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.

Pennies for culture: Transformation Calgary wants to build a better city

Illustration by Julie McLaughlin

Illustration by Julie McLaughlin

George Brookman isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to be advocating for a sales tax. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, the typical Calgary businessman who’s, well, all business. Down-to-earth and direct, he realizes that he and his organization, Transformation Calgary, have a lot of selling to do in order to win over this city’s tax-averse citizens.

Transformation Calgary wants to see one per cent added to the GST within Calgary in order to develop and fund new recreational and cultural facilities, or fix up the ones that are crumbling in our midst. The group estimates that in four years, the city could collect $1 billion to help create the kind of city that attracts and retains what Brookman constantly refers to as the “best and brightest.”

In other words, it’s not quite as improbable as it seems that Brookman, along with Brian Felesky, the vice-chair of Credit Suisse Canada, are pushing for a new tax. It’s not fair to say it’s all about business, but that certainly plays a role. Both men understand that you need to have strong quality of life in a city if you want to grow.

“That’s always been the thing with me,” says Brookman. “You really want to build community here, and community involves a lot of things. You’ve got to cater to little kids, you’ve got to cater to old guys, you’ve got to cater to young guys, you’ve got to cater to people who want hard bodies, you’ve got to cater to people who want to sit and listen to the philharmonic. You’ve got to cater to everybody and you’ve got to invest in that on a regular basis.”

There is also a lack of vision around what we can accomplish. Brookman points to past projects — the Jubilee Auditorium, the Centre Street bridge and old city hall — and says we have lost our foresight and innovation. We build with small budgets and no thought to the future. “This is going to be a city of two million people not that long from now,” says Brookman.

The idea for a one per cent bump in the GST came after Brookman attended a dinner at the Epcor Centre three years ago. The management was unveiling its plans for a $600-million retrofit and Brookman realized there were a few high-profile projects on people’s wish lists — a new central library, the National Music Centre, a new building for the Glenbow, to name a few — and that the same bunch of wealthy Calgarians were always asked to contribute. There was no planning. No priority list. There was no direction and very little in the way of citizen input. “Everybody has the same 25 people on their list,” he says of local fundraising activities.

He and Felesky started talking with Casey Vander Ploeg from the Canada West Foundation and started looking at Oklahoma City, which implemented a one per cent sales tax that transformed the ailing city. Transformation Calgary was born.

Ron Norick, the former mayor of Oklahoma City — a self-described conservative Republican — had managed to convince his own tax-averse citizens that they should vote in favour of the tax because it was the only way the city was going to be able to build a place that would appeal to tourists and locals alike. They needed investment and they needed to keep young people from moving away.

The first Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) tax was narrowly approved in a plebiscite with 53.9 per cent approval. It had a lifespan of five years. The city accumulated the funds and laid the groundwork for development before earning enough money to start building. The first round of tax, which built a new ballpark, a new library and revitalized the river, among other projects, was so successful, and popular, that a second tax used to fix the area’s schools garnered about 70 per cent approval. A third tax term was approved by almost 80 per cent of voters.

“When people could see their dollars at work, they did not miss that penny,” says Norick during a recent trip here at the invite of Transformation Calgary.

For Brookman, the idea is a no-brainer. The city doesn’t have enough money and doesn’t have any stable funding from either the province or the federal government. When it does have money, it has to make tough decisions between competing infrastructure needs. Culture falls by the wayside. Or, even worse, according to Brookman, we are forced to borrow to pay the costs. “The city is borrowing $250 million to build these four rec centres,” he says. “Well I really believe we want the rec centres, but I really don’t want the city to borrow that money.”

If Transformation Calgary has its way, the money would be there without the need to borrow, and there would be a certain percentage set aside for operational funds as well.

While Brookman described the task ahead as “pushing water uphill with a rake,” he’s positive that Calgarians will see the wisdom in self-financing a great city, with minimal cost to taxpayers. Now he just has to get the politicians on board.

So is there political will for something like this?

“The answer is no. And yes,” he says. “Essentially what our political masters are saying to us is we can’t start this, but if you can get a parade going, we’ll join you.”

Brookman realizes the challenges — public perception, political will and the hatred people have for the words tax and sales tax — but returns to Norick as a source of inspiration.

“I loved Norick when he says to me, ‘You think you guys are tax averse here? We got people in Oklahoma City that say we don’t need a fire department.’”

Questions continue to dog Art Gallery of Calgary

The Art Gallery of Calgary holds its AGM today amidst futher allegations of mismanagement. This time the allegations aren’t directed at former president and CEO Valerie Cooper, who is alleged to have defrauded the gallery and facing both a civil suit and a criminal trial, but at the board of directors in relation to Art Divas Inc., an investment group tied to the AGC.

The Art Divas invested money to buy four test plates of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party Plates” and one “Toby Head” scultpure by the same artist. The investors were offered to buy shares in a plate or plates at various levels of investment, with some portion of the money going to the gallery as a donation. The gallery is responsible for maintenance, insurance and appraisal of the work.

Wendy Lyons, an Art Diva and a friend of Cooper, is frustrated by a lack of communication, saying she has been unable to get any information about her investment from Brian Hearst, the managing director of the gallery and the board treasurer. Lyons paid $5,000 for her share in one plate, with $2,500 going to the AGC.

