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.”
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.