On February 7, the Calgary Grand Theatre Society posted an image on its Instagram account that read, “Future Uncertain for Calgary’s 112-year old Grand Theatre.” 

“…In mid-January, despite more than a year of productive discussions and feasibility planning, the Society was surprised and disappointed to learn its landlord, Allied Properties REIT, rejected the proposal. Due to these unforeseen circumstances, the Society will likely be forced to make a difficult decision later this year,” read part of the caption.

But by March 1, the Society had updated the webpage for a community event they had called to discuss the situation with the following statement: “In advance of the meeting, we are pleased to share that conversations with our landlord, Allied, about the future of THE GRAND have been reopened. Thank you to all who have shown your support of The GRAND during this time of uncertainty.”

In an email to The Scene on March 19, Sue Crawford, general manager of The Grand, wrote, “I can confirm Allied REIT and The GRAND have re-opened negotiations and share a common goal to retain the venue as the oldest theatre in western Canada. Conversations were productive; however, it is too soon to speculate on the details.”

While previous negotiations had included as part of the feasibility planning that Arts Commons might take on the lease and operations of The Grand, Crawford confirmed that was no longer the case. “Arts Commons will not be an operator of the theatre,  but will continue to be a strategic partner, potential client and friend of The GRAND’s,” she wrote.

And so, disaster has once again been averted at the long-troubled theatre. 

Still, the situation has caused many to wonder if closure of The Grand Theatre has actually been averted or just postponed and to point out that the current business and funding model for the arts is not working.

The Grand Theatre, built by Senator James Lougheed, opened in February 1912, making it the oldest theatre building in Calgary. 

Built in the Chicago Architectural style and designed by LR Wardrop, it was considered quite modern for its time, with electric lights, hot and cold running water and a sprinkler system. It was the largest theatre in Western Canada when it opened. 

Although it would host many marquee names, including Fred Astaire, the Marx Brothers and George Burns, as well as political rallies, by the time the Southern Jubilee Auditorium opened in 1957, The Grand was operating as a movie theatre.

“We would like to have kept up the Grand as a site for legitimate theatre, but we just couldn’t compete with the Jubilee Auditorium‘s seating capacity and modern sound and stage equipment,” then-owner JB Barron (of the Barron Building) told the Calgary Herald in 1965.

But the Jubilee would also play a role in The Grand’s return to being a performance space.

From 1969 to 1999, Odeon (and then later Cineplex Odeon) operated a movie theatre in the Grand. However, despite a renovation and rebrand in the ‘80s, the company did not renew its lease when it expired in 1999.

The Lougheed Building and adjacent Grand Theatre building languished for a period, spurring fears they would be demolished. But, in 2003, Neil Richardson bought the Lougheed Building and the Grand Theatre with the stated intention of restoring them. 

In 2004, Theatre Junction, an avant-garde theatre troupe headed by Mark Lawes, raised more than $11 million in donations to buy the Grand Theatre and renovate it back into a live theatre performance space.

Local magazine publisher and philanthropist Jackie Flanagan is the named patron of the Flanagan Theatre, the main theatre space at The Grand. While she declined to be interviewed for this story, noting that she has not been involved in The Grand since about 2010, she did provide a written statement. “I appreciated what Theatre Junction and Mark Lawes were doing during the period (1991-2004) when the ensemble performed in the Dr. Betty Mitchell Theatre on the lower level of the Jubilee Auditorium. When the Jubilee Auditorium was renovated in 2004, the performance space on the lower level was reassigned to be used for mechanical operations. So, Theatre Junction needed to look for a new space. I helped Mark Lawes in his search for space. We talked to a number of people in the community, such as Ron Matheson of Matco, which owned the original Calgary Brewery in Inglewood, to try to find performing space.  

“Eventually Mark hit on the historic Grand Theatre that was being used at the time as a golf centre. I was a lead donor in a fundraising campaign that enabled Theatre Junction to buy the Grand.”

After an extensive renovation completed by Sturgess Architecture, Theatre Junction Grand opened in 2006. 

Kevin Harrison, who worked on the renovation of the theatre as a designer with Sturgess Architecture and sat on the board of Theatre Junction Grand and then The Grand Theatre Society from 2016 to 2023, is effusive in his praise of the space. “It is arguably the best building in our city, period. … The experience of the history of the building and the juxtaposition of the new theatre with that history — it’s absolutely stunning. The building itself supports the initiatives. It’s pretty incredible.”

Just as when the building first opened, when the renovated space opened, the local press noted Theatre Junction Grand’s modern elements — the intriguing chandelier made by artist Eric Sauv of broken wine bottles, the unisex bathroom and the open-concept kitchen restaurant.

But the excitement was about more than the space for the arts and restoring a historic building to a former glory and its intended use. 

The fact that a small local theatre company could make such a bold move seemed to prove that Calgary was not, as George Bowering had once deemed Alberta, “a cultural desert.” 

The opening of Theatre Junction Grand looked like an indicator of renewed growth and an extension of the existing gems of the city’s arts scene, such as One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo and the Old Trout Puppet Workshop. And it felt like a part of a larger movement in the city — proof that dynamic and exciting things were happening here. In 2003, Calgary Opera premiered an original opera, Filumena. In 2006, Alberta Ballet would mount its game-changing original show, Fiddle and Drum, set to the songs of Joni Mitchell. And, in 2012, Calgary was named the Cultural Capital of Canada. Theatre Junction Grand seemed to be part and parcel of this new culturally relevant Calgary.