After Cooper was fired put on administrative leave and later tendered her resignation from the gallery after the allegations of fraud first surfaced, Lyons grew concerned about her investment (she owns one share) and started seeking information. After not hearing back, she figured the gallery had enough to deal with and put off her inquiries over the summer.

“Then when I started asking again in the fall, I still didn’t get any responses,” says Lyons.

Lyons finally received an email sent out to inform members that the AGM was coming up, but instead of being able to buy memberships up until the day of the meeting, as was the custom in the past, members were informed the board had changed the rules. As a result, the deadline for purchasing memberships had already passed by the time Lyons was notified. Hearst’s response to her about the change was: “Regarding the AGC membership you have had all year to get one.”

He also addressed her investment queries. “Please contact the art divas directly with your questions. I am not their representative”

Hearst says the rules changed this year to allow members to vote in person, by mail or by email. “This was well received,” he says over email. “The minor catch, which is common to corporate AGMs, is that the memberships must have been valid at the date of notice. Memberships expire on March 31 each year, so interested members have had over six months up to the Notice of AGM to renew for $30.” (note: a membership costs $35)

He also says “The group of owners (approx. 40 individuals) formed Art Divas Inc. to act as legal trustees of their art investments, managed by themselves, not AGC.” Hearst, who says he is at home fighting the flu, has not replied to a message asking him about the gallery’s stated responsibilities for the work and its relationship with the investment group. His wife, Linda Hearst, is an investor.

Lyons grew more concerned when the gallery said it was unable to provide a refund owed to the Divas, particularly because the group’s money was supposed to be kept separate from gallery accounts, she says.

A source familiar with the matter, who wishes to remain anonymous, alleges that the investment money isn’t there and has been spent on gallery operations. The same source goes on to say that the artwork in question was grossly inflated in price when the investors were brought on board and that the work was not imported into the country under the proper procedures — it was imported for exhibition purposes only — calling into question the legal status of the investment.Fast Forward Weekly has been unable to corroborate these allegations at this time.

The intent of the Art Divas investment was to buy into work that would, hopefully, appreciate in value, and to tour the pieces to other venues.

Lyons says she hasn’t seen an appraisal of the work since it was first purchased a few years ago, but was recently forwarded an email indicating that the value is indeed up. The gallery is tasked with appraising the value of the work “not less than annually,” and she’s concerned about the work being insured as intended and what the value of the work is.

Her questions, and the fact that she refused to pay $500 for a new crate for the work and a catalogue so that the pieces can tour, have gotten her “blacklisted,” she says. She didn’t pay her fee because she wasn’t getting any answers to her questions. She speculates that it might also have something to do with her relationship to Cooper.

“So that’s when they decided that I didn’t get a vote or couldn’t receive minutes because I hadn’t paid, but I haven’t received anything from them asking me for the money, or any information, so I don’t know if I want to continue with the investment to begin with,” she says.

For Lyons, it’s not about the money. She says her concern is with the management of the gallery and the investment. “You know what? Any other investment I would have, if this was the management level that I got, I would have sold it a long time ago,” she says.

The AGM, scheduled for 5 p.m. tonight, will deal with the appointment of directors, appointment of auditors and approving bylaws. Many familiar faces are up for re-election to the board, including Brian Hearst, Fran Esler, Donale Gandossi, Donald House, Gwen Randall and David Rehn. Also up for election are four new faces: Royce Chwin, Mark Lindley, Matthew Pollock and Charles Robinson.

Although not mentioned in the annual report, or listed on the schedule for the AGM, Calgary Arts Development CEO Terry Rock confirms that the municipal entity has frozen its funding, “until we finalize due diligence around restoration of it. To date we have not provided them a grant for 2012.”

There are currently 102 members on a membership list, which was acquired by Fast Forward Weekly along with the gallery’s bylaws, but after accounting for duplications, there are 92 members eligible to vote in the AGM. Lyons is still listed, so it’s not clear whether this is the most up-to-date document.

What is most evident is that the AGC has created steep divisions. Hearst warns that information from some people in the investment group should be approached with caution — “According to Art Divas management group, there are very few ‘angry’ art divas. (Note the ex-president of AGC is a member of the group),” he writes. Lyons, meanwhile, cautions against talking to former staff because they have it out for Cooper.

Mention of the Art Divas has been removed from the AGC website. It is not known when this change occurred.

We will bring you more information as it becomes available.

** This story was updated to indicate the correct cost of a membership and to indicate that the cost per share for the Divas was not necessarily the same for everyone.

Staunching the flow: As Alberta reviews its pipelines, critics cry foul

Illustration by Mariella Villalobos.

Illustration by Mariella Villalobos.

On Thursday, June 7, approximately 475,000 litres of oil started pouring into the Red Deer River from a ruptured pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada. By the next day, Premier Alison Redford was on scene, eager to show she cares.

Just over a month later, a coalition of 54 groups penned an open letter to the premier demanding more than a well-timed photo op. The groups wanted the Redford government to initiate an “immediate independent provincewide review of pipeline safety in Alberta, similar to the one which was recently conducted for the auditor general of Saskatchewan’s 2012 report.”

The letter was signed by a wide array of groups including the Alberta Surface Rights Group, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, Greenpeace Canada, the Confederacy of Treaty 6 and more. By July 20, the groups had gotten their wish. Sort of. Energy Minister Ken Hughes announced that the government would conduct a pipeline review, but the signatories are upset that they have been left out of the conversation while the government consults with players in the energy sector, and they have raised concerns about the review’s effectiveness and impartiality.

