Long Read: The arts vision for Calgary’s Downtown and the need to include artists

Can you have the vision of recreating the downtown as a vibrant, creative and artistic hub without recognizing the artists?

The Arts Commons expansion is one of the four projects approved for funding in March 2019. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

“Greater downtown is the economic and cultural heart of Calgary,” reads the city’s Greater Downtown Plan, a strategic document meant to drive the revitalization of the core.

Approved by council alongside an initial budget of $200 million, the document relies heavily on place-based interventions that will transform the downtown into a desirable place to live, work and play — and 90 per cent of the initial budget has been earmarked for capital investments.

It includes $80 million for the Arts Commons Transformation’s first phase. The document itself talks about the arts as a place. It doesn’t talk about the people.

According to Christine Armstrong, co-founder of Creative Calgary, a volunteer-led arts advocacy group, the arts are important for our city’s economy because “they attract companies to build their businesses in the city because they see it as a place where they can attract talent to.”

But when there’s talk about the arts as a driver for investment and prosperity, art creators themselves can be an after-thought, perpetuating the “starving artist” cliché.

What’s the role of artists in executing the plan?

“I’ve seen the strategy, I’ve seen the number of references to the role of arts and culture, and assuming they go ahead with the strategy I am confident that we will see dollars from that budget go into the arts,” said Patti Pon, president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development (CADA).

“How will [the plan] do that? Whom will it go to? That’s not up to me. I can’t make promises where I don’t have any say.”

What’s the arts without artists?

It seems shortsighted to use arts and culture as a magnet to attract talent, business, and visitors, without addressing the challenges Calgary artists face. Artists are the engine of our city’s art and culture scene.

“Decision makers at the table need to educate themselves about the lives and the realities of artists in their communities,” said Calgary poet and writer, Nikki Reimer.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by CADA, four out of seven respondents who work in the arts sector (which includes artists, art administrators and educators) earn less than $35,000 per year. That is, they make about half of what the average Calgarian earns in a year, which was $67,700 at the time of the survey. By contrast, according to CBRE, tech workers in Calgary earn, on average, $95,222 per year.

Artists should get paid fairly for their work, too.

“The way in which people compensate a certain craft or skill redefines [its] value,” said Calgary poet and educator, Sue-Shane Tsomondo. Tsomondo also created Sue’s Stokvel, a BIPOC literary arts platform.

“People think I’m noble because I like writing — I’m not noble, pay me,” Tsomondo said.

Compared to other Canadian cities, Calgary’s investment in the arts remains weak. According to a 2019 report by the Conference Board of Canada, in 2015 Calgary awarded one of the lowest amounts of grants per capita. It was below cities with a smaller share of people employed in the creative industries than Calgary, such as Edmonton and Winnipeg.

In 2019, only 10 applicants out of 205, were selected to receive one of CADA’s Individual Artist Program grants.

“We can’t make a grant to everybody,” Pon said. (Earlier this year, CADA joined a cross-country effort to advocate for a basic income for artists.)

And while Creative Calgary’s advocacy succeeded at nearly doubling the funding received by CADA in 2019, the group’s influence remains limited.

“Because of capacity, we have been just trying to get increases in funding to Calgary Arts Development and to see that funding maintained,” Armstrong said.

“We haven’t involved ourselves in how Calgary Arts Development chooses to spend that money, and the types of programs they choose to administer with that money.”

Grants don’t provide enough to live on

Grants are vital for artists, but rarely enough to support them in pursuing their craft full-time.

“I don’t know anyone in my circle who can sustain their living as a full-time artist,” Reimer said.

“I know a pile of people who are at or under or very close to the poverty line, and they have made a commitment to making art. But it means that they live very meagerly.”

This is the case of Claudia Chagoya, an emerging multidisciplinary artist based in Calgary. Chagoya splits her time in a variety of endeavours: working a part-time job, writing grant and exhibition applications, volunteering, and pursuing her creative practice. And while she recognizes the perils of over-work, she doesn’t feel like she has an alternative.

“Sometimes we don’t make the time to just rest,” she said.

“We keep working because there’s always something to do.”

To keep the cultural heart of Calgary beating, artists need more than grants. To support their creative practice they also need affordable places to live, create, and share their work, located in an area conducive to creative collaboration and interaction.

“If all you’re doing is creating in your own little room and not engaging with what other people are doing or thinking, you get stagnant,” Reimer said.

“I think that it’s vitally important to your own development as an artist to be out there, listening, watching, and experiencing what other people are doing.”

And sometimes engaging with the creative work of other artists provides them with much-needed time to unwind, notes Tsomondo.

“I think part of having more time is not just more time to work on Sue’s Stokvel — it’s more time to live, to have experiences that are worth writing about,” she said.

“Having that time would give me space to be creative and to grow.”

Cutting your teeth

Despite the challenges, Calgary can be a good place for artists to start out.

“Calgary is a very dynamic environment,” Tsomondo said. “

And I enjoy the fact that I can be the first to do what I’m doing.”

Reimer agrees.

“There is very much a sense in this city that you can try anything, that you can be anything,” she said.

“If you’re audacious enough to think you can do it, and to do it, then you can do it.”

A born and raised Calgarian, Reimer has witnessed the transformation of our city’s arts scene since the 1980s.

“I’ve seen it become a more diverse, more creative, more interesting place,” she said.

“And I think the city has the capacity to continue to be a place where artists are free to experiment. But people have to care enough to support those values with resourcing.”

In the last decade, the proliferation of creative spaces such as Loft 112 have been key to support emerging artists, writers and creators. Since 2013, Loft 112 founder, Lisa Murphy-Lamb, has strived to create an inexpensive, accessible space where emerging and professional artists can exhibit their work, collaborate with each other, and celebrate their craft in East Village.

