President and CEO Jeffrey Spalding's abrupt departure from the Glenbow Museum re-ignites Calgary's dizzying debate over contemporary art.
BY Mary-Beth Laviolette
When Calgary’s Glenbow Museum and its CEO and President, Jeffrey Spalding parted company in early January, ending a five-year contract still in its infancy, there were barely enough words to describe the dismay and anger sparked in the local art community. Spalding had been on the job for exactly 13 months, enough to create more than a ripple of interest across the country and, within the city itself, a palpable sense of excitement. By the end of his first year at Glenbow, The Globe and Mail had nominated the artist, curator and former museum director’s appointment one of the country’s culturally significant events for 2008: “Spalding’s return to the Glenbow, 25 years after he left a curatorial post there, has been widely praised as a catalyst for the cultural flourishing that accompanied the city’s economic boom.”
He hit the ground running, immediately turning the focus at Glenbow toward art, bringing Dennis Oppenheim’s controversial “upside-down church” sculpture, Device to Root Out Evil to Calgary, soliciting and welcoming an onrush of art donations from across the country, and supporting a growing visual art component for the city’s edgy and neophyte Sled Island Festival. Call Spalding an art star in a country that barely knows of such things.
But, like a bad New Year’s Eve hang-over, two weeks after receiving kudos from the Globe, Spalding was out, with little explanation from either side. Mouths zipped tight, accompanied by little more than murmurings of ‘best wishes and better days’. In response, the exasperation was widespread. On the View on Canadian Art (VOCA) blog, there was Murray Quinn, a noted contemporary art collector from Grande Prairie, Alberta: “If, as Lauchlan Currie, Chair of Glenbow’s Board of Governors wrote in the [Calgary] Herald‘there were no major differences in the board and Spalding’s vision for the museum’, then what gives?”
Others, like Toronto-based artist A.A.Bronson chose to read between the lines: “The Glenbow has always been a bastion of conservative indifference to art. There is no way he could have survived there. I was surprised that they hired him. He’s not part of the Alberta political network, and he was out-manoeuvred, I am sure.” Spalding would later sign on himself, writing a short note about upcoming art projects, while notably avoiding the topic of recent events.
Was it a case of provincial cronyism versus a daring acolyte for cutting-edge culture? It obviously wasn’t that simple, but given the Museum’s already-substantial 31,000-work art collection, and a mandate, written into the Glenbow’s own member newsletter to become “a world-class art destination”, Spalding’s departure looked to many like nothing more than a case of institutional retreat. In a letter to the Calgary Herald, that’s how artist and curator Ed Bader interpreted it: “I find it ironic that the Glenbow spent $12 million on a show celebrating Alberta’s mavericks, but could not handle one as president.”
I worked in the minuscule art department of the Glenbow Museum, during ten of those 13 heady months with Spalding at the helm and the closest I think anyone — at least from the outside — has gotten to the truth of the issue is Bill Peters, who wrote an op-ed piece for the Herald called “The Glenbow’s perfect storm”. As former CEO and President of the Telus World of Science, Peters knows something about the day-to-day grind of running a not-for-profit institution, and in his assessment, the high expectations for a Spalding-style transformation of Glenbow were not tempered, as he put it, “with a view of the time or resources needed for a major change.”
In the most important instance, financial resources already seemed scarce even before Spalding arrived, though it had been a period of incredible wealth creation just outside Glenbow’s doors. For a place that annually hosts programs for 60,000 school kids (and would do more if it were possible), it’s puzzling that there hasn’t been more support forthcoming from Calgary’s business and philanthropic elites, as well as the province. As a not-for-profit institution, Glenbow’s $12-million budget is supported, in part, by $3.5 million from the province for a collection of more than a million artifacts and artworks, a jewel of a collection that the government owns on behalf of the citizens of Alberta.
Add to that shrinking endowment funds, an unexpected downturn in the economy that even managed to crash into oil-rich Calgary, and the kind of presto Spalding-style transformation that was hoped-for was going to take a lot longer to achieve no matter what. Now, for an institution that for years has been obliged to operate deficit-free, there is currently a substantial negative number at the bottom of the balance-sheet. Ambitious plans require ambitious funding, and time to unfold.