Specific concerns are that the provincial regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, was put in charge of hiring a third party to conduct the review, the scope of the review is too narrow, and the month-and-a-half timeline for finishing the report is far too fast for any meaningful examination.

“There have been other reviews done, both nationally and provincially,” says Mike Hudema of Greenpeace. “Most recently by the province of Saskatchewan, and their review was done by their provincial auditor. It was a very expansive review and looked at most of the sort of wide-breadth of Saskatchewan’s pipeline infrastructure, and what came out of it was several different places that the Saskatchewan government was failing communities and their environment when it comes to pipeline safety, and then a lot of suggestions for improvement.”

Hudema doesn’t hold out much hope for the same kind of result emerging from Alberta’s review. “Unfortunately we have a lot of questions about the review process and that’s, again, one of the reasons why we wanted to meet with the premier,” he says.

To that end, the 54 groups have initiated a petition to try and force Redford and Hughes to meet with them. In just over a week the petition collected over 5,000 signatures, but the response from the government has been silence.

Don Bester, of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, which represents concerned landowners, doesn’t think that silence will be broken any time soon. “There’s a push,” he says, “but there isn’t much response.”

JUST THE FACTS

Albertans have reason to be concerned. Although most oil, gas and energy byproducts reach their destination safely, the ERCB’s latest figures still highlight the dangers.

In its 2010 Field Surveillance and Operations Branch provincial summary, the regulator says there were 687 incidents spread over Alberta’s more than 400,000 kilometres of pipeline in 2010, which resulted in 1,175 recorded “liquid releases.” In total, approximately 25 million litres of produced water (an oily byproduct of extraction) and three million litres of liquid hydrocarbons were released into the Alberta landscape.

The ERCB directed 30 pipeline operations to suspend activities in 2010. Of those shutdowns, 47.3 per cent were due to internal pipeline corrosion, followed by external corrosion at 11.2 per cent.

Of course, most Albertans don’t hear of these “incidents.” Many happen far away from urban centres and the watchful eye of media. But there were three high-profile spills this year that brought the problem to public attention and forced the government’s hand. Earlier this year, 230,000 litres of heavy crude spilled onto farmland northeast of Edmonton and 800,000 litres of oil gushed near the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Including the spill in Red Deer, these three “liquid releases” alone have let loose 1.5 million litres of oil in 2012.

Bester thinks things can be done better. The farmer, whose group includes landowners affected by the most recent Red Deer spill, says technology must be improved, particularly when it comes to river crossings. “We have people that own land right there and they’re telling us that Plains Midstream knew that this pipe was exposed and floating in the river well before the break even happened,” he says. “It was reported to them and they did nothing.”

Bester wants the current practice of lowering pipelines into river beds and fixing them in place with gravel to be replaced with new technology, including horizontal drilling far below the river bed. “I mean, they can drill a horizontal well a mile-and-a-half, you can drill your pipelines just the same as you do highway crossings,” he says. “You don’t rip up number 2 every time you want to put a pipeline across Highway 2.”

JUST THE POLITICS

Of course, the recent publicity around oil pipelines in Alberta has as much to do with pipelines that haven’t been built as it does with oil clogging up rivers and muskeg. TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the States and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway that will transport oilsands bitumen to the West Coast are both high-profile fights that have galvanized public opinion and focused attention on Alberta.

“The world’s watching us and we need to make sure that people know that the regulations, the standards and the processes in place are, first and foremost, meeting Albertans’ expectations, but now also national and international scrutiny,” says Mike Deising, a spokesperson for Alberta Energy. “So we want our regulator to take a look at it and we also want them to bring in an independent third party. It just makes sense.”

MLA Laurie Blakeman, who, among several other portfolios acts as the energy critic for the Alberta Liberals, agrees that pipelines are inevitable. “I’m going forward with, if it’s going to happen, how do we make it the least damaging,” she says. “How do we take steps to make sure that if something goes wrong, it’s the least amount of something going wrong; there’s the most protection for the environment and the people that are around it. That’s my point of view.”

Her other point of view is that the government isn’t fulfilling its role when it refuses to listen to all sides of a story. In this case, the 54 groups representing a broad swath of dissenting Alberta voices.

“We all live here, we all breathe this air, we all have children that we want to be able to drink the water. So, having the government divide and conquer is not helpful,” says Blakeman from her office in Edmonton.

“There’s a lot of smart people in Alberta and some of them work in these organizations. And to completely go, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to a whole bunch of smart people that have things to tell me that would be helpful’ is kind of stupid, I think.”

Nobody thinks that the government should be ignoring the oil and gas industry, at this time or any other, but it’s a familiar complaint in the province that the government’s ear is a little too attuned to the messages put out by the royalty-gushing industry.

“I do think that the public deserves some degree of input,” says Hudema. “There’s definitely, when we’re talking about pipeline spills, the environmental impacts are a huge issue…. Also, when you look at the members of the 54 groups, a lot of them are landowner groups and landowner associations, so they have first-hand experience with what a spill means to a local farmer or a local rancher, what it’s done to their property, what some of their concerns are. I think the government should hear some of those voices.”

