It is befitting, in some ironic way, that I am writing this from Winnipeg, as the Canadian Mint sends off its last penny to a museum in Ottawa to be ogled at by future generations. The other penny dropped as I read the Fast Forward Weekly story “The AGC vs. Valerie Cooper: Gallery seeks $500,000 from former president and CEO.” Life sometimes has a way of showing us truths in a peculiar manner.
Since the story broke, my inbox has been blossoming with emails saying things like, “Can you believe it?” and “Who knew?!” and “It’s about time!” All well-intentioned and well-meaning, and all expecting a similar reaction. Here’s the catch: the allegations against Cooper and the subsequent reactions highlight a much deeper disconnect in the city of Calgary’s cultural fabric, one which affects the very core of the arts and casts a shadow on the hard work of the many people doing a legitimately good job as educators, museum directors, curators and gallery owners.
From an arts point of view, there is a general apathy in Alberta. From a business point of view, there is contempt — particularly for contemporary art. Unfortunately, this problem isn’t particular to Calgary or Alberta, but it is magnified in a city with enough wealth and the intellectual resources and tools necessary to instigate change.
Some brave and energetic efforts have been made, including the soon-to-open Esker Foundation in Inglewood and the rebirth of the Triangle as MOCA Calgary, but larger scale attempts to create a new contemporary signature museum have repeatedly failed — resulting in a gap where the role of a destination contemporary art gallery representative of the city’s art talent was, by default, left mostly to the Art Gallery of Calgary (voted second best art gallery this year).
Over the past two decades I’ve been involved with the visual arts in various roles: as artist, business entrepreneur, manager, director or curator. Half of this time was spent in Europe or in other Canadian cities, but I returned to Calgary for a short engagement as curator for the AGC in 2007. My job was to rebuild the bridges the AGC had severed with the community due to the poor treatment of artists, and to bring in top level art shows. I thought I was returning to new attitudes and new ideas. That was not the case.
The AGC is representative of what can go wrong when warning signs are not heeded and it brings to light the question of value; how we as a society measure the benefits of galleries, museums and art itself. Political agendas and waning interest for art is forcing many galleries to become spaces for weddings and cocktail parties — shifting the focus from accessible, innovative and experimental platforms which support art and community.
This shift, and the failure to realize the benefits of a creative economy, is more evident in Calgary because of a misguided idealism of how the visual arts fit within the texture of a fast-growing city. Unfortunately, the outcome is a cultural capital which still struggles with its artistic and cultural identity and wrestles to overcome or get past the oil money and nouveau riche attitudes which view the arts as a frivolous pastime or a desirable dish-du-jour object.
The best and most successful creative projects are not those driven by money alone, but by visionaries who have an understanding and a sensibility for the artists and their audiences. They are the ones with diverse, ethical boards who have collective, accumulated and generous knowledge together with a genuine interest in the visual arts. At the AGC, however, the focus appears to be on glamour and social clout.
The successful art museums of the future are the ones that inspire collaboration and create healthy work environments with enthusiastic and skilled leaders. These will be the art spaces that build and contribute to their respective communities by not remaining the hermetic bubbles of yesteryear.
From the beginning of time the visual arts have been bastions for freedom of speech, perceived in popular culture as challenging, complicated, questioning, reflective, introspective, loud, telling and sometimes threatening. What is perhaps needed most, however, is a return to the view that the visual arts can play an important role in reflecting and documenting the story of “us” at any given point in time for future generations.
In my future Calgary, the artistic tendencies in our children would be encouraged and supported equally with science and sports. We would listen to what artists are saying with curiosity; welcome honest, open dialogue; and encourage policy makers to better understand the visual arts and the run-off benefits in areas like psychological well-being, community vitality and health. We would see coherent growth between corporate and cultural interests.
For the sake of Calgary and all its creative wealth and ecological treasures, it is important now more than ever to include the creative industries in the making of a truly admirable city. It’s time to honour, understand and continue to support the people doing the good deeds, and learn from the erroneous blunders of the few. It is time to get on with due diligence and transparency so that the art institutions working for a greater good may be recognized, fully realized, valued and cherished. To make Calgary a truly admirable city it is time to promote the creative industries with the same optimistic, entrepreneurial bravado that characterizes the business realm — I dare say surpass it. However, as long as misguided patronage and lack of transparency continue to undermine arts and culture, any real discussions around creative progress will continue to be blocked.
I am hopeful that the challenges Calgary’s art community is currently experiencing will become the steps to building a better city where edgy, courageous ideas are supported by the edgy, courageous people who are genuinely determined to champion creative goals and projects, and that the Art Gallery of Calgary will finally become what its name reflects and always should have been: the Art Gallery of Calgary.
Alexandra Keim is a writer, freelance curator, arts director and manager. She was the chief curator at the Art Gallery of Calgary in 2007.