Because of this, The Grand was always and will always be about more than the building. It’s about how we see Calgary’s arts scene and how we think others might see us.

But that excitement dissipated over the years as tensions built between the need to run a space and the artistic vision of Theatre Junction. 

In her statement, Flanagan noted, “Mark’s vision for a ‘culture house’ and an experimental company were very different from what he had been doing at the Jubilee. I was not very interested in this new approach and was never involved after that.” 

Debts mounted, and there were whispers of unproven allegations about workplace toxicity and uncompleted grant projects. By December 2018, The Grand Theatre and Theatre Junction parted ways. 

In a press release that The Grand posted to its Facebook page at the time, then-board chair Duane Hertzer said that the move, “signals a new chapter for The GRAND focused on embracing a broad new set of creatives looking to engage and delight Calgarians.”

But, the newly formed Calgary Grand Theatre Society continued to be dogged by financial difficulties. In a 2019 story, Livewire reported that in its most recent CRA filing, the group’s expenses had exceeded revenue by more than $300,000.

The Grand was always and will always be about more than the building. It’s about how we see Calgary’s arts scene and how we think others might see us.

By 2020, the heavily debt-laden organization sold the theatre to Allied Properties REIT and entered into a lease agreement to use the space they had once owned.

“So many bridges had been burned,” said one former board member who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, when asked why the community wasn’t asked for support in 2020 so the building wouldn’t have to be sold rather than 

waiting until now. “It was the only option. There was quite a bit of debt.”

“[Selling the building] was just extending the inevitable,” says Harrison, a board member from 2016 to 2023. “The building was the greatest asset. But the arts model is completely broken. There’s not enough government funding and not enough private funding.”

“I hate to say it, because I know the team at the Grand is working hard to save the space, what is happening now is foreseeable and probably inevitable.”

Simon Mallett, executive director of the Rosza Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds the arts and the former artistic director of Downstage Performance Society, also sees the current situation as foreseeable. “At the end of the day, once The Grand Society sold the building to Allied, they were no longer in control of their own destiny. And that’s brought us to where we are now.”

Whether The Grand’s closure as a performance theatre is inevitable or not, many agree that the business model needs to change, not only for The Grand but also for the arts more broadly.

“There needs to be a fundamental change to the way we pay for the arts,” says Harrison. “I don’t know what that fundamental shift might look like, but the dollar amounts are really significant.” 

Harrison notes that it wasn’t for lack of trying to find that new model on the part of successive boards at The Grand.

Current Calgary Grand Theatre Society board chair, Devon LeClair, echoes Harrison.

“The community needs to understand that we have done everything in our power that we can see possible to make the financials work,” LeClair said in an interview on February 14. “And in that space, with a traditional theatre-operator model, it’s very difficult, especially in the funding ecosystem that arts organizations find themselves in.”

LeClair noted that corporate donations and government funding have both declined. “It feels like that pot of money is getting smaller, and there are more organizations trying to fund themselves through those smaller pots of money. So I think there’s just a bigger conversation to be had about what do arts and arts organizations mean to Calgarians. And how do we make sure that we’re in sustainable positions, so that we don’t turn around one day and find ourselves without any arts organizations in the city?”

So, for the moment, The Grand stays in limbo to a certain extent. 

Allied may renegotiate the current lease payments, which LeClair describes as being “north of $500,000 a year,” but the same questions will likely arise every time the lease expires.

After all, it’s not just the arts that is re-examining its business model. Downtown commercial real estate is not what it once was. 

In February, the Globe and Mail reported that Allied’s unit prices had slumped to 2009 levels after lower-than-expected earning reports and a $510 million writedown on its property portfolio. (Allied did not respond to our requests for interviews.)

In retrospect, it is hard to point to a specific issue that triggered the problems at The Grand Theatre. It may have been the 2014 downturn in oil prices, which made many local corporate sponsors reconsider how they spent their sponsorships. When Theatre Junction bought the building in 2005, the oil industry was strong and, more importantly, felt like it was growing.  

Fading bumper stickers on cars at the time read, “Please God, give me one more boom and I promise not to piss it all away!” By owning the building, it felt like that promise had been fulfilled at Theatre Junction Grand. 

Perhaps Jackie Flanagan sums up the many emotions best in her written statement: “When I heard that the Grand Theatre Society had sold the place to a REIT, I was disappointed.” 

It’s not clear if there’s someone to blame for the situation at The Grand, whether it could have been averted, and if so by whom and when. But it is definitely disappointing. 

LeClair though seems at least hopeful that Calgarians will, in fact, not piss it all away this time.

“When these types of urgent situations come to the forefront Calgarians are shocked and upset, and I think that they should be. Losing the Grand Theater would be a huge blow to the community,” she says. “But the other thing that I’ve been saying is, as a Calgarian, if you want to do something to help, go buy tickets to something. Not necessarily at The Grand, but Calgary has just this vast array of incredible performers, performance venues, we have some amazing local musicians, you know, all sorts of events. All of these performing arts spaces have incredible shows. And the biggest thing that the average Calgarian can do to support the arts is to go buy tickets, go see something, you know, go support the arts in that way.”