For the size of this wonderful city, there has been an underlying sense that we are missing some key developments in the area of a contemporary art museum. As we can now see, the ingredients have long been here and, now, it looks like the perfect recipe for what might be a new wave of creative brilliance, as MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) and IMCA (Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art) join the AGC (Art Gallery of Calgary) at the latter’s current space to form a powerful new arts alliance, now simply known as Contemporary Calgary.

AGC, like the other two groups, has deep roots in our cultural development. It was originally founded as the Muttart Public Art Gallery in 1977. Several artists’ associations, representing hundreds of artists, collaborated with the Calgary Public Library to be housed in a previous location at the Memorial Park Library, where it gained recognition as a leading Western Canadian gallery. In year 2000, it moved to its current location on Stephen Avenue.

Just a little further east along Eighth Avenue, on the corner of Macleod Trail, you will find yourself at the doors of MOCA. Formerly titled Triangle, the name was changed a couple years ago in an effort to further articulate their role. For more on their background, we spoke to former board member Carol Ryder, who is now one of three co-chairs for this new collective effort. “Triangle/MOCA has been in business for almost 25 years. It was originally started in collaboration with the City of Calgary and people that were interested in contemporary arts progress,” she explains. “Jeffrey Spalding has been the creative director for three years and we’ve been making great strides.”

They were able to benefit from some of the funding available in 2012 when Calgary was named Cultural Capital of Canada and became quite involved with Nuit Blanche festival and ContainR that year. “AGC has a larger facility and space. They also have ‘Class A’ space, which is something we’ve never had at MOCA,” Ryder reasons, and it’s “what most museums will say when they lend you contemporary art from any travelling show… but we have Jeffrey Spalding who is a phenomenal curator who has access to many things that we can’t bring into Calgary because we’re not large enough to do so.” Another benefit of the AGC space is their school program, their classroom area and their desire to host programming for young adults and an 18-30 age group of students and young professionals.

Of course, many will remember recent headlines this past year where AGC’s former CEO Valerie Cooper was sent to jail for stealing $100,000 from the institution, for which Ryder distinguishes, “They had a long haul, they’ve come out of that, and I think with the merger it will finally be put to bed… staff at AGC have been phenomenal at working through that. They’ve had a cloud over their head, but they certainly weren’t any part of it.”

The new structure will be comprised of four people from each of these three separate entities that will allow them to utilize their varying strengths most effectively. It’s been described as a “working board” for the year, to be followed by a bonafide election in October. Jeff Spalding and Kayleigh Hall (former curator of AGC) will continue curatorial and fundraising roles. Yves Trépanier and Chris Cran are board members from IMCA and Dr. Terry Rock will be the Interim Managing Director. The three co-chairs are Ryder, formerly a Director of MOCA, David Rehn, formerly Chair of AGC and Daryl Fridhandler, formerly a Director of IMCA. In addition, there are countless volunteers and about 30 more people on a working committee. “The board chair of IMCA is D’Arcy Lévesque, who is from Enbridge, and I don’t think there is a better corporate arts partner in Canada than Enbridge. [Lévesque] has his finger in many things: he’s a past chair of ACAD, Alberta Ballet, he’s very involved with Walrus, and Enbridge is a supporter of AGC and MOCA,” says Ryder.

Of the three arts organizations, IMCA has been somewhat more elusive, a major cultural force just below the surface whose time finally seems to have come. First starting up in the 1990s, Daryl Fridhandler was able to tell us a bit more about that development. “It attempted, over many years, to bring people together,” he reflects. IMCA slipped under the surface for a while until about eight months ago, when “the IMCA board said, ‘Look, we have to open this up and get everybody that’s interested in contemporary art in Calgary engaged on the same platform.’ I think that was an important step… There were a couple groups in town that were trying to advance the availability and platform for contemporary and visual art, so we started this group… and put a proposal in for the Planetarium, and that’s still out there.” He assures, however, that even if they split into a series of separate spaces, Contemporary Calgary would remain organizationally unified.

So much remains in the most basic of planning phases — like what will happen with the current MOCA space, which is leased from the City, or whether the AGC building might need any modifications. The 1967 Centennial Planetarium is also still being weighed for its most valuable use and has served as an Alpha House shelter since the flood. Even if it became a major arts centre, it would take years of preparation, and by then we might also be looking at developments like Telus Sky, East Village, the second Bow Tower that was originally proposed, Seventh Avenue revitalization, NMC, and others still yet to come into focus for what is now looking like an architectural boom and a new era in arts and culture.

“I think people are getting more interested in public and contemporary art and there’s a whole new generation of young professionals who are getting involved as consumers and participants,” says Fridhandler. “We really want to create more culture for that. It’s not that we’re competitive as organizations, but we’re all competing for the same dollars and the same funders and the same donors.” Sometimes it feels like we’re losing our landscape all at once, but he makes an interesting point that “there are more people coming into the downtown core, which is making things more viable.” With this come higher-status exhibitions; just like how bands’ props need to fit into a venue and there needs to be enough seats. He cites Richard Florida’s book, Rise of the Creative Class, to explain how it “lays out this broad proposition that there are things necessary to make a city attractive, and arts and culture is a very important part of that… Creative class isn’t just actors, it’s researchers and scientists, and it snowballs as you build the creative capacity of your city.”

By Cait Lepla

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