It doesn’t appear, however, that the government will be discussing pipelines with any of these groups any time soon. The premier’s office directed all questions to Hughes’ office, and Deising says it’s now out of their hands. “With respect to the review, now it’s in the hands of the regulator and the independent party to look at the three aspects that the minister wanted to see completed as part of the review. Taking that aside, because really we’re talking about the technical expertise of water crossings, spill response and pipeline integrity, that is a specific technical expertise that is required to look at those things…. With respect to broader stakeholder discussions, we’re open to always hearing from Albertans and their perspectives.”

THE OUTCOME

The signatories of the open letter to Redford aren’t happy about the ERCB playing a role in any pipeline review, insisting that it’s too close to the industry that it oversees. The process for the review allows the regulator to not only choose the third party that will review pipelines in Alberta, but also to review that third-party report and submit its own report to the energy minister with any recommendations it thinks are necessary.

According to Hudema, “they are part of Alberta’s pipeline problem and really shouldn’t be reviewing themselves.”

On September 10, the ERCB announced that it selected Group 10 Engineering of Calgary to conduct the review, citing their technical competency. In total four organizations were vying for the job, but the ERCB won’t comment on who else was in the running.

Group 10’s engineering managers, Theo Abels and Daryl Foley, both have years of experience working in the oilpatch, from regulatory compliance to technical inspections. Of course, hiring an organization with so much experience is a double-edged sword, bringing expertise on one hand, and cries of bias on the other.

According to Hudema, it’s another indication that the government isn’t serious about the review. “I think what most Albertans were expecting was a very balanced review process that would not just look at things from an industry perspective, but really from an independent perspective, and would hopefully include some of those other voices in the process,” he says.

The ERCB, by necessity a thick skinned organization, isn’t fazed.

“Someone’s going to be upset with this, no matter what we do, usually, when we make a decision, so this is no different from any other time we make a decision,” says Bob Curran, an ERCB spokesperson. “We make thousands of those every year. For us, it’s business as usual.”

Of course, business as usual is what many of the critics are, well, criticizing. They view the government, the regulator and the industry with suspicion — a closed loop bent on extracting and shipping oil and gas despite the consequences. For Bester, this review is merely window dressing and he’s not surprised. “They do not want to know. Put it that way. As long as the royalty dollars can keep flowing, they have no concerns, everything is just swept under the table.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

The AGC vs Valerie Cooper

NEWS-AGCValerie Cooper, the former president and CEO of the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC), who left her post suddenly without explanation in March, is being sued by the gallery in order to retrieve $500,000 it alleges Cooper stole from the non-profit in the form of falsified expenses starting in 2006.

The civil suit against Cooper, outlined in court documents obtained by Fast Forward Weekly , alleges she charged the gallery for a litany of expenses, from massages and parking, to $12,126 worth of artwork that, according to an affidavit by board chair Gwen Randall, ended up on Cooper’s condo walls, $185,129 of “fictitious framing,” $66,978 of unauthorized travel, $89,250 towards rent on her downtown condo, and non-existent loan repayments to the tune of $124,000.

The allegations were first brought to the attention of AGC board member David Rehn by the Calgary Police Service. “On March 13th, 2012, Mr. Rehn reported to a meeting of the Board of Directors for the AGC that at a meeting with the Calgary Police Service, he had been shown a series of invoices on the letterhead of Masters Gallery, which is a commercial gallery and framing service in the City of Calgary. The invoices totalled $106,515.11. The invoices were handwritten and described numerous framing assignments and the purchase of pieces of original art. Each of the invoices in question was marked paid,” reads the affidavit by AGC board chair Gwen Randall.

The statement goes on to say that Rehn was then shown information from Cooper’s personal bank account, accessed through a court order, that shows cheques from the AGC for those amounts were deposited into Cooper’s account.

When contacted by Fast Forward Weekly , a staff member at Masters Gallery said no one would comment on the matter, and that everyone was busy and would be for some time.

Former staff members of the AGC who were contacted by Fast Forward Weekly would not speak on the record, fearing legal repercussions. None of those contacted said they were surprised by the allegations, and some had left the gallery due to ethical concerns.

The AGC has been tight-lipped on Cooper’s departure. The gallery didn’t even acknowledge the vacancy until the end of March when the statement of claim against Cooper was filed with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary, despite the fact she was put on administrative leave on March 13.

Brian Hearst, who was the board treasurer and is currently the managing director of the gallery, wouldn’t comment on Cooper’s departure when contacted at the beginning of April.

Fast Forward Weekly has repeatedly attempted to contact Hearst since acquiring the documents, as well as board members Randall and Rehn. According to Nisha Sridhar, manager of communications and marketing at the AGC, the board was travelling in Russia on an art tour and members were unavailable.

There are questions around the “non-approved travel” expenses listed in a “funds recoverable analysis” conducted by Hearst, who is a chartered accountant, after the allegations were first brought to the board by the police. In March 2008, Cooper travelled to Jerusalem for a World Federation of Friends of Museums congress, where she spoke on a panel with Donale Gandossi, a current AGC board member who was board chair at the time. The trip was highlighted by Gandossi in the gallery’s 2008 annual report. It’s unclear why $1,364 of expenses for that trip are included as non-approved travel when the chair was with Cooper at the time.

