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News / July 8, 2013

Art Central Out, Gallery In, Say Calgary Skyscraper Plans

A new 5,500-square-foot public gallery featuring work by local artists is being touted as part of proposed skyscraper development in downtown Calgary.

The skyscraper proposal, dubbed Telus Sky, would involve the demolishing of Art Central—a three-storey 1929 building that was restored in 2004 to house galleries, artist studios and other creative businesses.

Though Art Central is not mentioned in the Telus Sky announcement, the media release does state that “Telus Sky will feature a unique 5,500-square-foot public gallery to ensure the city’s commitment to the arts in downtown Calgary continues,” and it says “local artists” will be involved.

Calgary Arts Development, currently housed in Art Central, has been participating in conversations with Telus to determine how the skyscraper gallery space might actually work.

“They are very sensitive to the fact that they are building in the Art Central space, so they came to us and said, we want to make sure this is a net positive for the community,” Calgary Arts Development president and CEO Terry Rock tells Canadian Art.

Rock also thinks that having the skyscraper designed by Copenhagen’s Bjarke Ingels Group—an award-winning firm that has worked on museums and other structures worldwide—and having public art in the Telus Sky complex is a plus for Calgary’s cultural scene in general.

“I think if you look at the broader sense of culture and what they are bringing with this building, it’s just going to improve Calgary’s engagement with the arts,” Rock says.

The proposed skyscraper would be located across the street from the Norman Foster–designed Bow Building and a 20-minute walk from the Santiago Calatrava–designed Peace Bridge.

Art Central Declining in Recent Years

Many galleries and artists had already made plans to leave Art Central since owner Allied REIT confirmed it was looking at redevelopment options this winter. (Allied REIT, a national real-estate investment trust, purchased Art Central from the originating family-run developer Encorp, led by Calgarian David Neill, in 2011.)

Other galleries and artists had left Art Central in recent years due to a sense that the building’s artistic mission had been lost.

“In the past year, the mandate of the building hasn’t been as art-centric,” says Su Ying Strang, administrative director at the New Gallery.

The New Gallery, an artist-run centre founded in 1975, has been housed over the years in various Calgary locations. It is moving out of Art Central and into a new Chinatown space at the end of this month.

“We’re excited for the move,” Strang says. “It’s been three-and-a-half years here, and it just wasn’t really financially sustainable over the last two years, so we’re excited to move on and try something new.”

Also moving on from Art Central is Uppercase—an award-winning magazine, design shop, studio and gallery housed at Art Central since 2005.

“The Art Central dream was a failure, despite the best efforts of many people,” Uppercase publisher, editor and designer Janine Vangool wrote on her blog after the Telus Sky announcement.

Vangool says that, among other reasons for the failure, many of the artists and creatives in Art Central (which was not subsidized by the government) couldn’t “get the financial support that was required from the customer base to keep small businesses going”—particularly after the 2008 economic crash.

Rob Mabee, the original leasing manager of Art Central and owner of its Axis Gallery, also says location was an issue, with construction of the Bow Building and renovation of the downtown transit corridor impeding access over several years.

“At one point, there were 22 studios in the ground floor,” Mabee says. “A few years ago, they were all booked, with a waiting list. But in the last while, they have been virtually empty.”

Mabee himself downsized Axis from 2,000 square feet to 600 square feet last year. He thinks he may be in the building until late 2013 or early 2014.

Gallery & Cultural Space Remain a Concern

Calgary has been waiting for a purpose-built contemporary art museum for some time—nearly 20 years, some in the community say.

The extent to which the proposed Telus Sky gallery offers a solution to Calgary’s cultural-space issues remains to be seen. Statements in the Telus Sky release were classified as “forward-looking,” or subject to change. A City of Calgary representative said that as of Friday, July 5, nothing formal had been filed with the city administration in regards to Telus Sky development permits.

This spring, a group called Contemporary Calgary—a collaboration of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art, MOCA Calgary, the Art Gallery of Calgary and other members and supporters of the visual arts in Calgary—submitted a proposal to retrofit Calgary’s disused Centennial Planetarium into a major modern and contemporary art gallery.

“We all know as arts groups that we can’t survive alone. We have to amalgamate,” says Contemporary Calgary co-chair Carol Ryder. Ryder says that it will likely be some time before the city reaches a decision regarding the planetarium proposal, particularly given the recent Alberta flooding and the civic efforts that have to be directed there.

Some in the art community may be wary of promises from skyscraper developers. Foster’s Bow Building was initially promised to include major cultural spaces—even possibly the National Portrait Gallery.

The main cultural spaces were slated for a smaller, south tower of the Bow development, however, which was put on hold in 2009. In 2011, the development process restarted, but with little confirmation on cultural spaces available at this time.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor of white settler Canadian (Irish and Ashkenazi) descent. She is also news and special sections editor at Canadian Art and has written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. Sandals welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.