OPINION | Calgary Stampede: More than just a rodeo

Beyond the money and the bucking broncos, what a lot of people don’t realize is that one of Canada’s largest and most diverse arts festivals has also just been cancelled.

The Stampede is Calgary’s largest arts festival. That's just been cancelled, too

A cowboy walks through a pedestrian tunnel to the rodeo grounds at the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede has announced that this year's event will be cancelled because of concerns related to COVID-19. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press via AP)

This column is an opinion from Richard White, who has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

While a few Calgarians and a few more Canadians will be happy to see the Stampede cancelled this year — and hope that it will never resume — what they don't realize is that the Stampede is not just a rodeo, and it's not just a huge money generator for the city of Calgary. 

(Although it certainly is that. In December 2019, the Conference Board of Canada published the "Economic Impact of the Calgary Stampede," documenting that the 10-day Stampede accounts for about half — $283 million — of the Calgary Stampede's $541 million total impact on the economy. Year-round events contribute about $110.9 million to Calgary's GDP.)

But beyond the money and the bucking broncos, what a lot of people don't realize is that one of Canada's largest and most diverse arts festivals has also just been cancelled.  

Yep, that's the Stampede, too.

While the rodeo and chuckwagon races get the majority of the national and international media attention (not always positive), the Stampede is more than a one-trick pony. Don't believe me? Let's take a look.

Art was always part of Stampede

Art has been part of the Calgary Stampede since its inception in 1912.

Three visual artists presented and sold their works at the very first Stampede. The most notable of them was Charlie Russell.

Charlie Russell's A Mix Up (also known as Heads and Tails) was one of 20 paintings the artist exhibited at the very first Calgary Stampede in 1912. (Collection of the Rockwell Museum of Western Art/Glenbow Museum)

Over the two-week period, 14 of his 20 pieces were sold and, due to overwhelming demand, the Russell exhibit was moved to the Royal Building downtown for a one week continuation at the conclusion of the Stampede.

The popularity of his work at the 1912 Stampede inspired him to start his famous RCMP series. 

A huge music festival

The Stampede has four music venues and anywhere from 80 to 100 bands performing, creating what is essentially a 10-day music festival.

The Coca-Cola Stage showcases over 50 performers (local, national and international) that attract an audience estimated as high as 400,000. Last year, one of the headliners was Feist, not exactly your typical country and western singer-songwriter.

Nashville North attracted another 100,000 or so people in 2019 to listen to 19 different artists.

The Big Four Roadhouse, which opened in 2017, hosted 20 bands, attracting another 30,000 people last year.

And the Scotiabank Saddledome hosted concerts by the likes of Sugarland, Tim McGraw and the Zac Brown Band, with a total attendance of 30,000.

Collectively,  the Stampede in 2019 offered over 100 performances, which attracted an estimated audience of more than 500,000 people. 

But wait, there is more.

The Window on the West has two stages at the Western Oasis that host 50 or so young local performers, attracting an audience estimated at 5,000. The Weadickville outdoor stage attracts more than 20,000 people to listen to another 30 musicians. Throw in the 160-member Calgary Stampede Showband's 100 performances during Stampede, as well as the World Showband Championship, and the attendance at Stampede for music events swells to over 600,000 people.

While some music connoisseurs may scoff at calling the Stampede a music festival, the variety of music and the attendance figures don't lie. It is by far Calgary's biggest music festival, and it showcases more local artists than most major urban music festivals.  

Feist, Death Cab for Cutie and Dashboard Confessional were among the more than 50 acts who played the Coca-Cola Stage at last year's Calgary Stampede. (Canadian Press/Associated Press/Associated Press)

Performing and visual arts

When it comes to the performing arts, the Stampede Grandstand show engages more than 200 performers in various genres for its two-hour long extravaganza. The show attracts an audience of 160,000 each year, equal to Theatre Calgary's 130,000 annual patrons and Decidedly Jazz's 20,000 patrons combined. 

But it doesn't stop there. The Stampede is also a major visual arts festival with its Western Art Showcase featuring 150 professional artists in a 100,000 square-foot gallery that attracts over 150,000 visitors. This is on par with the Glenbow Museum's attendance for the entire year — 150,735 in 2018.

In addition, the Stampede's Maker Market, with its 50-plus artisans, draws an audience estimated at more than 100,000 people over the 10 days of Stampede.

The Stampede's fun, mixed-media show of quilts, woodworking, drawings, fibre art and even cake decorating, showcases the work of over 150 community artists, and attracts more than 150,000 spectators. 

Add all that up and you have more than 300,000 Calgarians, Albertans, Canadians and international visitors enjoying a quality art experience.

Again, Calgary's high-brow culture executives might not see these as cutting-edge art experiences, but from the public's perspective they are entertaining and enlightening. And I expect for many young people, they are just as inspiring as academic art experiences.   

Indigenous artists

While many of Calgary's arts groups are just now integrating Indigenous artists into their programming, the Calgary Stampede has been doing it for over 100 years.

The Elbow River Camp is home to hundreds of Indigenous performances, from drumming to dancing (hoop, jingle, fancy, traditional, grass, buckskin and cowboy special) by more than 1,500 performers.

There are five evenings of story-telling, and the Council Tipi has artists doing beadwork, leather work, parfleche and other traditional Indigenous artwork every day.

In addition to traditional artwork, in 2019 the Elbow River Camp also had a DJ performing techno music. It is estimated over 100,000 Stampede visitors experienced an Indigenous art performance or watched an art-making demonstration.

Teepees of the Siksika, Piikani, Kainai, Tsuut’ina and Stoney Nakoda First Nations on display in Elbow River Camp at the Calgary Stampede. Elbow River Camp, through various incarnations, has been a major part of the Calgary Stampede since the inception in 1912. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The Calgary Stampede is a leader when it comes to recognizing and celebrating the history and culture of our First Nation neighbours.  

Year round arts centre 

But the Stampede is more than just the 10 days in July.

Stampede Park has three venues that are year-round arts venues: Doherty Hall (capacity 130), BMO Amphitheatre (capacity 800) and the TransAlta Performing Arts Studio (capacity 712).

The Big Four Roadhouse is also a year-round music venue attracting about 40,000 patrons outside of the Stampede. 

As well, the TransAlta Studio is home to the Young Canadians, the Calgary Stampede Show Band, the Calgary Stetson Show Band, the Calgary Round-Up Band and the Band of Outriders.

It is a training facility for more than a thousand young Calgary musicians and dancers. Next to the Conservatory at Mount Royal University, it is the largest music education institution in Calgary, and one of the largest in Canada.  

Calgary Arts Academy School opened in 2017 with an enrolment of 300 students as part of the Stampede's Youth Campus initiative, which also included the TransAlta Performing Arts Studio.  Plans are also in the works for the Calgary Opera Community Arts Centre to be located on the campus in the future.

Stampede Park is also home to the annual Calgary Expo that attracts over 100,000 people of all ages and backgrounds for four days of celebrating Calgary's vibrant cosplay culture. It is a fun mixture of performance, visual and literary arts.

And Stampede Park is home to 17 significant public artworks — murals and sculptures, making it on a par with and complementary to the Beltline's Urban Mural Project.

There is an online Stampede Park Art Walk brochure, that makes it easy for anyone to explore the park and see the artworks any time. 

Last word

The Stampede is Calgary's largest arts organization and Stampede Park is our biggest arts centre, and its year-round operations depend very much on the profits earned during the 10 days of Stampede.

So, yes, this year's Stampede will be missed by Calgarians and Albertans of all ages, whether they like the chucks or not.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Richard White

Freelance contributor

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.