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  • Mathew Silver

A Tale of Two Galleries

Updated: Mar 24, 2018

Essential Calgary Magazine, February 2017. Find the original article here.

Glenbow, which was founded in 1966 as The Glenbow Museum, has a rich and illustrious history. It all started with a generous philanthropist named Eric Lafferty Harvie. When Imperial Oil struck a geyser on land to which he owned mineral rights in 1947, Harvie came into an embarrassment of riches. With his newfound wealth he endeavoured to showcase the beauty and history of Southern Alberta, and to expose Calgarians to the exoticism of global cultures.


It was a simpler time. Calgary had a population of slightly more than 330,000 people (compared to 1,235,171 in April 2016), most of whom had never traveled outside of the country. Google wouldn't exist for another half-century, which meant that museums were an important and essential destination for learning about the past. It also came at a time when people were discarding their old items - little treasures of local heritage that would eventually provide a window to the past. Harvie started collecting anything and everything.


Fifty years after Glenbow was founded, Harvie's vision has grown into the largest art collection in Western Canada with 33,000 artworks on display and in its archives. The museum remains a cultural anchor for the regional and Western Canadian experience. But change is afoot. Glenbow consulted focus groups to drop "the" and "museum" from its name, with the goal of modernizing the brand. The eight-storey building that houses the museum is due for an upgrade as well. It was built in 1976 by the Alberta government, which suggests that the carpeting, lighting, and woodwork are outmoded.


Since a museum will be measured by both its collection and the building in which it resides, Glenbow has engaged a local architecture firm to address everything from its interior appearance to the building's orientation. In days past people would arrive to Calgary by rail, stay in the Fairmont Palliser, and walk across the street to Glenbow. The firm will look to reorient the museum's entrance onto 8th avenue, where there's a high volume of pedestrians throughout the day.


The museum's directors envision a bright future for the space. They want up-to-date amenities to match other prominent museums across the globe, and a pulse that suits the vibrance of the city's East End. Imagine an all-encompassing experience that includes exhibitions, food service, and shopping, while maintaining their Museum School program that allows students to escape the confines of the classroom and accounts for half of their visitors. That's the future of Glenbow.


It continues to be an exciting time for Calgary arts and culture: Contemporary Calgary is transforming the Centennial Planetarium into the city's home for modern and contemporary art. Pierre Arpin, director and CEO of Contemporary Calgary, is helping lead the effort, since taking on the inaugural role in April 2016.


Having worked at some of Australia's most prominent institutions, Arpin has the winning blend of experience and vision that could develop Calgary's arts community. According to him, Calgary is young when it comes to art galleries. Some cities were stablished for 100 years before getting a dedicated art space, which means that while Calgary's late to the party, we still have the potential to be the life of it.


"Contemporary art is part of how we live in our communities and how we connect with cities around the globe," says Arpin. It's important for a city like Calgary to have a space like this." The City of Calgary has committed $24.5 million to the project, which will repurpose the old science centre into the type of cultural art destination that Calgary has been missing. It could also help revitalize the West Village, in conjunction with the prospect of CalgaryNEXT tentatively relocating sports and leisure along the Bow River. That means the West Village could soon challenge the East for bragging right's as Calgary's entertainment destination. It's the type of healthy friction that could generate a lot of heat for a growing city that's often overlooked as a hotbed of culture.


The building itself is a historic landmark, born of the mid-20th century brutalist architecture boom. It will provide 45,000 sq. feet of creative workspace, a feature that could attract and accommodate artists and exhibits from across the globe. The maze-like design that added to the mysticism of the science centre will also translate nicely as an art space, with unique rooms that facilitate the shift from theme to theme. A space like the original IMAX Dome, which once captured the imagination of school children and adults alike, now provides interesting potential for vertical and film art installations, and the globe-shaped white ceiling could be repurposed as a canvas for a projector.


The building can also host one hell of a party, as it's done with three annual iterations of Contemporary Calgary's LOOK gala and fundraiser. Featuring guest speakers (most recently Steve Martin and Adam Gopnik), art auctions, a gourmet dinner, live music, and art installations, LOOK has been on of the most fun and memorable fundraisers in town. The planetarium is a multi-level labyrinth of slops, angular walls, and shadowy spaces. It's the perfect party setting, allowing for high-traffic conversation and little quiet pockets for more intimate discourse.


The city's financial commitment is a step in the right direction, and shows a welcome sense of urgency as the city has fallen behind in Canada's arts race. Let the games begin.


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