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Features / July 30, 2013

Alberta Floods to Impact Art Scene for Months

The waters from last month’s Alberta floods have largely receded, but the impacts are still being felt by artists, collectors and galleries in the area who experienced damage to archives, materials, studios, collections and living spaces. Experts say that the rest of the arts scene there—even those organizations and individuals that sustained no material damages—have to adjust to a “new normal” in the months ahead.

“I know why they have trauma centres now”

Photographer Dianne Bos was one of an estimated 60 artists (including dancers, theatre practitioners and visual artists) directly affected by the flooding in Calgary. The flood rose to five and a half feet in her basement and wiped out 30 years of archives stored there, including darkroom equipment, framed works, photo paper, catalogues and hundreds of photographs, some of them parts of editions.

“I got a lot of advice from different conservation people on what to do, but none of those things work if you don’t have clean water to wash things in,” Bos says, and such water was lacking for the first few days of recovery. “The health department was also saying that anything touched by the water has to be bleached or treated with antifungal stuff; that actual cleaning of things would have wrecked lots of the pieces anyway.”

Like many Calgarians, Bos had made flood preparations following the “100-year flood” in the city in 2005. But her storage strategy kept things just three feet off the floor, not six. Her partner and friends have assessed and relayed the damage and done what they can, as Bos is currently travelling and is due to return to the city soon.

“I actually have most of the negatives, which were upstairs,” Bos says. “But the thing is, I print traditionally, not digitally. Having the negative but not the print is like having a musical score when the recording has been lost. I’m 57. Do I really want to spend the next 20 years remaking and reprinting?”

Bos’s home is in the hard-hit riverside Calgary neighbourhood of Bowness, where 76-year-old ceramicist Neil Liske also lives.

“I know why they have trauma centres now,” Liske says. “It will be a minimum of six months [before my space is functional again]. It’s such chaos that it is hard to think straight.”

On the day of the flood, Liske saw water coming down the street and managed to get a mattress and bedding up to higher ground before there was a knock at the door and a yell to get out. When his van rolled out of the driveway of the home he has owned since 1985, “the water was already halfway up the wheels,” he says.

When Liske returned some days later, he found over six feet of flooding in his basement, half of which he used as a studio for slab work and murals. He also found three feet of flooding in his backyard studio, which held a massive kiln he had built himself when he began his practice in 1971.

“I have run the kiln for three days and I am not sure it is dry,” Liske says. He is concerned that if any silt remains in the kiln, its walls will fuse and it will lock shut. “I am crossing my fingers it will still work,” he says. He also lost all his glaze materials and the motors in his potters’ wheels, as well as many personal items.

Glass artist Jen Somerville, who graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2009, also lives in Bowness. Her basement was completely wiped out, with flooding reaching to 4 inches below the main-floor joists. The river water didn’t just seep in, but actually ran right through her basement, knocking out a three-foot-square concrete slab and damaging her kiln and most of her supplies.

In Sommerville’s backyard garage studio, a furnace she recently spent two years building for glass work was also damaged in four feet of flooding.

“We don’t have a hot water tank or a furnace, and our basement looks like a gravel pit,” Somerville says. “We are basically camping in our house.”

Somerville, the mother of a 10-month-old child, estimates the value of what was lost at $50,000 to $70,000. She hopes to recover most of that through insurance and disaster relief funds.

“We’re spending money like we are going to be getting money back right now,” Sommerville says. “Getting done by snowfall is our goal.”

Financing Uncertain for Many

While Somerville and eight other artists have been able to receive emergency microgrants of $1,000 from the charitable organization Elephant Artist Relief, which provides emergency funds to Calgary artists, the financial situation for many is still precarious.

Artist Arlene Westen Evans, co-owner of High River’s Evanescence Gallery and Art Studio, is emotional as she considers the uncertainty at hand. High River, her town of 13,000 a 30-minute drive south of Calgary, took the brunt of the floods.

“It looks like a war zone, without the bombs,” Westen Evans says of her town now. “And now our biggest nightmare is insurance; everyone is battling with the insurance companies.”

