What’s New Again - artist-run culture in Calgary

article by Tim Westbury

published in Stephen magazine - winter 2012

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. 

            Walter Benjamin, Illuminations 

Local art critic and curator Nancy Tousley, lauding a spate of recent artist-led initiatives in Calgary in Canadian Art magazine last spring, noted: "The younger generation of DIY artist-gallerists to emerge in the past few years was largely ignorant of Calgary's alternative scene of the 70s and 80s. The new crew learned about their predecessors after they started their own efforts." 


As a stereotypically young city, the past is often quickly submerged in a relentless stream of ever newer ideas, projects and approaches. This disconnect is even more marked in the visual arts, where widespread systemic change has occurred since the 70s as well. A net result is that the cultural ecology of Calgary has been typified by constant adaptation. 


If negatively exemplified by the absence of a dedicated contemporary art presentation venue on one hand, on the other is the exceptionally rich history of artist collectives and alternative, often temporary exhibition spaces. If "The Esker Foundation is the missing piece of the (Calgary contemporary art) puzzle", as gallery director Alex Keim recently proposed, then it's perhaps an appropriate time to shed some light on the part played by local artist-run organizations to keep this dream alive for almost four decades, notably the deceptively named 37-year old The New Gallery (TNG). 


The artist-run centre (ARC) - or "parallel gallery" - movement developed nationwide in the 70s, responding to a lack of exhibition opportunities for artists producing non-commercial work and too early in their careers to be shown in the more established public galleries - some of the same reasons which have propelled the latest DIY initiatives as well. 


Today a network of over a hundred exhibition and media production centres spans the country. All operate as non-profit societies and are managed by elected volunteer boards, comprised mostly of artists from within each community. Many receive operational funding from the three levels of government, heavily supplemented by casino funds and the persistent in-kind contributions of their membership. Rather than selling the work being shown or produced, these original ARCs are unified in paying artists to present their work, adopting a nation-wide fee schedule developed by CARFAC (Canadian Artists' Representation/le Front des Artistes Canadiens). In 1975 Canada became the first country to pay exhibition fees to visual artists. 


Coincidentally this was the year the first artist-run initiative took root in Calgary, as The Clouds 'n' Water Gallery and Visual Production Society opened to the public - it still operates today under this legal name, although the organization has been known as The New Gallery since 1987. Within a decade two additional centres further enhanced the contemporary art scene here: 


Second Story Art Society - now operating as TRUCK Contemporary Art in Calgary - opened in 1983, followed by The Stride Gallery in 1985. With the opening of the Untitled Art Society in 1993, the initial growth phase drew to a close. 


In this 1975 to 1993 time period, Calgary's population grew steadily from about half to three quarters of a million people. It took thirteen years to hit the landmark one million mark in 2006, but another quarter of a million more people were living here only four years later. Calgary has simultaneously grown from enduring a widespread national reputation as a cultural backwater into a city of recognized artistic vibrancy. 


As "cultural incubators" before the term came into regular use, collaboration and interactivity have always been the lifeblood of the ARCs. Homegrown initiatives like Media Blitz in 1988 and 1989 paved the way for collaborative city-wide performative arts festival Mountain Standard Time (M:ST), first held in 2001. This biennial festival is now managed by an independent non-profit society. Similarly Centre Art Video was spun off as the EMMEDIA Gallery & Production Society in 1983. 


In order to present the broadest spectrum of contemporary visual art, ARCs have gradually developed unique exhibition mandates. The New Gallery primarily shows innovative or lesser known artists whose work contributes to social and political discourse. 


TNG recognizes that its artistic education and community outreach roles are as important as being an exhibition venue. To this end, in 2007 the Gallery initiated an annual student curatorial internship program with ACAD and U of C Fine Arts that runs every February. 


In 2010 TNG was also given access to the provincially designated John Snow House & Studio in Lower Mount Royal. The John Snow Community Resource Centre, which houses a library and archive, opened last year and an initial artist-in-residence program ran last August. 


In helping advance the careers of Canadian artists, curators, critics and art administrators for 37 years, TNG has also been an important catalyst for the development Calgary's unique artistic culture.