Downtown Calgary’s premiere arts centre is one step closer to a major metamorphosis.
The Arts Commons transformation project signed Fischer Dachs Associates on as the theatre planning and design consultant, and Colliers as project managers.
The project still needs a “prime design team,” construction management and specialists, which the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) and the City of Calgary hope to have in place later this year.
The Arts Commons project is one of many the city and CMLC are working on in the East Village and downtown Calgary, including the extension of 17 Avenue east of Macleod Trail, the new event centre and the BMO Centre expansion.
CMLC president and CEO Kate Thompson said the coronavirus pandemic has had a variety of impacts on work in the projects. Meetings went online and construction sites implemented public health guidelines.
But the CMLC president said they are trying to find “silver linings” in the pandemic — one they found in the cancellation of the Calgary Stampede in 2020.
“We were able to take advantage of that in that we didn’t have as many people around the (BMO Centre) site,” Thompson said.
“As you can imagine, that makes it a little bit easier for our construction crews to plan their sequencing and to move around safely and make progress.”
Mayor Naheed Nenshi said these projects are part of a “broad system” that focuses on a new economic vision for the city.
“Calgary in the new economy is about Calgary being the city of choice for the world’s best entrepreneurs,” Nenshi said. “Now, most cities would just stop there, but for us, the second half of the sentence is the most important: to be the city of choice for the world’s best entrepreneurs who want to solve the world’s biggest problems.”
Nenshi said despite accolades the city has received, it must continue to invest in “making a place that inspires people, inspires imagination and inspires who it is we want to be.”
The mayor also said the billions of dollars of infrastructure — the BMO centre expansion, the event centre, the 17th Avenue S.E. expansion and Green Line LRT — will send a strong signal.
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“Seeing all that scaffolding and seeing all that construction, I hope will remind people that we are investing in the city and that we are building a brand new, amazing community inside an amazing community in East Victoria Park,” Nenshi said.
Thompson said the work in and around Stampede Park will create 1,100 full-time equivalent positions.
Arts Commons’ Transformation
Fischer Dachs has worked on other buildings in Calgary, including Studio Bell. They were also hired for the seven-year renovation of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre and other international theatres.
The first phase of the work at Arts Commons will cost $240 million, with funding from all three orders of government.
Thompson said the first design concepts are expected in mid-2022.
Thompson said there are a lot of things to consider for a new arts centre, “starting with understanding what the front of house looks like, the intimacy, sightlines… how it should lay out to create the best user experience and the best experience for Calgarians.”
“This would be the world’s very first performing arts center to be designed since COVID hit,” Arts Commons president and CEO Alex Sarian said.
Sarian said the Arts Commons is one piece in the puzzle of reimagining downtown Calgary.
“How are we inviting Calgarians into Arts Commons and how are we allowing Arts Commons to go out into Calgary? Our current building doesn’t necessarily do that.”
“What I’d like to figure out philosophically, programmatically, architecturally, is what does it look like for that energy to flow out into Calgary and allow the energy that is going to come as part of this redevelopment and reimagining of downtown to make its way into the building,” Sarian said.
The Arts Commons CEO said demand for the arts has grown since the six-theatre complex opened up in 1985, especially for those seeking entertainment during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The opportunity seems right to reinvest in Calgary’s future at a time when there is so much uncertainty and a time where Calgary’s economic future is very much up for grabs.”
Sarian said the project will change some of the venues into “broadcasting centres” as the city’s arts community continues to use technology to create and share art — a process that surged during the pandemic.
But Sarian admits the arts sector, like other sectors in the city, have been impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic. He’s also concerned about having arts companies be able to re-emerge after the pandemic.
“I think the worst thing we could do is to be ready to reopen and have the artist community in Calgary having completely disappeared as a result,” Sarian said.
The Arts Commons CEO said his and other arts organizations are trying to keep the artist workforce working, via streamed events, pre-recorded events or creation of new work, leveraging technology in the process.
“This relationship between the arts and technology is here to stay,” Sarian said.
“And you’ll see us doubling down on that effort as we reopen.”
“So we will be able to have artists performing on stage, audiences viewing in-person, but also audiences viewing back home.”
Sarian also said Arts Commons plans to launch an abbreviated season in 2021 in consultation with Alberta Health Services for COVID-19 concerns.
He also said more than 12,000 households signed up for the upcoming online National Geographic Live show.