The ACAD and University of Lethbridge alumnus says that when she and her husband built their live/work facility three years ago, they were told they were “not in a flood zone.” When they were allowed to return to the building two weeks after the floods, they found that their car was unusable, and that artwork in the gallery created by them and others was soaked and damaged. Equipment ranging from a kiln to a darkroom was damaged, and they were told by insurance representatives that they could only be compensated for equipment in rooms where the water rose less than one inch—the level equated with sewer backup.

“It’s bad losing your work; worse is losing the tools,” Westen Evans says. “I don’t know what it’s like not to create and not to live off of what I do.”

What’s more, their suite above the studio and gallery is uninhabitable due to mold; Westen Evans developed a respiratory infection just working on the cleanup. Now living in a rental property the couple own in Nanton, a 40-minute drive away, she is also sad about the damage done to the town, where she sat on the arts and culture board.

“We have so many amazing experiences of people coming through our doors; I don’t want to say goodbye to it, but we have a mortgage to pay and we have no income coming in,” Westen Evans says. “The flood’s not going to wash away what we gave to the community, and we would like to continue giving—but we don’t know what to do.”

Others affected by the floods find rebuilding an unstable prospect given the Alberta government’s new flood maps and rules. The maps designate certain areas as more flood-prone than they used to be, and the CBC has reported that “people living in a flood-fringe area must flood-proof their homes if they want to be covered in future disasters. Homeowners who live in the floodway can choose to rebuild or leave, but will not be eligible for any future help if they stay.”

Peter Boyd is a collector, businessman and Canadian Art advisory board member who once relished a view of the Elbow River from his ground-floor Calgary condo. He may be one of those affected by the new flood maps and rules.

Boyd’s condo flooded to within 6 inches of the ceiling, and his storage space 15 blocks away also flooded.

“I probably lost half my collection. It’s just gone,” says Boyd, who started collecting art in 1978. The damage comprises 50 to 60 works by artists including Chris Cran, Jack Chambers, John Massey and other significant Canadian creators. “Art is an uninsured item for the most part,” he adds. “There’s little you can do.”

“I think the most emotional thing for me was opening the door of the storage locker,” Boyd says. “I had some beautiful furniture in there, and clothing, and art. I got anxious and started tearing up. It’s a real emotional thing.”

Boyd believes he won’t be back into his condo until Christmas or later. He also thinks that getting the artwork damage repaired—if it can be repaired—will be a task in itself.

“People are sending work all over Western Canada,” Boyd says. “There’s not enough conservators in the city of Calgary to deal with the damage.”

Daryl Betenia is collections manager of the Glenbow Museum, which has offered art-conservation advice to many in the weeks following the flood. She agrees with Boyd and estimates the artwork recovery effort alone will take years.

“The degree of impact and damage is quite varied,” Betania says. “There’s sculptures. There are works on paper. There is new media work. There is a lot of mud—canvases soaked in mud and things that had been sitting for quite some time in wet storage areas.”

The mud in particular makes for a long-term cleanup, Betania notes.

“It takes time to clean a painting like that,” Betania says. “I think there will still be conservation projects going on one year, two years, three years from now. We are talking way more than months here.”

All Must Deal with “New Normal”

Of course, millions of Southern Alberta residents escaped the floods’ direct impacts. But in the arts if not other areas, Albertans will have to adjust to what Patti Pon, incoming president and CEO at the Calgary Arts Development Authority, calls a “new normal.”

“The question all of us are facing is two-fold,” Pon says. “One part is fatigue in the community. This is a long haul, and it will take some people a while to get back. For some, it could be years.”

The other part, Pon says, is the need to “get dollars into the hands” of the creators and arts organizations that have been directly affected as soon as possible “without forcing people to jump through any more hoops.”

Pon says that a flood impact assessment put the flood damage at $2 million in the arts community alone. Currently, Calgary Arts Development Authority is working with other agencies such as Canadian Heritage and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to raise $500,000 for what is being called the Alberta Arts Rebuild fund. As of July 29, just over $152,000 had been raised, with donations of all sizes being accepted via a crowdfunding page.

