where we are.”

The new look will be accompanied by new and improved signage as well as better wayfinding through the building including a volunteer concierge program (no white hats — I asked).

Other changes in the works include the long-awaited opening of a new restaurant Teatro Group’s Ca’Puccini in January in the space formerly occupied by Baraka. Arts Commons will also launch the first-ever Campus Calgary arts site called the Centre for Innovative Learning where kids can do formal schooling in a creative environment. Zietsman says five years ago the centre reached 3500 kids per year through various programming but this year that number will be more than 12000 which is in line with its efforts to foster a future generation of creative thinkers.

The challenges will continue to be primarily financial. Arts Commons is grappling with the loss of $500000 in provincial funding as well as its naming sponsor. However Zietsman says funding discussions with municipal and provincial governments are continuing the organization had a good year in 2014 in terms of revenue and he believes Arts Commons is on the right track.

The funding issue may also become a factor for the six resident companies whose existing lease agreements are up for renewal in September. Zietsman says none of them have indicated that they plan to leave but he expects there will be some renegotiation because the leases were written six years ago. He adds that some of them have bigger needs and are looking for alternative solutions that may include spaces outside the building but they still plan to be anchored at Arts Commons.

“The funding decision will play a role in the contract negotiations but I’m of the mind that all our resident companies are realistic they know how far we can go and they know how far we cannot go and that it’s a shared site model… our sustainability depends on each other so we always work towards getting to a point where all of us are fine not just some.”

If the funding issue isn’t resolved Zietsman says the most likely result is an increase in ticket prices.

“The resident companies get 100 per cent of the benefit of everything we get from the city and from the province and from our parkade revenues” he adds. “All of those three sources go straight towards reducing their costs in the building…. That means their rate will always be better than anybody else that can use the building that do not get that discount and I think that’s fine because that’s what this building was originally conceived for and that’s why government is helping us is to support the arts companies who live here.

"And ultimately all of that leads to access for people. The less expensive it is for a resident company to be here the lower their ticket prices can be and the other way around….”

Worst-case scenario Zietsman says if it reaches the point that funding becomes a really critical issue he hopes people would speak up.

“I have to believe that we matter to a lot of people and that they really would care if access is going to become threatened by increased ticket prices. I would have to believe that people don’t want us to become exclusive” he says. “That would feel like a step backwards….

“I hope if something like that becomes a public issue that the public would participate in a constructive way and make it clear that for their kids to develop strong creative imaginations and for the city to have a quality of life and to attract workers to this city and for business to feel like they’re in a world-class city all of that means we need the arts to be strong. And the more people who say that the better.”