Arts Commons VP of Programming SGS (left) and CEO Alex Sarian

To truly transform, Arts Commons needs not only a new space, but also new thinking. And it looks like it has gotten it with its new VP of Programming, SGS

Arts Commons is already one of the largest arts facilities in the country, and the largest in Western Canada. It is home to six resident companies, nine distinct performance venues, and a host of gallery spaces. And it’s in the process of a $480-million transformation that will expand its footprint, adding several new performance venues, and modernizing the current building. 

CEO Alex Sarian says that, after four decades, it is time for Arts Commons to reimagine not only its building, but its very role as a performing arts centre.

“What the design of our current building tells people is that unless you have a ticket, you’re not really welcome here,” says Sarian. But he has built an international design team that includes local community builders and an Indigenous architecture collective to change that.

He points to elements like including Olympic Plaza in the scope of the redesign project as something that will be important to achieving this vision, but also notes that the redesign of the physical space is only one piece of the puzzle. 

“At the end of the day, that means nothing if it’s not being used programmatically for the right purposes and by the right people,” he says. 

This question was key to Arts Commons’ search for a new VP Programming. The VP Programming controls a budget of approximately $4 million a year and is responsible for 25 shows per season including series such as the BD&P World Stage and TD Amplify series, arts commons education, curation of the gallery spaces, ArtsXpeditions and more. Sarian knew he needed to find someone who shared his vision. 

Cue the hiring of theatre director Sarah Garton Stanley — or SGS, as almost everyone calls her. 

Sarian first encountered SGS at a performing arts centre CEOs meeting in London, England. SGS was there to talk about the Manifesto for Now, which she co-authored with theatre producer and academic Owais Lightwala. 

In their Manifesto, they set out a path for arts organizations of the future. At the meeting in London, she laid out an argument that art exists for the audience, not the artist, and that the current crisis of audience attrition can be partly laid at the feet of artists who have lost sight of that. 

Some in the audience were unreceptive, but Sarian was intrigued.

At the time, SGS was working at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, a plum position. It didn’t seem likely she would consider leaving it. To Sarian’s pleasant surprise, she was interested in the Arts Commons role. 

A rigorous search and selection process followed, and Sarian says that at each stage, SGS had a unique approach that was aligned with the vision for a new Arts Commons. 

SGS started as Arts Commons’ VP Programming in September 2023, and has spent the last few months exploring the city and its communities.

“This city is very forward-thinking right now, and it’s very exciting to be here,” SGS says. “There are a lot of really cool thinkers here.” 

And she is eager to reach out to them.

She wants to solicit ideas from the community to inform her programming choices — she plans to start a newsletter and encourage a dialogue with existing Arts Commons audiences as a first step, and to explore other ways of connecting with communities as she gets to know the city. She plans a survey of Calgarians to paint a broad picture of what we’re watching, listening to, and loving — hoping she can reflect that more directly on Arts Commons stages. She wants Calgarians to know her by name and feel they can reach out to her as the face of programming at Arts Commons. 

“My hope and my governing statement is that we are looking for curatorial ideas from the community,” she says.

Sarian suggests arts leaders are taking the easy way out when they attribute shrinking audiences simply to global economic pressures. 

“People are spending more money on air travel than they have ever done before. We just had the second largest Stampede in a hundred-year history. Something doesn’t make sense here,” Sarian says.

Likewise, SGS is open about her feeling that not-for-profit arts organizations aren’t offering what audiences want. 

“There’s lots of money — in smaller and smaller groups of hands, for sure,” she says, “but also in different cultural practices and traditions, and those different cultures don’t necessarily want to come to see this show, but they may want to go somewhere else to experience another kind of cultural practice that has not been reflected in the organizations that we’re talking about now.” 

She unapologetically advocates for programming that fills seats in their venues as part of the strategy.

“The first thing is not shying away from what will be beloved, and easy to show up to, because that’s the beginning of a conversation,” she says. She and Lightwala argue in their Manifesto for Now that trust between artists and their audiences has been broken, and that artists need to start by genuinely listening to what their audiences are saying when they vote with their ticket-buying dollars. 

They acknowledge they might be criticized for populism, but they use the term “peoplism” instead.

Sarian says that what he calls a “portfolio approach” to programming at Arts Commons allows them to use some surplus-generating shows like the Jann Arden Christmas shows to subsidize projects that push boundaries and challenge the status quo. 

“People are going to pay money to see Jann Arden,” he says, “and that surplus is going to offset the investment that we make in arts education, because we believe that arts education needs to be free for participants.”

Related to these financial and audience questions, arts institutions are grappling with issues of diversity and inclusion. And in this aspect as well, SGS comes with a powerful set of ideas and solid experience. 

She created and led The Cycle, a research initiative at the National Arts Centre exploring three themes: Indigenous theatre (2014-15), Deaf, disability and Mad arts (2016-17), and Climate Change (2019-20).

SGS highlights the TD Incubator program as another way that Arts Commons invests in nurturing emerging talents and makes space for new voices, including Indigenous representation. (Learn more about the program’s Amplify show this month on page 7.) She also sees potential for greater collaboration with Indigenous artists.

“I think Indigenous ways of knowing and storytelling are the heart of this land. This is the human origin story of this land and I think it is our cultural superpower,” she says. “For me, this suggests that collaboration between different cultural interests is our best way forward. And it is also what can — and I believe should — rightfully place us as a unique and valued cultural instigator on the world stage.”

She says that she already sees diversity on Calgary stages that goes beyond “box-checking.”

“The work that I’m seeing on the stages, the stories that I’m seeing being chosen to be told, and the calibre and quality with which those stories are being told, in my view is extremely high here,” she says. “There’s been a strong and powerful sense of representation, and good storytelling.” 

While SGS acknowledges that diversity of leadership roles in the arts is a separate issue from the work being staged, she says she’s too new to the community to comment. 

Sarian says that one metric used to judge the success of the transformation of Arts Commons will be the number of tickets sold and another will be the diversity of the audience.

“Do we have folks coming from every corner of the city?” he asks. “Are they coming once, and are they coming back? Are we creating arts-going habits because we are engaging with them on their terms?” 

He says he is already seeing the benefits of recruiting SGS. “It’s fascinating to watch her try to do right by Calgary and try to do right by the Calgary arts community, while at the same time, challenging us as only she can.”

SGS says it was the opportunity to be a part of exactly this meaningful change that drew her to Calgary.

“I came here because of the beacon that Arts Commons is within the national landscape,” she says. “It attracted me, the goals and wishes and desires that were in some ways bred into it when those fabulous women first conceived of this building way back in the day, as of course now it moves into its next iteration. I’m very excited about this moment, because it feels healthy.”