Looking into Calgary’s growing museum scene

Scattered between tall skyscrapers, administrative buildings, and the ever-dominant oil and gas corporations – scarcely 450 metres apart – lay two of Calgary’s influential centres for art and culture.

Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary, or MOCA, has inhabited the local art scene since 1988 under the name Triangle Gallery. The gallery – located in the Calgary Municipal Building – was re-branded in 2012 under its new name.

The Glenbow Museum, meanwhile, has been a part of Calgary’s downtown cityscape since 1966. During those 47 years, it has accumulated roughly 28,000 works of art.

TWO GALLERIES, MANY DIFFERENCES

Although Calgary has had institutions like the Glenbow as part of our cityscape for many years, the scene still has plenty of room to grow.

Longstanding museums like the Glenbow, and newer galleries like the re-branded MOCA, both show where Calgary’s art scene has grown from, as well as the potential for the artistic community to reach new standards.

Each gallery has different qualities to offer the Calgary art scene.

“We have a collection and a mandate to exhibit historical, modern and contemporary art,” says Melanie Kjorlien, vice president of access collections and exhibitions at the Glenbow, “And MOCA is focusing on contemporary work.”

“And they’re doing a terrific job, I think, in terms of some interesting projects that have been developed there.”

Kjorlien adds that she thinks MOCA is also showing the community that there’s some interest in having a space dedicated to staging contemporary art.

And what this kind of programming aims to achieve, says Jeffrey Spalding, artistic director of MOCA, is showcasing new and different art forms that are “making news today and changing people’s opinions and the way they think about life and art.

Even if gallery-goers personally dislike the art, “We’re helping you keep in touch with what the rest of the world is talking about,” Spalding suggests.

Kjorlien adds that the Glenbow has lots of space, with 93,000 square feet of exhibition area, which makes a difference in the size and scope of exhibitions that can be brought to the museum. In contrast, MOCA has limited space with approximately 3,000 square feet including the office space and basement.

However, Spalding vows that MOCA’s space issue is not going to hold the institution back from providing inspiring service to Calgarians, through showing some of the most thought provoking selections of contemporary art.

“Instead of worrying about raising funds to build a new building, and then raising more dollars a year just to run it, why not just spend the money on the programming?” says Spalding.

CALGARY CALLS FOR CONTEMPORARY ART

Spalding says that having a facility that deals with contemporary art, like MOCA does, is a need that has been repeatedly brought to the art world’s attention by Calgarians over the past 30 years.

Elysia Turner-Lechelt has been with MOCA since 2011 and is the gallery’s volunteer co-ordinator. Turner-Lechelt is an art history graduated from the University of Calgary.

Photo by Sarah Comber
Spalding adds that the “reality” is that there is room in Calgary’s art scene to provide contemporary showings that inspire and challenge the public.

“We are trying to step in to get that done.”

Spalding also says that through MOCA taking advantage of the space for growth in Calgary’s art scene, the museum’s actions “should start to clarify for the Glenbow where they should put some of their priorities and their efforts.”

Spalding, whose previous positions included both curator and president for the Glenbow, adds that he “maintains great affection for the Glenbow.”

GALLERIES PLAY DIFFERENT ROLES

Meanwhile, the Glenbow’s Kjorlien seems to encourage sharing art audiences with the upstart MOCA.

“We’re one of many arts organizations that exhibits art, but I think we all have a unique role to play.”

“… we’re all working together to engage people in art – which I think is what we need to really broaden peoples appreciation in art.”

– Melanie Kjorlien, vice president of access collections and exhibitions at the Glenbow.

Kjorlien adds, in regards to the Glenbow, that it is important that there is a gallery in Calgary that is collecting, and showing, art produced by Albertan artists. She says that showing historic Albertan art “can tell you something about what maybe the issues were at that particular point in time, what artists were responding to, what the culture was like.”

Contrarily, MOCA does not collect art, but — similarly to the Glenbow — brings in travelling exhibits. However, while MOCA also shows Canadian art, it only exhibits the art of today.

“We are just trying to connect people up to the rest of the world,” says Spalding. “The problem with living in a place like Canada is that often the finest things that are being made and thought about in the world don’t come here.”

PUBLIC INTEREST

Spalding says that since MOCA has started to show more global art exhibitions – such as the recent Andy Warhol program – and through being involved in international art festivals like Nuit Blanche, the museum’s attendance numbers have skyrocketed, from 3,677 people in 2011 to 12,845 after its re-branding in 2012.

Even though the Glenbow’s traffic has also increased – from 118,638 in 2011 to 128,129 in 2012 – Kjorlien says that if she could see any changes in the growth of the Glenbow, it would be an increase in public visits.

“I think for the size of our city we definitely want more people coming to Glenbow. Our vision is more people interacting with art, culture, and ideas more often.”

Michelle Veitch, assistant professor in the department of interior design and art history at Mount Royal University, says that both galleries “have public appeal in a different way.”

Veitch says she enjoys attending and viewing exhibits at both institutions.

Veitch’s specialization is in contemporary Canadian art, and she says that MOCA and the Glenbow have contributed to the growth of the Calgary art scene by featuring historical, contemporary, local and provincial artists in their exhibitions.

TWO HEADS BETTER THAN ONE

Both galleries acknowledge the importance of working collectively with other art institutions in the city to strengthen the art scene within Calgary.

Spalding says that through linking as many art institutions in the city as possible – such as the Glenbow, Art Gallery of Calgary, Esker Foundation, Illingworth Kerr, Nickle Arts Museum and MOCA – the city’s art scene can showcase bigger projects.

On such collaboration was MOCA’s partnership with the Art Gallery of Calgary with the recent Made in Alberta exhibition.

Such collaborations create more avenues to show different artists’ works.

“I think that’s exciting because you need all the different institutions to be working and everybody benefits when we’re all vibrant and interested,” adds Kjorlien. “So we’re all working together to engage people in art – which I think is what we need to really broaden people’s appreciation of art.”

scomber@cjournal.ca