Arts group walks away from city negotiations to transform old planetarium after 3 years

Contemporary Calgary, picked by the city to establish a contemporary art gallery in the old planetarium on the west end of downtown, has walked away from negotiations after three and a half years.

Contemporary Calgary will officially be homeless in early 2018, but hope to find new plan for major gallery

The former planetarium building has sat vacant since the science centre moved to northeast Calgary in 2011. It was meant to house a contemporary art gallery, but the organization behind the plan has walked away from negotiations. (CBC)

Contemporary Calgary, picked by the city to establish a contemporary art gallery in the old planetarium on the west end of downtown, has walked away from negotiations after three and a half years.

The announcement that the multimillion-dollar project is effectively dead comes one day after the Flames ownership announced it was walking away from the negotiating table on a new arena deal with the city

"The city was prepared to enter into a short-term lease, but we require a much more tangible demonstration of support from the City of Calgary before we could realistically launch a capital campaign to raise the funds from other levels of government, foundations and private sector sources," said D'Arcy Levesque, a member of the board for Contemporary Calgary. 

Donor requirements

The city offered a 33-month lease guarantee to the group until it could raise 90 per cent of its $32 million capital campaign. Contemporary Calgary received that notice last week. 

"We had asked the city to commit to a 10-year lease, which is actually the minimum that is required to meet the expectations of our key potential donors, including the federal government," said Levesque.

"In all good conscience, we couldn't ask our donors to make a commitment of that magnitude towards the redevelopment of the planetarium without greater assurance from the city that they share our visions to create a dedicated home for modern and contemporary art."

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the offer was made so that the group could occupy a smaller space for a temporary gallery — dubbed Temporary Contemporary — in the old planetarium while it finalized plans for the larger gallery. 

"It was a bit of a surprise to us that they send, no, no we wanted a 10-year lease on the big space even though we don't have the money for the rent," he said. 

'Too big to chew'

Nenshi essentially laid the blame at the feet of the organization. 

"I think what really happened is the organization determined that this might be a little bit too big to chew," he said. 

Prior to Nenshi's statement, Levesque pointed to the successes of Contemporary Calgary. 

The organization retired $1.5 million in debt, amalgamated three societies into its current entity, raised over $4 million for operations and posted three straight years of surpluses. 

"We met all the conditions that the city established, but, unfortunately, we just don't believe that they are aligned with our vision," he said. 

Timing of announcement

Levesque said the timing of the announcement is not intended as a negotiating tactic or as a political shot across the city's bow as the local election looms. 

"After three and a half years of negotiating in good faith, we're simply responding to the most recent letter from the city that established their terms and conditions," he said.

Contemporary Calgary was formed when the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art (IMCA) merged with the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary (MOCA), and later the scandal-plagued Art Gallery of Calgary.

IMCA was formed almost 20 years ago to fight for a significant, collecting contemporary art gallery for Calgary.

Stephen Avenue gallery

When the merger with the Art Gallery of Calgary passed, the group acquired prime, but small, gallery space on Stephen Avenue, which it recently sold in order to finance the development of the planetarium. Levesque said that was done based on conversations with the city.

Contemporary Calgary will officially be homeless in early 2018.

Levesque said the quest for a major contemporary art gallery in Calgary is not dead and the organization is pursuing other options. He would not elaborate, but said Contemporary Calgary was not working on a Plan B prior to its recent decision to withdraw from negotiations. 

New options

He said there would be public meetings to discuss new possibilities in the near future. 

"Calgary is a young and dynamic city and it's one of the only major cities in North America that doesn't have a dedicated modern and contemporary art gallery," said Levesque. 

"We think a permanent home for contemporary visual art will help grow and diversify our economy, it will help attract visitors, it will help us as a city to compete for talent and, more importantly, it will provide our citizens with exceptional opportunities to connect with the art of our times."

Nenshi said the city is interested in having a "good conversation" with Contemporary Calgary and will not be locking the planetarium doors, or seeking a tenant to fill the space right away. 


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.


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