Looking back on Calgary’s year as Cultural Capital

COVER-02.21-2013-02-21T16-25-05-045177

Cover design by Josh Naud

Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the beginning. Calgary 2012, as in the people who form the organization, had an impossible task. How do you organize, create, fund and promote Calgary’s year as a cultural capital of Canada and please everybody? Well, you don’t. It’s one of the flaws of the now discontinued federal program. People expect mana from heaven, but that was never going to happen, nor was it intended.

Whenever you create a cultural event, you’re going to have people who find it lacking. Annual festivals have the benefit of learning lessons and making changes year over year. Calgary 2012 has no such luxury. Here’s your millions of dollars, go make something happen. Quick. Oh, and by the way, here are some guidelines you have to follow.

When Terry Rock, a Calgary 2012 board member and the president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development (CADA), one of five organizations that created the winning bid for Calgary, is asked whether Calgary 2012 faced an impossible task, he doesn’t even take a breath before answering. “Yes. We’ll never satisfy everyone, but I guess the questions I’d ask is do you not want to try for cultural capital of Canada? Look at the momentum that we have. So what should we do now? Should we just say that was done? Let’s take advantage of the momentum and try to do something more audacious next time.”

From Rock’s perspective, and for many others, the year was a total success. Millions of dollars ($5.83 million to be exact) poured into the city’s arts and culture scene in the form of grants, artist fees, legacy programs, marketing and promotion, production, administration and community engagement; individual artists received funds for projects that would likely never have happened otherwise; Nuit Blanche took over Olympic Plaza for a night; a new comedy festival, YYC Comedy Fest, got its feet with funding; Invest YYC, a new crowdsourced funding site for local projects, was created; and now, CADA is in the third phase of engagement for crafting a new arts plan for the city to be presented to council on June 5. These are just a few examples. Oh, and there was that lip dub video to the tune of “Sweet City Woman.”

“I guess I’m still unclear of how Sweet City Woman Lip Dub was really making us a cultural icon,” says local artist Sharon Stevens.

It’s something echoed by another artist, Eric Moschopedis. “At the end of a 12-month period of time, there’s nothing clear to show what happened except for a really ridiculous and embarrassing video.”

Okay, so there’s the video, where a gaggle of Calgarians, including burlesque performers, community groups, dancers, Dan the One Man Band, hell, even my two little nieces, danced around Olympic Plaza while the Stampeders’ song played. But let’s leave that alone. Suffice it to say it was a divisive decision.

Both Moschopedis and Stevens benefited from Calgary 2012 and mix the positive with the negative when discussing it. Stevens had a great experience as an artist-in-residence with the International Avenue BRZ, where she has been hired on as a sort of artistic liaison. Moschopedis says he and his partner Mia Rushton were able to do projects they wouldn’t otherwise have done, including a residency at the Calgary airport.

“I think lots of individual artists actually had some positive experiences out of it,” says Moschopedis. “Mia and I were certainly able to do a lot of different projects under the banner of 2012, or the funding of 2012 and whatnot, but I think ultimately, outside of that, I don’t think it had that much of an impact on the city or the arts community.”

According to numbers provided by Calgary 2012, 70 per cent of the grants it provided went to individual artists, cultural organizations and heritage organizations that are not currently supported by a municipal grant program.

Karen Ball, executive director of Calgary 2012, doesn’t shy away from discussing the issues some in the arts community have raised. “I think that the criticism that was borne on the cultural capital, and maybe still exists, I think still exists, is probably most strongly rooted in a bigger issue, which is how are our individual artists supported and recognized by the city,” she says. “A cultural capital has to be all things to all people. Therefore it’s not able to get to the sharpest end of the stick, which is how are we supporting our professional artists and creators.”

When the cultural year was just getting started, Moschopedis worried about the boosterism and the philosophy of creative cities that underlied Calgary’s efforts, but in the end, he says, it didn’t much matter. “So if there’s good news, I don’t think 2012 did that very well,” he says now in reference to marketing efforts. “So I think we’re okay on this end. We kind of came out of it unscathed in a lot of ways.”

For Rock, the year succeeded in large part because it brought communities together and engaged disparate individuals, organizations and groups. “The theme ‘creative, connected, communities’ came out really clearly throughout all of that work [leading up to the bid], so we put a bid together that had those flavours in it. And then what Karen and her team did really took that to another level and really actually achieved widespread engagement across the city.”

Part of that engagement is ongoing. As mentioned before, CADA is now in the third phase of drafting a comprehensive arts plan for the city. After community consultation, a citizen’s panel funded in part by Calgary 2012, and now a stakeholder process with members and supporters of Calgary’s arts community, the intention is to guide the city towards better funding, long-term planning and giving the city’s arts and culture more stability.

“In a role like mine, you have to have a really long-term perspective,” says Rock. “So I can understand people wondering ‘what did we get for this?’ right now, and wanting to see it paid off, but I think the reality is, what we got from this was a lot of momentum, a lot of really broad-based engagement in culture in our city that maybe was there before, but it wasn’t so visible.

“I just say that this is the biggest opportunity that this sector has had to walk in and say ‘okay, here’s where we want to go now.’”

So what is the legacy of 2012? For Ball it’s the barriers that were broken down between communities; Invest YYC crowdsourced funding; the Cultural Leaders Legacy Awards, which will be handed out yearly for the next four years; a three-year performance creation project celebrating the area’s native heritage called Making Treaty 7; publication of a book looking at the year; and the arts plan, though she’s cautious about stealing too much credit for that last one.

Stevens, despite some criticism of the event both before and now at the tail end of the year, remains “cautiously optimistic” about the future, citing developments outside the purview of Calgary 2012 including the Calatrava bridge, Jaume Plensa’s statue in front of The Bow, and Ron Moppet’s East Village mural as signs that Calgarians are starting to get it.

And Moschopedis? He still sees hope as well. “If we were to frame it in a certain way, there were a lot of small seeds planted this year and maybe they’ll blossom into something,” he says.

In the end, that’s where we’re at. There are no solid answers. Will Calgary 2012 prove to be the catalyst for a cultural awakening in the city? Will nascent events like Nuit Blanche and YYC Comedy Fest continue without the money from the cultural capital? Will Making Treaty 7 improve our understanding of the area’s native inhabitants?

“I think what will be written about what we get from this, we won’t know, unfortunately,” says Rock. “I mean there’s a lot of great experiences and a lot of learning from the year that we can point to right now about how strong culture is through all parts of Calgary, but it will be whether we can capitalize on the momentum that we’ve got now and turn it into something that has broad-based backing from community leaders, political leaders and people who aren’t normally considered part of the formal culture sector.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

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