There are other questions related to board oversight. How was Cooper allegedly able to reimburse herself for $124,000 of loans that never existed? If the allegations are true, how was she able to submit handwritten invoices totalling over $100,000 without raising a red flag?

According to Randall’s affidavit, the reason was misplaced trust. “From the time of the commencement of her employment, the Defendant cultivated personal relationships with a number of the members of the Board of Directors of the AGC, including this deponent,” reads the document. “Because of a personal relationship between the Defendant and members of the Board of Directors, and because of the complete trust imposed by the Board of Directors upon the Defendant to manage the affairs of the AGC, neither I, nor other members of the Board, to my knowledge, had any reason to suspect that the Defendant was converting AGC funds to her personal use.”

The statement of claim filed with the court says that the board received constant reports on the gallery’s “dire financial straits” from Cooper, and that “from time to time other members of the Board did in fact make personal loans, without interest, to the Plaintiff [AGC] to cover operating expenses pending receipt of grant funds.”

Although there were rumours in the arts community about financial irregularities at the gallery, there was never any evidence to back up those claims. Perusing the online comments on a 2008 Fast Forward Weekly story on problems at the gallery shows a number of people concerned about the gallery’s finances.

In that same story, issues including employee intimidation, damage to artwork, a focus on fundraising over programming and the high turnover of staff, particularly in curators, were highlighted. Considering the amount of evidence that something was amiss in the gallery’s management, how was it that Cooper maintained the trust of the board?

In addition to the allegations that Cooper made off with a sizable chunk of money, Randall’s affidavit also says that the AGC security cameras caught Cooper returning to the gallery after she was suspended and recorded her departure five hours later. “The video tape clearly shows the Defendant leaving the AGC with two cardboard boxes,” reads the statement. “AGC has been unable to locate its payables file for the year 2012. Certain personnel files of employees of AGC also cannot be located.”

The gallery has requested the return of the materials, but has yet to see the documents.

Const. Tanya Bertulli of the Economic Crimes Unit of the Calgary Police Service would only say that there is an active investigation into the allegations against Cooper. No criminal charges have been laid and the allegations against Cooper laid out in the civil suit by the Art Gallery of Calgary have yet to be proven in court.

When reached by telephone, Cooper curtly declined to comment on the matter.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Questioning Calgary’s arts party

Cover-2012-story-img

Design by Josh Naud

The federal government kicked in $1.6 million, the city one-upped them with $2 million and the province gave $250,000, with another $500,000 set aside to match corporate donations. It’s a tidy sum of money, all earmarked for arts and culture after Calgary was named the cultural capital of Canada (okay, one of the cultural capitals; we’re sharing it with Niagara because they hosted a war in 1812). So, what are we doing with it?

It’s an important and complicated question. The celebration will channel funds to artists and cultural organizations for projects throughout the year, but the intent of the festivities is to involve all Calgarians. How do you run a year of arts and culture activities and celebrations without watering down the creative spirit? Who is 2012 for? The artists and organizations that create culture? The audience? And what of our aboriginal heritage?

Local artist Eric Moschopedis does have good things to say about the organization and the idea of a year focused on arts and culture, but he worries that the ideological underpinnings of the event, namely the theory of creative cities, is flawed.

“Essentially it sets up, it commodifies what artists have been doing for ages anyhow,” says Moschopedis. “It finds a way to exploit, basically, what we’re doing for the purposes of market gain as opposed to cultural development and those sorts of things.”

The premise of the creative cities movement is that creative industries and the arts are an economic engine and help to improve quality of life in a city, thereby attracting business. Moschopedis worries that during 2012, artists will be used as a tool in “branding the city as a place to do business,” and promoting a quality of life that artists are rarely privy to.

He thinks there is a moral imperative to creating art and that it exists outside any economic arguments, so to focus on the economic aspect of arts and culture is a mistake.

Karen Ball, the executive director of Calgary 2012, the non-profit organization tasked with programming and funding the year’s celebrations, understands the misgivings but says that the nature of the cultural capital bid and ensuing events means reaching out to a broad audience and trying to balance the dichotomy between practitioner and ordinary Calgarian. “The farther you go out from that (arts) community, the more difference you see in how people interpret culture and how they want to celebrate it,” says Ball.

This tension between artist and audience, between differing views on what it means to celebrate arts and culture, also raises the question of dissent. In a city and a province where that word has long been viewed with suspicion, it remains a fundamental part of the creative process.

Some are concerned that the year-long celebration might focus on pure boosterism, thereby ignoring important questions and work. Moschopedis thinks that if it’s to be successful, there has to be room for criticism of the city, of the event itself and maybe even of some of the organizations that are celebrating 100 years in Calgary. “I think that there’s still room to critique these things, and by critique I don’t necessarily mean ‘say things are shit,’ but I mean to ask questions of them. I think that’s really important,” he says.

Ball insists there will be room for critical engagement. To that end, the organization has been designed as a two-pronged beast. Ball takes care of the administrative side of things, while curator and artistic director Michael Green, probably best known for his role as curator of the High Performance Rodeo, handles the creative side. “There’s zero influence from us around which project gets funded in terms of how it reflects that dialogue,” she says.

