City’s increasing diversity should help establish a new identity

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This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of a few of Calgary’s largest cultural institutions, including the Pumphouse Theatre, Theatre Junction GRAND, the Calgary Public Library and the Calgary Stampede. And to mark the occasion, what do you buy the city that has everything? Well, a designation from the government of Canada as cultural capital for 2012 was a good start.

But in a place where metal bull-testicles hang from trailer hitches, can Calgary really claim cultural status? And how can a city with “yahoo” as her mantra compete with Canadian culture powerhouses like Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver?

It’s definitely an uphill battle, but Calgary is making headway.

A study conducted by Hill Strategy Research Inc. indicated that Calgary ranked third out of the five largest Canadian cities for net cultural investment in 2009 — at $42 per capita. This represented a 175 per cent increase from previous years and dwarfed Toronto’s paltry $19 per capita and only 14 per cent increase.

The study also highlighted the importance of cultural growth for municipalities. A city with a strong cultural sense attracts residents and investors.

Greater diversity of residents and investors should then contribute to cultural growth.

Calgary is the third-most ethnically diverse city in the country. Statistics Canada indicates that 23% of Calgarians identify themselves as immigrants.

“Being the Cultural Capital of Canada adds to the cache Calgary already has as a culturally vibrant and diverse city.”
—Naheed Nenshi
Mayor of Calgary

These numbers reflect an increase in diversity and the changing cultural landscape in Calgary.

“Dismantling the Scarecrow: An Exploration into Calgary’s cultural coming of age,” is a Dalton Camp Award winning essay. In it, writer Nancy Black says, “A visit downtown on Stampede Parade day reveals a diverse citizenry. Families of multiple ethnicities line the parade route to enjoy the cultural panorama.”

So, why then is there the push for designation as a cultural capital? If Calgary were truly secure in her culture she wouldn’t need a title.

It’s almost as though this city is waving a gold star in the face of her siblings Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. And those ladies went platinum years ago.

What’s still holding Calgary back?

Black says there is “an important distinction between a city that happens to be culturally diverse and one that is truly cosmopolitan, defining the latter as not something which can be inferred from diversity in itself.”

Calgary’s cowboy-centric past overshadows any cultural advancement the city makes. Because for as long as Calgary has held status as a city, she’s celebrated and found definition in the Calgary Stampede.

And this represents the greatest obstacle to overcome in establishing Calgary as a cultural force in Canada. How can anyone hope to be taken seriously while wearing leather chaps?

But the culture in Calgary really does extend beyond the 10 days of Stampede in July.

Not a weekend goes by in the summer when there isn’t a cultural festival paying reverence to another corner of the world.

And a rotation of monthly open mic nights or poetry readings cycle through coffee houses, teashops, pubs and even the Tubby Dog restaurant.

Organizations such as Calgary Arts Development have also recognized the city’s cultural strides and her need for continued growth.

In 2007, Calgary Arts Development outlined a plan to create more public art spaces. The intention was to use “the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Park as a year-round festival hub and community gathering place.”


In order for Calgary to live up to her cultural reputation, her cowboy image needs to fade. Painting by Eric Louie and courtesy of the Art Gallery of Calgary.
Photo illustration by: Tessa Clayton
But I believe cowboy culture still needs to giddy-up and make room for more permanent arts and culture spaces — because this town ain’t big enough for the both of ’em.

And Calgary’s centennial anniversary is our chance to embrace a coming of age. An opportunity to show the rest of Canada what her citizens have known for years — that she possesses cultural staying power.

Even Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, recognizes the value of expanding culturally. In a press release he said, “Being the Cultural Capital of Canada adds to the cache Calgary already has as a culturally vibrant and diverse city. We’ve had over 100 years of amazing cultural activity; this is another reason to celebrate and make sure all of Canada and the rest of the world takes notice of our cultural wealth.”

Clearly, the designation as 2012 cultural capital of Canada provides flattery and an increase in resources for a city already pioneering arts and culture.

But what’s in a name? Just — stop referring to her as Cowtown.

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