Deal finally signed to turn old Calgary planetarium into contemporary art gallery

Contemporary Calgary and city officials have reached a deal that will see the arts group realize its long-sought goal of creating a public gallery in the old planetarium building on the west end of downtown.

City signs 25-year lease with Contemporary Calgary after talks broke off last year

Contemporary Calgary has a deal in place with the city to use the former planetarium at the west end of downtown as a new public art gallery. (CBC)

Contemporary Calgary and city officials have reached a deal that will see the arts group realize its long-sought goal of creating a public gallery in the old planetarium building on the west end of downtown.

Under the agreement announced at City Hall on Tuesday, the city will spend $24.5 million on renovations to the building to bring it up to date with current building codes — to be complete by December — allowing the arts group to open the gallery in 2019.

"We are excited to bring new life to the planetarium — a place with historic significance and where Calgarians have a long history of going to learn, be challenged and inspired," said Contemporary Calgary's board chair Jay Mehr, who is also president of Shaw Communications.

The former planetarium building has sat vacant since the science centre moved to northeast Calgary in 2011. (CBC)

"With the clear direction of our organization, the support and commitment from the city in this lease agreement, and the passion in the community to put Calgary on the map as a visual arts destination, we are turning vision into reality."

The curvy, mostly concrete, brutalist-style planetarium at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street S.W. was built to mark the centenary of Canada's confederation.

In the 1980s, it became a science centre. The science centre vacated the building in 2011, reopening as the Telus Spark Science Centre at 220 St. George's Drive N.E.

Contemporary Calgary was formed when the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art merged with the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary, and later the Art Gallery of Calgary.

Talks broke off last fall 

The lease deal announced Tuesday comes about eight months after Contemporary Calgary walked away from negotiations, saying in September that after 3½ years of talks, the city was unwilling to sign a long-term lease with the arts group.

But since resuming talks, city officials and Contemporary Calgary have agreed to a 25-year year lease of the building with an option for a 10-year extension.

"For a building that has been symbolic and heritage valued for Calgary, it was important to take our time and make sure all the necessary details were worked out," said Kurt Hanson, the city's general manager of community services.

The facility will remain the property of the city and part of its heritage inventory. Contemporary Calgary will have control over all sublets, including food and beverage, retail, gallery, office and event rentals, the city says.

Mehr says the arts society has paid off its debt and is $5 million in the black as it goes forward with the new gallery.

But first, more funds will still need to be raised to pay for the tenant improvements over and above the renovations that the city will complete on the building.

'Lots of work to do'

"And second, we will build the gallery. We have lots of work to do. Everyone is welcome," Mehr said.

Calgary Economic Development CEO Mary Moran said the new gallery will be a great addition to the city's cultural offerings.

"As we prepare Calgary for the new economy, we know that companies and individuals are looking to live in a city with a vibrant arts and culture scene," she said.

"It's these types of investments that help ensure we continue to build a strong sense of place right here in our great city."

Contemporary Calgary board member D'Arcy Levesque noted last year that Calgary is one of the only major cities in North America that doesn't have a dedicated modern and contemporary art gallery.

ACAD instructor Mark Mullin says aspiring local artists will benefit greatly from the new institution.

"It validates the decisions that they've made to pursue the visual arts, because they can then see the work that's being housed in this wonderful space and being seen and exhibited with other work from elsewhere," he said.

"It's only going to encourage and empower them to keep pursuing their interest in becoming artists."

Read more articles by CBC Calgary and like us on Facebook for updates.