The projects will be chosen by a jury of peers in an arm’s-length process, with larger events overseen by Green. The details of those large projects aren’t clear at this time. There will be an opening ceremony of sorts, a large “mass participation” event (rumour has it that it might involve the song “Sweet City Woman”), an artist-in-residence program, a cultural exchange program, the creation of a municipal cultural plan, and a closing symposium. But some worry that it’s all party, without any thought to the hangover.

“My fear is that I can’t see any legacy,” says local artist Sharon Stevens, who worked briefly for Calgary 2012 in a clerical role. “I can’t see how the arts community is going to be stronger and healthier and more productive because of being declared a cultural capital.”

Stevens would have liked to see more thought put into improving the lives of those who suffer for their art, examining efforts by groups like Elephant Artist Relief, which works to provide health benefits and a better quality of life for artists.

There will be some small, tangible leftovers from 2012, including a micro-financing portal that allows anyone to help donate to artists through Calgary Arts Development, but for Ball it’s more about the intangible benefits. She hopes to see an increase in the number of people taking in shows and exhibitions. “What I would like to see come out of this year is when you ask anybody from Calgary to list the Top 5 things about their city, culture, or some definition of culture, is in there.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates with Terrance Houle, though he’d like to see the cultural focus shifted a touch. “In our present, I always feel like First Nations and Treaty 7 and stuff like that have always been sort of put on the back burner, or it’s always sort of the Indian Village, or things like that,” he says.

Canadian Heritage stipulates engaging four groups throughout a cultural capital year, including youth, francophone, culturally diverse communities, and First Nations.

“When the bid came up, I was going to these events and they were talking about arts and culture, and for me it’s like ‘well, why can’t you start at the beginning and move through it?’”

Houle, of Blackfoot descent, was on the 2012 aboriginal advisory committee for a time, but dropped off due to his busy schedule. It was the first committee struck by 2012 and, according to Ball, is the most active and engaged.

“I think that we talk a lot about 100-year anniversaries and we probably don’t talk as much about the 400 years before the last 100 years of Calgary, and when you look at the 600-year history of this area, you can see pretty clearly that our aboriginal heritage and roots are a really important part of how we need to reflect as a community at this point in time,” says Ball.

But it isn’t all criticism, not even from Houle, Moschopedis and Stevens, who all believe that critical discourse around Calgary 2012 is important, and who alternate between cautious optimism and dismay with the organization and events.

Simon Mallet, the artistic director of Downstage, a local theatre company that produces socially and politically engaged work, thinks of Calgary 2012 as a beginning. “I don’t think that what happens in 2012 is going to be the cumulative impact of Calgary 2012,” he says.

He’s hopeful that the year’s festivities will bring more attention to Calgary’s arts and culture — locally, provincially and nationally. Downstage applied for a grant to bring its production (B)ust— a show that examines the role of personal behaviour and the accumulation of societal debt — to neighbourhoods around the city, and hopefully engage a new audience. It’s not the easiest of topics, but Mallet isn’t worried about being shut out of funding because of that.

“Our position and our history with granting in this city has been one that has very much encouraged artistic risk and engaging with topics that might be challenging,” he says.

And maybe that’s the point. Calgary 2012 isn’t the be-all and end-all, it’s a multimillion-dollar initiative that, if anything, is meant to challenge us and to start raising questions that are long overdue. It’s not going to solve anything, it’s certainly not going to make everyone happy, but it is going to help shape our cultural future for years to come, making it an important issue.

“We want this city to be the city that we want to live in,” says Moschopedis. “I think the only way to make it that city is to be vocal. If we’re not then we’ll just be hand delivered something that isn’t necessarily what we wanted.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Oil and government

Cover-pump

When Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), walked into a conference room in Kananaskis to observe the meeting of energy ministers from across Canada in July, he expected to find a seat in the section reserved for environmental groups, or concerned citizens groups. There was no such section. Looking around the room, bedecked in energy company sponsorship banners, McGowan realized he was the only person there who wasn’t with an oil and gas company.

He shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, when he called then energy minister Ron Liepert’s office to get a seat at the meeting, which was open to interested stakeholders, he was rebuffed.

“So I’m the president of the federation of labour, (but) the only way I got in, even as an observer, was to phone my counterpart in Newfoundland who has a good relationship with their government, which happens to be a Conservative government,” says McGowan. “And so she talked to their energy minister. So I was invited by the Newfoundland energy minister to attend the conference here in Alberta.

“To make matters even worse, when Liepert got up to give his introduction, he said ‘I’m so pleased that we’re together here with all the relevant stakeholders.’”

It’s a surreal representation of what many say is an undue influence on the government of Alberta by the energy industry. Although the government does engage stakeholders, from labour to environmental organizations and beyond, many say that the energy industry has the greater pull. Critics point to the government ignoring the findings of multi-stakeholder discussions, the sheer imbalance between the well-funded oil and gas machine and those of civil society groups, and the amount of interaction between the government and the energy industry compared to other stakeholders as a sign that the cards are stacked.

CAPP and the Act

The AFL represents 29 unions with a combined membership of 145,000 people, some of whom work in the energy industry. This isn’t an environmental organization calling for a halt to all oil and gas exploration in the province, but it is concerned about the environment and “the responsible and sustainable development of our resources,” according to McGowan.

AFL is also concerned about the influence that the industry has over government policy making. While the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) lists 81 different issues they will talk to the government about in the next six months, the AFL meets with the government only a handful of times each year. And so, they filed a freedom of information request looking at the interaction between CAPP and the government of Alberta.