“$500,000 is a long way from $2 million,” Pon says. “How can we find other resources to help us address that gap?”

MOCA Calgary artistic director Jeffrey Spalding is concerned about how such monies will not only be raised, but distributed.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t get a note from someone saying, ‘we are trying to get artists for a flood fundraiser,’” he says. “But there are thousands of people out there who are hurting. So how do you do this in an equitable way? And there will be spectacular fatigue from all these emails. It needs to be coordinated.”

Though relatively spared by the floods, MOCA Calgary has shut down for the summer due to the fact that city hall and its municipal building, where the museum is housed, continues to experience flood-related power-supply issues. But the road ahead is still daunting, Spalding says.

“I am aware that fundraising for [anyone in] the arts this year will be really tough,” Spalding says. “There is no appetite, understandably, for trying to get money for a catalogue at the moment.”

One organization that is also aware of the multiple demands the flood has put on the arts is Calgary’s 28-year-old artist-run centre Stride Gallery, which experienced basement flooding in which it lost two-thirds of its archives. Its landlord says the gallery’s space will not be usable for another 3 to 6 months at least.

“There are a few theatre groups that were hit pretty hard, so there are a range of organizations that are going to be needing funding from that pool of money [in the Alberta Arts Rebuild fund],” Stride director Larissa Tiggelers says.

In the meantime, Stride is looking for not only a temporary space, but also a chance to perhaps find another location altogether.

“We feel a bit transient, and I don’t think that will go away for a bit,” Tiggelers says. “It’s hard to say at this point when we will return.”

Another exhibition space affected by the floods was the Museum of the Highwood in High River—80 per cent of its collection was damaged in the floods.

Museum of the Highwood director and curator Irene Kerr says that the two weeks she was kept from visiting post-flood “was the longest two weeks of my life.” While she says “we won’t know for a long time how much is totally lost,” she is also surprisingly optimistic in the face of the adversity.

“We have a wonderful collection of photographs from the area that were on the main floor, and it didn’t see any damage at all. I am really relieved about that,” Kerr says.

Kerr says she was also cheered by the discovery of Calgary Stampede founder Guy Weadick’s cowboy hat. Though soaked in mud, she believes it can be restored.

“It’s better to put your resources into things that are historically relevant,” she says.

Kerr also expresses thanks to members of the Alberta museum community who came out to help her recover items over the past month, and Irene Karsten of the Canadian Conservation Institute, who came out from Ottawa to help her with the cleanup.

“I’m hoping any lessons we learn from this can be shared with the wider museum community,” Kerr says. “God forbid they would ever be in the same situation, but we also want to share it with them.”

Alberta Arts Rebuild is due to have a booth at the Calgary Region Business Recovery Expo, which takes place tomorrow at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary. Pon of CADA says that a process for distributing Alberta Arts Rebuild funds is in development, and many arts community members affected by the floods also express appreciation for C Space, a disused school taken over by CADA that opened its doors to galleries, collectors and artists as a temporary space following the floods.

Still, positive lessons aside, the prospect of rebuilding remains a challenge.

“It has taken me years and years to get to a point where I feel I am making a little bit of a living with this… and I just got kicked back down again, so I feel like I am starting out,” Dianne Bos says.

How to Help

Those interviewed for this story suggested donating to the following organizations as a way to help artists, galleries and others affected by the Alberta floods:

1) Canadian Red Cross: Part of the largest humanitarian network in the world, the Red Cross is distributing food and other basic needs which are still in precarious circumstances for thousands affected by the flooding.

2) Elephant Artist Relief Society: This charitable organization focused on support of Calgary artists in need provided $1,000 emergency grants to artists in the wake of the floods and will distribute more funds as they become available.

3) Alberta Arts Rebuild: This partnership of governmental agencies, civic organizations, regional arts service organizations and post-secondary institutions—including Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council, Alberta Culture and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts—is trying to raise $500,000 to be distributed to artists and arts organizations affected by the flooding. All monies raised (even if it ends up totalling less than $500,000) will be distributed.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via