Officeland: Art Central

From pawn shops to paintings

By Andrew Williams

At the heart of Calgary’s burgeoning “cultural district” lies Art Central: a visual arts complex with the express purpose of providing creative types a unique workspace. As a sort of incubator for the arts, the building is home to artist studios, galleries, the Calgary Arts Development offices, an architecture and design firm, and even a bistro and a coffee shop.

The building itself sits two stories above ground with extensive basement levels accessible from within. While the café and bistro inhabit the main level, galleries and artist studios are interspersed throughout the building.  One particularly innovative section, dubbed the Art Loop Gallery, is a conglomeration of 19 artist studios that also double as mini galleries. This set up not only provides an interesting experience for potential customers, it also fosters creative intermingling with the various tenants. Axis Gallery owner Rob Mabee says that “because most galleries and artist are selling different products, I see more cooperation rather than competition.”

Nothing jubilant about the building’s previous incarnation, the Jubilee Building

Swirl: Fine Art & Design owner Tracy Proctor comments that the design of the building artistically “leads to greater things” between tenants. Proctor’s gallery has been open since 2006 and has seen how the building has evolved and grown. She says that the building has a powerful concept and a fantastic location despite minor misgivings about the management.  A few residents want Encorp to increase their contributions to group advertising but Mabee disagrees. He says that “I don’t want Encorp to presume to market for my business, at the end of the day, each artist has to promote their product individually.” Another perfectly suited resident is the Calgary Arts Development: a foundation that is responsible for assigning government grant money and promoting the arts. Few other workplaces can claim such convenient in house link to government support.

The buildings developer and management, Encorp inc., has done a lot with what was once the grotty and suspect Jubilee building. In 2004, the pawnshops and convenience stores that made up the previous tenants were replaced with redesigned and sophisticated spaces, unified by a large common area. The building has really taken the idea of centrality to heart as a massive skylight features prominently in the centre. Ignoring the sky’s the limit”metaphors that spring to mind, the design unifies the building’s various levels around a striking shaft of light. “Restoring historic buildings and sustaining timeless spaces is Encorp’s mantra,” says their marketing director Kait Kucy.  Given the state of the block previously, it’s safe to say they succeeded.

“First Thursday,” Calgary’s monthly arts & culture festival has been a real boon to Art Central during the recent recession. Proctor noted that in the last two years “First Thursdays have brought in a high percentage of my clientele.” While complimentary drinks have been cut back after disagreements with the Alberta Liquor Board, Proctor’s best clients “come for the art, not the refreshments.” Kucy comments that “We [Encorp] always tries to encourage our tenants’ to do some community outreach.” This outreach has taken the form of free workshops, live music, and family oriented events which have all drawn customers into visiting the downtown location. “They are great evenings for exposure” says Rabee, but he also comments that “I’ve done ok because I’ve adapted to the new conditions” rather than rely on events alone. Contests have also been a successful way of generating buzz, and with prizes such as a building wide shopping spree it’s no wonder.  Collaboration with the local entertainment newspaper, Swerve, has brought recognition to the building as the paper is distributed with the widely read Calgary Herald. At a time where people are wary of purchasing non-essentials, the extra effort has allowed many galleries and artists to stay afloat.

5 Responses to Officeland: Art Central

  1. Artist looking for studio space says:

    I was looking into renting a studio space in this building but the high rent shocked me so I looked elsewhere. I’m on a waiting list to receive studio space so for the time being I just work from home. Art Central seems like a great place for artists to get space but the price is double or more compared to other places in the city where you can rent a studio.

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  3. audrey Mabee says:

    in reply to “artist looking for space”

    Art Central is located smack dab in the middle of the downtown Calgary. Certainly the space is more expensive than artist space in Inglewood or out-lying districts. The traffic is more intense and, being in the hub is more important if you want more people to see your work. There is no free-ride. If you want “centre of Calgary visibility”, across from the Hyatt and the Bow, where noon day shoppers from downtown offices gather and shop………….you pay. If you just want cheap, head to the outskirts.

  4. Artist looking for studio space says:

    I was under the impression that Art Central was meant for artists, and therefore the rents would be subsidized by the government for artist studio use. It is too bad that the rent is so high… it would be a wonderful building to have one’s studio in if only it were more affordable.

  5. As a former tenant of Art Central, I can tell you that traffic is anything but intense – and if you want more people to see your work, almost anywhere is better than downtown.

    If Art Central’s location is it’s justification for abnormally high leases, then it’s no justification at all.

    Being “smack dab in the middle of downtown Calgary” is a detriment to small business, no matter how you slice it. Non-existent or excessively expensive parking and convoluted traffic/streets lead to little or no business. Many clients that I invited to come visit my studio got so frustrated with the location that they opted to meet me elsewhere. And tourists visiting from out of town? Forget it.

    The only “intense traffic” this building sees is in from the street up the stairs and straight out the +15 in the morning, and from the +15 straight out the front door at the end of the working day. Outside of that, the destination is typically the coffee shop. Aside from convincing new tenants into leasing, I never could figure out why Encorp and it’s shills are so convinced of the value of the +15, as I can tell you from experience that it brings little or no value to the tenants at all.

    First Thursdays events are quickly devolving as well. Advertising is usually all about the “band and the bistro” which succeeds in bringing in that demographic, but not actual art buyers and collectors. In fact, when I was in friendly conversation with a member of management one day, they expressed surprise when told that I had sold work during an event, as in their personal experience, “tenants usually make no sales during events”.

    As a tenant I was shocked to hear that.

    In addition, most of the time the building is not open during statutory holidays – a time when most people can actually park downtown and shop easily.

    Tracy is right, this building does have a powerful concept, but the location is anything but fantastic and the misgivings among the tenants are anything but minor.

    And Audrey, shame on you. “Free ride”? You used to be the acting president at ACAD and have been instructing artists for years, and you know as well as the rest of us that there are very few artists who can afford the rent in Art Central. Those that need the type of exposure that you espouse cannot in any way afford it, and those that are well established and can afford it will not bother to spend the extra to be there. Because of that, Art Central, like any business that is completely out of touch with it’s customers, is failing.

    Let’s not fool ourselves or anyone else. There’s a real reason why the building has more empty spaces and less and less artists, galleries and visual arts tenants as time goes by, and exorbitant leases are a major cause.

    Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the idea of Art Central and the building has great energy, and I personally believe that Calgary desperately NEEDS an Art Central. The idea behind Art Central is amazing, and perhaps in it’s infancy it had meaning. But Art Central as it is, is nothing but a hollow shell devoid of any culture other than that which pervades the rest of Calgary – namely, the almighty dollar.

    If Art Central was really about Art, it would not be gouging artists for “exposure”. It would be working closely with artists to cultivate the visual arts in Calgary and would actually be following it’s original mission and vision “to provide artists with a stimulating environment in which to create works of art”

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