The documents they received showed that the government and CAPP wanted to collaborate on a joint public relations campaign around shale gas fracking and water use. The federation believes that these documents demonstrate a breach of Alberta’s lobbyist act, which sets out stringent rules for engaging the government. For one, the people working on CAPP’s behalf were not among the 41 lobbyists registered by the organization.

So, the AFL sent the documents to the lobbyist registrar and asked for an investigation. What they didn’t do was check their package of documents carefully, highlighting only the unlisted lobbyists and the fact that a briefing note seemed to indicate that it was CAPP that approached the government about the public relations campaign. It’s an important distinction. If the government approached CAPP, the act would not apply. That’s exactly what the registrar ruled on November 28.

“We sort of assumed that he would do a thorough investigation, including a search of the documents,” says McGowan. “It turns out he didn’t do that. He only interviewed a couple of people and concluded that everything was hunky-dory because they said it was hunky-dory.”

After looking more carefully at the package of documents, the AFL realized they had emails that appeared to contradict the ruling. An email dated June 8, 2011 from Doug Bowes, the director of unconventional gas in the energy department, says that CAPP approached the government to discuss its desire to “strike a committee to develop a public relations strategy focused on fracturing and water use associated with shale gas development.”

The federation has called for a new investigation, but it’s unclear if that will happen. The act forbids the registrar from commenting on the matter, even to acknowledge whether an investigation is underway.

Travis Davies, a spokesperson for CAPP, doesn’t see any need for further investigation. He also doesn’t care much for the federation’s views. “I think the AFL’s characterization of the matter is really, one, inaccurate and pretty disingenuous,” he says.

“I think it goes back to, the AFL was upset that the commissioner did find that we were in compliance, produced these documents, which I would assume were part of the body of work that the commissioner looked at. I can’t of course speak for him. If you look at the findings, clearly it falls within the parameters.”

But for McGowan, it isn’t necessarily about registered lobbyists and who approached who. “This is about a broader concern about the proper relationship between government and industry. We feel very strongly that there needs to be a line between government and industry, even industries that are very important to the provincial economy.

“We’re afraid that that line has not always been observed. This is one of those examples where we feel the line has clearly been crossed.”

Meanwhile in the ivory tower

In a recent paper published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science , George Hoberg and Jeffrey Phillips make a similar argument. Their analysis of the Alberta government’s engagement with stakeholders in the oilsands concludes that despite an opening up of the conversation, it’s still mostly a back-and-forth between the two dominant players — the energy industry and government — when it comes to policy decisions.

The paper looks at several events, including the Radke report. Released in 2007, the report’s mandate was to look at the challenges of rapid expansion in the oilsands and to provide a short-term action plan. The first and most prominent recommendation is investing in infrastructure to support continued growth. Environmental recommendations are sparse and vague.

Another area of concern for the authors is the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a standing body that produces research into the cumulative effects of the oilsands region and makes recommendations to government. Hoberg and Phillips argue that it is ineffectual.

In one major example, the Sustainable Ecosystems Working Group within CEMA called for a partial moratorium on new oilsands leases until it could complete its work. The group was worried about the effects of rapid expansion. The government refused. When the group did produce its report, it called for 20 to 40 per cent of the region to be protected and for intensive developments to be carried out in only five to 14 per cent of the area.

The report did not receive consensus among CEMA members, which includes oilsands companies, and the government didn’t implement it. Instead, the government started its new Land Use Framework deliberations. This led to the Pembina Institute and two other environmental groups walking away from CEMA.

Hoberg, a professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in environmental politics, says by phone that Alberta is “an example of a jurisdiction that is heavily dependent on one particular industry, and in circumstances like that, it’s not uncommon to have an extremely close power relationship between that industry and the government.”

That relationship is almost inevitable, given oil and gas’s heft in our economy. And it’s something the government feels is appropriate. “Across government, ministries work with stakeholders. It’s not only not uncommon, it’s necessary. The oil and gas industry drives this economy, it’s responsible for one in seven jobs in this province and it would seem absurd to not meet with the organization that represents that industry,” says Bart Johnson, a spokesperson for Alberta Energy. “We share common interests. They certainly have some interests in policy development with the government.”

Hoberg’s paper examines the introduction of multi-stakeholder discussions meant to address the rising tide of criticism of Alberta’s oilsands and to stem the perception that the energy industry dominates the conversation. While those processes allow for more voices to be heard, the authors looked at the policy outcomes of those deliberations and recommendations and found that industry tends to get its way.

“The history of multi-stakeholder discussions on oilsands in Alberta is one of talk and drill,” says Hoberg.

Talking points

It’s a sentiment that many environmental organizations agree with. While many have participated in multi-stakeholder processes, there are also many who have pulled away. The reasons extend from the mundane concerns of operating budgets and the drain on resources that comes with participation, to the composition of the groups, to anger at the end product.

“Whether it’s citizens or industry or public interest organizations, all of them ask prior to joining whether this is the best use of our time, and is it better to be at the table, or not at the table?” says Joe Obad, associate director of Water Matters. “And those are tough decisions to make.”

When Water Matters was called Bow Riverkeeper, the organization was involved in the Alberta Water Council, a multi-stakeholder process designed to address concerns over industry’s affect on watersheds and wetlands in the province. It pulled out of the process.

