Arts group to share vision for old planetarium, new gallery at open house

Register for the presentation and tour to learn about the design plans for Calgary's new contemporary art gallery.

Iconic building has had extensive refurbishment, ready for next phase as contemporary art gallery

The former planetarium building in Calgary is set to house a contemporary art gallery. (CBC)

Contemporary Calgary is set to reveal some early design plans for turning the old planetarium building into a contemporary art gallery, while inviting public input at an open house Thursday. 

Members of arts group Contemporary Calgary will provide insights and host the exhibition and interactive survey.

The idea is to turn the iconic 1967 landmark at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street S.W. into a world-class destination for modern and contemporary art.

Design architect Bruce Kuwabara will also be on hand at the open house.

"We wanted to share some of our initial design inclinations and invite the community to share some feedback," said David Leinster, CEO of the arts organization.

"You know, 'How do you want to feel when you come to this new experience? What would you want to see and do here? What visions do you have for the future of this neighbourhood?' So it's meant to be fun and interactive, and we've had just tremendous interest from the community — over 450 people are coming."

Leinster says the planetarium building has always been a place people have gone to be inspired.

"When we think about the highest level vision for the space, it's really to create a place that is welcoming, inviting and inclusive of all people," Leinster said.

"The downtown west and this particular site has always been a place where Calgarians have come to be inspired, whether that was at the planetarium in the '60s or at the Calgary Science Centre. So I think we're really excited about bringing a new cultural attraction to our city and really activating an amazing, amazing space."

The planetarium was built to mark the centenary of Canada's confederation. Starting in the 1980s, it housed the science centre, which vacated the building in 2011 for its current premises, Telus Spark.

The building has been vacant ever since.

But Contemporary Calgary now has some big plans.

Flexible space

"It's a unique venue. And then the fact that we are a contemporary art museum allows us to really present art in an interesting context in this brutalist building," Leinster said.

"Our plans are to transform that into a really flexible space that can bring any number of different types of art responses, whether that's projection, sound experiences — you name it. When we've had artists into the building on tours over the past number of weeks, there's just a tremendous amount of excitement for creating art in such an amazing new context."

Leinster says the group would like to see the building host events after hours and become a real community hub.

"We've had the animated objects festival through, we've had the Alberta Ballet through, we've had a number of different collaborators and creators come through because we really want this to be a community space and a hub where people can engage in many different types of art and creativity," he said.

"So certainly it's going to be a dynamic place. We also, of course, see this as as a great destination to hold events, weddings. We, in fact, had somebody through the other day who remembered being married in the planetarium a number of years ago in the planetarium dome — and just how amazing of an experience that is. So I think the building is really loved by Calgarians."

New roof, mechanical systems

The building has undergone a $24.5-million modernization, which involved new mechanical systems, asbestos abatement and a new roof.

"The City of Calgary deserves an enormous amount of credit," Leinster said. "That's really brought it up to a base building standard, and now it's Contemporary Calgary's job to transform this base building into a world-class destination for modern contemporary art."

Leinster said Contemporary Calgary's lease will commence in June.

"We plan to activate the site perhaps even a little bit before that, working with the City of Calgary," he said.

"Our immediate work is we're going to take that creative kids museum area, that was formerly the Telus World of Science, and transform that into a gallery space. And that will be available and ready as soon as September and the fall."

Grand reopening summer 2021

Renovations will continue throughout the year, and Leinster anticipates a grand reopening of the entire facility for summer 2021. The group plans to showcase the work of artists in a series of temporary installations.

"So we don't maintain a collection, which I think is exciting because our work will constantly change with every season. New artists and new exhibitions will come into the facility, so you're never coming back to see the same things," he said.

"We think that's exciting.... It just allows us to not only showcase the work of the great artists, and the great talent here in Calgary and in Alberta, but also to bring in the very best from around the world."

The project will be designed by Calgary-based Gibbs Gage Architects and KPMB Architects of Toronto, and led by design architect Bruce Kuwabara. His projects include Remai Modern in Saskatoon, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa and the Gardiner Museum and TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. 

Anyone interested in registering for the event on Thursday is urged to register here for one of three presentation times, or go to Contemporary Calgary for more information.

With files from Danielle Nerman