Calgary mayor touts arts as key for cities

On the Toronto stop of his short, eastern Canadian speaking tour, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi emphasized the importance of arts investment in building a vibrant, attractive city.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi emphasized the importance of arts investment in building a vibrant, attractive city — calling it "the ballet effect" — on the Toronto stop of his speaking tour.

"Everyone wants to live in a city that has a great ballet, even if they themselves will never go to the ballet," he told CBC News in Toronto on Tuesday. The visit is just one stop in Nenshi's quick, eastern Canadian jaunt promoting Calgary as an exciting urban metropolis in which to live and invest.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, seen riding the C-Train in March, says a thriving arts community is essential for an attractive, vibrant city. (CBC)

A creative, thriving arts community is a key component in building an attractive city, he said. "It's the kind of thing that makes people happy to live in a place and that's what we really need to build in this country."

civic activist and Harvard-educated business professor elected in Oct. 2010, Nenshi has drawn attention for his use of social media during the mayoral campaign and as the first Muslim elected to lead a major Canadian city. Earlier this summer, he made headlines for his decision to lead Calgary's gay pride parade.

Calgary has also campaigned to be designated the Cultural Capital of Canada in 2012, a momentous year for the city, Nenshi said.

"It will mark the centennial of much of what's made Calgary great," including the public library, city hall, the parks and recreation department and the Calgary Stampede.

If the city earns the title, Nenshi hopes to leverage the distinction into new investment for improving Calgary's cultural infrastructure (for instance, in renovating or building performances spaces), as his predescesors did before the Calgary Olympics. "[We're] focusing in on stuff that will really have return over many, many years," he said.

In his speech in Toronto Tuesday night, Nenshi discussed a host of promising cultural projects and investments into artistic spaces in Calgary, including the construction of Canada's National Music Centre, a new downtown branch for the city's public library and an initiative to transform old or derelict buildings into new arts centres, performance venues or artist studios.

Public-private partnerships serve a key role in helping these projects succeed and the municipal government is an important facilitator, for instance in passing zoning law changes to permit more artist live-work studios, according to Nenshi.

"Calgary is becoming a city where artists are moving to... rather than coming from. A lot of that is due to the incredible entrepreneurism and creativity of the artists themselves," he said.

"But it's also important that the government creates an environment in which this makes sense... The role of government is to make sure they’ve got spaces to do it in and the ability to be able to do this work."

'A strange reversal' for ex-Albertan

The approach he discussed comes in contrast to the situation in Toronto, where arts and cultural groups have been among those vocally protesting severe service cuts being considered by Mayor Rob Ford and city council.

"It's very odd as an Albertan who left Alberta to come to the supposedly more arts-oriented Toronto. It seems like a very strange reversal," said playwright and director Brad Fraser.

Fraser — who moved east in the 1980s, but has returned to visit Alberta over the years — also praised Nenshi's focus on collaboration and bringing different parties together versus pitting groups against each other to vie for dwindling resources.

"It feels to me like Calgary has a mayor with a vision for the city and Toronto has a mayor who wants to turn the downtown into a parking lot for people from the suburbs," Fraser said.

Still, Nenshi defended Ford and his mayoral counterparts across the country, saying that all cities are facing difficult financial decisions and, because municipal governments rely almost exclusively on property taxes, need more support from the provincial and federal level.

In Calgary, for instance, he must find $140 million in spending cuts and "nobody is exempt" from searching for ways to cut costs.

"We have to find efficiencies. Will we able to massively grow our spending in the arts over the next little while? Probably not. Can we work with our arts funding agencies and artists to make sure the money is being spent really well? Yes, we can," he said.

"The key is to focus not on the input, which is the money, but to focus on the output and make sure the money is being well-spent to get lots of great work on the stage and lots of great work on the walls."

Nenshi's speaking tour continues in Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.