Arts scene insiders working outside the boom and bust to build a foundation for a world class arts community
Nurtured by the support of organizations and community supporters alike, Calgary artists have, over time, put the city in the spotlight, achieving national and even international success.
As part of the Calgary Journal’s Then and Now series, which examines significant changes in Calgary, our reporters check in with several notable artists representing a broad swath of local talent.
All indicate the city’s “arts” story is one of steady growth over time, as opposed to meteoric rises and sharp falls that are sometimes associated with Alberta’s boom-bust economy. Art cannot flourish without support, and according to several creative minds who call Calgary home, that support has, like the city, grown steadily over time.
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Venue owners key to musical success
Tom Phillips, a singer-songwriter and the leader of The Men of Constant Sorrow, has watched firsthand Calgary’s steady climb in creative capital. Involved in the music scene for over 30 years, Phillips believes the support of music club owners has played a pivotal role in allowing live music to flourish in Calgary.
“I think in many ways the incredible bravery of music club owners throughout the years here has been a foundation. If one club closed another came along and filled its void,” says Phillips, who continues to perform his honky-tonk tunes at local venues such as Wine-ohs and Mikey’s Juke Joint.
“The festivals, the club owners, the music societies. These places are filled with music lovers of all kinds and they have this crazy tenacity and commitment that really has made Calgary the live music city that it is.”
Visitors from around the world were treated to Calgary’s live music scene this spring through JUNOfest in advance of the 2016 JUNO Awards, hosted March 28 to April 3.
Over 50 artists played in venues across the city, many along Music Mile, a stretch of restaurants, venues and galleries running from Inglewood to East Village, showcasing the best of local talent alongside Canadian icons.
Communities of like-minded individuals have planted roots which have branched out into multiple venues, festivals and institutions, making Calgary home to a bustling music scene that spans well beyond its oil-town reputation.
Booms and busts
Iconic Calgary playwright Sharon Pollock is quick to remind people of the impact Alberta’s oil and gas economy has had on Calgary’s arts scene.
When Pollock came to Calgary in the sixties, she says the west was not on the national radar as an artistic hot spot.
“The West (was) overlooked federally and culturally when I came to Calgary as an Equity theatre artist in the early 60s,” Pollock says. “Oil and Lougheed made the difference for Alberta.”
Pollock, now 79, says a robust economy helped spur on an entire generation of artists in the city, fuelling the growth of small theatre companies.
“The increase in work opportunities affects everyone I know within the theatre community. At one time it was thought necessary to move to Toronto were one serious about creating theatre,” Pollock says.
“Theatre rebels and mavericks stayed here to create a meaningful theatre outside the Golden Triangle of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Now more actors, technicians, designers and directors have more work possibilities in the larger companies.”
Like in the eighties, Alberta’s economy is once again stalled due to low oil prices. But according to several Calgary artists we talked to, the economy is not gutting the art scene, which has become more diversified.
From public art to spoken word, art takes on many forms
Funding for public art displays in Calgary is now mandated by city council, with one per cent of certain projects being shifted to public art development. This means a modest $1-million development translates into a $10,000 artistic work.
Other city projects include the Painted City program, which calls on artists to paint utility boxes, street corners and other public areas to add some colour to the city.
Mark Kowalchuk, an illustrator and graphic design artist, welcomes the city’s commitment.
“There is more community acceptance of public art and art as installations in Calgary. I’ve noticed that the city has geared more of its time to making Calgary artsier.”
Kowalchuk’s high contrast, vibrantly coloured art is etched onto skateboards, snowboards and band merchandise across the globe. His illustrations, fraught with jagged edges that clash with majestic scenes of the Canadian wilderness, find a waiting home in the counter-culture.
Ever the artistic maverick, he believes it is important the city is beginning to develop an original mindset towards public art.