“We’ve had artists come to the Loft that have said they’re caught in this vicious cycle of trying to get into shows, but they can’t get into shows because they haven’t had a show,” she said.

“A lot of artists and writers have had their very firsts at Loft.”

However, providing this sort of space is labour of love for Murphy-Lamb as well.

“Because I’m not a non-profit I don’t qualify for pretty much any grants,” she said, noting that Loft 112 is a social enterprise.

“There’s a few small project grants here and there that I’ve been able to get, but in terms of operations there’s no grant.”

Artists role Calgary’s downtown strategy

This is the area along 2 Street SW. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

In this context, why wouldn’t an ambitious plan such as the Greater Downtown Plan include reassurances for arts workers in its initial budget?

According to Pon, downtown office vacancy could represent a great opportunity for the arts.

“When we think about $45 million in incentives for office conversion, office replacement, new residential development — I hope artists live/work space is part of that,” she said.

“I hope there’s opportunities for creative incubator spaces; so they might be presentation or performance space, it might be about creation space, it might be about gathering space, it could be all kinds of things.”

But for initiatives like these to be considered, more artists need a seat at the table. Pon, who also sits in Calgary Economic Development’s Real Estate Sector Advisory Committee (which closely collaborated with city staff in the creation of the plan), said that she needs others to support the cause.

“I need more than me phoning [the plan’s steering committee]. I need other artists, and I need other arts organizations championing us because I’m only one voice,” Pon said.

“The downtown steering committee should just be inundated with artists saying, ‘There’s $140 million in this budget that could be impacted by the arts, why don’t you have somebody from the arts on this committee? If they got 100 phone calls, that would make a difference.”

Live, work… and work

While 56 per cent of artists in Calgary have a ‘day job’ to support their craft, this means that they have limited time to pursue their practice, apply for funding — and even rest. So, finding the time to organize and advocate for a seat at the table is a challenge.

“In a perfect world we’d be advocating for what we need around access, but artists are not part of one community, and they’re not just artists,” Reimer said.

“There are a lot of social justice issues that require voices, and everyone has limited energy.”

For instance, Chagoya already spends her “spare” time volunteering at SpanicArts, where she’s president. Her work helps international artists of a Hispanic background to overcome some of the additional barriers they face in Calgary.

Even groups like Creative Calgary have limited resources.

“Because of our size and capacity, we try to focus our advocacy efforts on things that will affect the entire sector,” Armstrong said. She noted that although they don’t currently have any professional artists in the steering committee, they hope they will become members of the organization down the road.

“We really want to be representative of the entire sector as much as possible.”

But without intentional policy direction to support artists, as opposed to the arts as a whole, the creators of our city’s cultural scene could be left behind by the Greater Downtown Plan.

“We’re trying to advocate to have an artist on [the plan’s] steering committee,” Pon said. “We haven’t been successful yet, but we’re trying.”

Artwashing

One of the risks of excluding artists and creators from the planning work, is that their work can lead to gentrification and displacement through ‘artwashing.’

Last year, British artist and academic, Stephen Pritchard, described this concept as a process in which artists are used as an instrument to advance corporate interests — often to their own detriment.

When Reimer lived in Vancouver between 2004 and 2012, she witnessed the consequences of this process first hand.

“Artists would be invited in and helped make a space hip, and cool, and happening — and then pushed right out,” she said.

“If we’re getting [artists] to help make the city more energetic and more appealing to companies that we want to come here, I want us to also be thinking of the long-term sustainability and support that those artists need to stay in their spaces and not be pushed out.”

Close to the action

For many Calgary artists, finding affordable spaces to live, create, and share their work in a central location is already a challenge.

“In a sprawling city like Calgary, if you’re wanting to engage in the art scene, in the community and the practice of your peers — which is so important for your own development as an artist — you want to be closer to where these things are happening,” Reimer said.

“But those places either are not affordable, or if they are affordable they are very small and you don’t have the space to make your own work.”

Up until a year ago, she and her partner lived in a two-bedroom condo in the Beltline. But when the pandemic hit and they found themselves having to work from home, the space was no longer suitable.

“Needing to find a place to live that can accommodate your art practice means you have more needs than someone who is [only] living in a space,” she said.

That’s the challenge faced by Chagoya, whose art requires a larger space. She and her partner currently share a two-bedroom basement suite in a fourplex in Mayland Heights, a studio space in Ramsey, and a car to drive back and forth.

“It’s a lot of juggling because we also have to pay rent in our apartment, groceries, and bills,” she said.

“We’re trying to find a place [to live] where we can have a studio as well, but right now we can’t [afford to].”

Hub for creative communities

Reimer and her partner are currently looking to purchase a home large enough to allow both of them to work from home, but as any Calgarian knows, affordability is greater in the suburbs and this isn’t ideal for creators.

“You don’t want to be out in the far-flung suburbs, which are more affordable, because how are you getting to book launches and music performances?”

Reimer said. For her practice as a writer, having a bookstore nearby has been essential.

“I have a relationship with Shelf Life books. I launched my last book there. I’ve hosted events there. I regularly would go to readings there — and it’s great if you can just walk around the corner.”

There is no question that artists should become more involved in both the creation and execution of the plans to revitalize downtown. For Murphy-Lamb, an alternative would be to pay artists to become more involved in the repurposing of vacant office space downtown.

“I would like to see that’s not just all business people who are doing this,” she said, highlighting the critical thinking skills possessed by artists.

If the future of our city depends on creating a vibrant urban environment downtown that relies on the arts and culture to attract investment and talent, support for the arts must recognize the work of the artists themselves.

“If you support artists, they’ll go off and make their best work,” Reimer said.

“Just give them places to live, give them money, and let them do their thing.”

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