“We felt it restricted our ability to speak out, so we left the Alberta Water Council because we felt we’re going to speak out about this and we’re going to speak very clearly and not use the process as the means to speak about the things we support,” says Obad.

“That was a difficult decision to make, but it was based on the idea that every group should be allowed to champion its objectives by whatever means it sees fit.”

The Alberta Water Council is a process that comes up again and again when speaking to environmental groups about the concerns they have over industry influence. Chief among their complaints is the decision by the government to scrap a no-net-loss wetlands policy that would force industry to protect watersheds, or to replace ones that they destroy.

After three years of discussion and study, of the 25 organizations represented on the council, 23 supported the measure and, according to the Pembina Institute, 90 per cent of Albertans who were polled supported the idea. The only two non-consensus votes were CAPP and the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR), which sent dissenting letters to the government.

ACR boasted on its website at the end of 2008 that it had effectively lobbied the government not to follow through on the recommendation.

In an abridged version of a speech posted on the site, given by the executive director of ACR, Brad Anderson, he says: “One of the most influential things ACR was able to accomplish in 2008 was to do a really good job explaining where industry’s line in the sand is when it comes to critical issues. A prime example of this was the position the Chamber took on the proposed Provincial Wetlands Policy.”

It says that it successfully lobbied the government to accept three of the four changes it requested in its dissenting letter, including scrapping no-net-loss. This was posted on the ACR website before the government made its announcement.

When the Canadian Press reported on the claim and the anger of those who participated in the Water Council discussions, the report was removed from ACR’s website. A copy of the website post was saved and given to Fast Forward Weekly .

Mike Hudema, a tarsands campaigner with Greenpeace, says the organization has not participated in any multi-stakeholder processes since setting up shop in the province in 2007. “The story that we heard was the same, that it was a lot of time and resources spent and at the end of the day what came out was not reflective of the conversation that many of the groups had,” he says.

Regulations

Of course, no conversation about oil and gas in Alberta can ignore the regulations set in place to protect our environment and ensure that companies are following the rules. There seems to be no middle ground when people discuss the Energy Resources and Conservation Board (ERCB), the arm’s-length government body responsible for approving or denying oil and gas projects. It’s either a pawn of the industry, or a world-class regulator, or an overbearing obstacle. You either love it, or you hate it.

For many critics, you simply have to look at the overwhelming number of approved applications and the relatively few denials: in 2011, the ERCB approved 79 applications while denying seven.

“It’s an overly simplistic view,” says Darin Barter, a spokesperson for the ERCB. “What you’re not seeing is the requirements that companies are bound to prior to even applying to the ERCB.”

Barter argues that companies have jumped through so many regulatory hoops by the time they go before the ERCB that approval is virtually guaranteed. “Companies can take months to years to put together an application for a project,” he says.

“The transparent part is seeing the approvals or denials, the less transparent part is seeing the regulatory framework.”

And there’s no doubt that the regulatory framework is intimidating. To the layman, it’s a Byzantine and dense set of rules that requires an in-depth knowledge to navigate, But critics maintain that it doesn’t go far enough. The wetlands policy debacle is one instance.

In the case of the oilsands, where no project has been denied, Pembina points to an agreement by Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions to the tune of 900,000 tonnes in order to gain approval of its Jackpine Mine and Muskeg River Mine Expansion projects. The promise convinced Pembina to remove its objection to the project. Shell then reneged on that promise.

In a 2009 release, Pembina’s Simon Dyer wrote: “In approving Shell’s projects, the joint review panel struck by the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) and the Government of Canada explicitly noted that they would review Shell’s approval in the event that the company failed to fulfil commitments that had been presented as evidence.”

Pembina and EcoJustice petitioned for a review. That review did not happen.

The future

In Hoberg’s paper, the hopeful component of his less-than-rosy conclusion is that by opening the door to groups outside the traditional power structure, the government has given them credibility and will have to take their concerns seriously.

“And I do think the government and the industry, it took them a while, but now they have to acknowledge the significance of the environmental impacts of the oilsands and of environmental interest groups,” says Hoberg.

In the conclusion to his paper, he argues that it’s the government that must now save face. “In the oilsands case, the government of Alberta has formally acknowledged the legitimacy of environmental critics by giving them a formal voice in the consultation processes,” he writes. “Now that environmentalists have denounced those processes and withdrawn, the government’s own strategy has lost its legitimacy.”

No one interviewed for this article tried to argue that the government did not address a broad range of stakeholders. “I would say, in general, governments try to meet with all stakeholders,” says Obad. “They don’t tend to leave anyone out altogether. But it does seem that there’s a degree of difference in terms of frequency and accessibility.”?With vast financial resources, teams of lobbyists, ready access to decision-makers and a proven track record of being able to influence policy decisions despite being in a minority on stakeholder decisions, the oil industry has proven it has pull. On the opposite side, many groups are skeptical of engaging in discussions that seem to accomplish little more than depleting their sparse resources.

“The government has a responsibility to look after the public interest first and in cases where the public interest conflicts with the narrow interests of the energy industry, then the government has to fall on the side of the public interest, but I’m not sure that happens enough in Alberta, or even at all,” says McGowan.

“I’m certainly not suggesting that the labour movement or any other groups in civil society should be calling all the shots for government; what I am suggesting is that neither should industry.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.