“Calgary has been playing it pretty safe for years in terms of public art,” Kowalchuk says. “But now instead of building everything cookie-cutter and boring, Calgary is slowly starting to develop some sense of artistic style and taking some chances.”
Institutions standing up for art
A significant driving force behind the city’s arts scene is Calgary Arts Development, or CAD. As the city’s designated arts development authority, CAD invests in people and programs, such as Beakerhead, cSPACE, and High Performance Rodeo.
Patti Pon, president and CEO of CAD, believes the success of its many arts initiatives lies in encouraging Calgarians to live creative lives.
“When the arts infuse the lives of our citizens, amazing things happen for our city. And it’s not about being an artist as much as it is about how do we encourage and invoke that creative spirit that’s in all of us?”
A key factor to CAD’s success over the years has been a willingness to show support to both established artists as well as those at the grassroots level.
In addition to CAD’s own initiatives and an increasing public grants for artists, Pon says one of the most critical evolutions to Calgary’s arts scene has been the proactivity of the artists themselves.
“We actually have a very strong community arts culture in Calgary and I can’t say enough about the folks who are participating in that. So when you have this whole spectrum and system of people exercising their artistic spirit, that’s a really great energy and I think that’s the kind of thing that will bring vitality and vibrancy to Calgary.”
Taking chances and celebrating our strengths
Regardless of mixed opinions surrounding some art initiatives in Calgary, namely the controversial $470,000 blue ring structure, artistic projects have been on the upswing, a welcome move according to Kowalchuk.
“Calgary needs to define its own style and show its artistic strengths. There are so many talented people in this city and we should emphasize their strengths and creativity,” Kowalchuk says.
Sheri-D Wilson, the founder of the Calgary Spoken Word Festival, agrees, but also believes Calgary always had a spark.
“I think we’ve always been amazing and I think now we’re starting to realize it.”
The prominent spoken word artist and poet says Calgary artists need to get louder when celebrating their myriad strengths.
“We underestimate ourselves completely,” says Wilson, who was awarded the City of Calgary Arts Award in 2015 for her role as an artist and her involvement in the community.
“People always say Calgary is so backwards and cowboy. It’s like where have you been? Definitely not the same place as I have. There’s been great music that’s come out of Calgary for the last 30 years.”
Wilson also believes the recent economic downturn provides an “opportunity” for artists, saying “arts have always been a great contributor to the economy so maybe the arts will even develop during these times.”
The mighty power of participation
Calgary-born musician Michael Bernard Fitzgerald is optimistic about art in Calgary, even during the downtown.
But he says it’s a crucial time to support artists.
“Support the artists, support your neighbours, it’s a time to make those connections stronger and deeper. I think if you look at it that way it’s a really exciting time to be in this city.”
Fitzgerald, a rising figure in Canada’s music scene, has been making waves across the country and just released his fourth album, I Wanna Make It With You.
“Art has the power to make a city socially relevant; it also makes a city up at the forefront versus being in some social ice age.
“Mayor Nenshi even said himself that we need to support the arts because the arts do support the city; they stimulate economic growth and new ideas,” Fitzgerald says.
Fitzgerald stresses the importance of everyone involved in the arts scene, including those who show up for concerts, exhibitions, plays and other artistic events.
“That guy who is playing guitar is awesome —he’s doing his part for the scene. But there’s also the guy that stands on the other side of the mic-stand from the guy who plays guitar. Without one or the other, it just doesn’t happen.”
“I just feel like anyone, whether they’re in a band, a drummer, or someone who just loves books, or someone who goes to one show once in a while because they love the acoustic guitar — they’re all equally important in an arts scene.”
It’s an art scene with more to come! The National Music Centre is set to open in 2016, Contemporary Calgary is set to move into the old planetarium, and plans for a Calgary Film Centre are in the works — all indicators of a steady growth.
Thumbnail image courtesy of the Calgary Folk Music Festival
This project was produced by Jodi Brak, Dan Ball and Zoe Choy.