The Museum is also faced with the overwhelming task of storing, cataloguing and processing the new art donations, more than 1000 works now, which flooded into Glenbow after Spalding’s appointment, most eligible for a 100 per cent tax credit pending the approval of Ottawa’s Cultural Properties Export Review Board. It’s interesting to consider what Spalding could have accomplished if, to begin with, Glenbow had had more resources and if the maverick had refrained from ramping the place into fiscal and operational overdrive in an enthusiastic and purposeful effort to steer it in a new direction.
The hopes and expectations for Spalding’s tenure at Glenbow, and his abrupt departure, have left many people in Calgary’s arts community with a familiar sinking feeling, one that Peters touched on in his Herald piece. He said that Calgarians still don’t feel that they have a major art gallery, “even though technically one exists within the Glenbow.”
Terry Rock is President and CEO of the arms-length Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA). He notes that Calgary is the only major city in Canada — and the only one in North America with a population of a million or more — that does not have a flagship contemporary art gallery. “What’s missing is Calgary’s voice in the international conversation,” he says. “We are out of the game and that is unacceptable for a city that aspires like Calgary.” Calgary has an abundance of artistic energies — it’s buoyed by an able art college, a university fine arts program and numerous commercial, artist-run, institutional and smaller public art galleries including the Art Gallery of Calgary and the Triangle Gallery. But there’s something missing, even while other cities in the province are in the midst of pulling-off keynote cultural developments in their own communities.
A few years ago, Medicine Hat’s public art gallery found a new home for itself (along with its museum and archives) in the city’s $42-million Esplanade development, while further west, Lethbridge’s nationally renowned Southern Alberta Art Gallery will embark this year on a $2.9-million renovation and expansion. In June, the Prairie Art Gallery will open the doors on a new 6000-square-foot facility in Grande Prairie’s new Montrose Cultural Centre (with more to follow once the restoration and attachment of the old gallery next door is completed.) Organizers recently announced creation of the Okotoks Art Gallery in Calgary’s south-end bedroom community, featuring a Class A facility able to host travelling art exhibitions and receive provincial and federal operational funding. Within the city, the Nickle Arts Museum at the University of Calgary will be moving into a new campus home as part of the $160-million Taylor Family Digital Library.
Next year, the newly named Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) will open on the former site of the Edmonton Art Gallery in a shiny, purpose-built Frank Gehry-style building. The slogan for the project has been Building an Art Gallery of National Significance for Alberta, and the Gallery has managed to raise $20 million privately and leverage contributions of $68 million from all three levels of government, for a total of $88 million. Not bad for a dream that only began to take its first serious steps in 2004.
The project planners pulled it together with an unusual level of public engagement. AGA director Tony Luppino recalls a community presentation of the building’s proposed designs by four juried finalist architects. They had 250 members of the public, each paying $10 to attend the event, with another 200 watching on closed-circuit TV. Outside, there was an additional waiting list of around 200.
Luppino says research and common sense show that museum infrastructure needs to be revisited every 20 years or so, with the idea of an upgrade or rebuild in some form. Given that Glenbow has been bursting at the seams in a visually unappealing and mechanically aging bunker for more than 30 years, new plans are long overdue. This is where the loss of Spalding is most devastating for those who have been waiting for something to happen on a grand scale in Calgary.
Artists, curators and culturally savvy Calgarians had high hopes more than ten years ago for the development of the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art, a leading-edge art gallery in two historic Telus buildings downtown. Those plans slowly leaked away for lack of funding, and a renewed focus on the Art Gallery of Calgary, a non-collecting public space that grew out of the Muttart Public Art Gallery. Plans were also scuttled for Glenbow’s own ambitions, under former President and CEO Mike Robinson for a high-profile fine art gallery in the new downtown landmark, The Bow — a project that has taken its own recessionary hits. All those culturally savvy citizens had the expectation that Spalding would take a great leap forward with the city’s fine art scene.
The ambitious plans are still a good fit for a city that, despite the crisis in the market for natural resources, has acquired a lasting swagger. It would start with an art gallery, purpose-built for the showcasing of regional, national and international visual art, including work from Glenbow’s own collection. Later, other smaller or larger purpose-built entities would follow for other Glenbow collections related to western Canadian heritage, military history, First Nations life, and other indigenous cultures from Asia, South America and west Africa.
Based on a campus-style model like that of Los Angeles’ Getty Museum or Atlanta’s High Museum, the art institution would mark a new beginning for a one-of-kind Canadian museum and the exposure of that missing voice Terry Rock and so many others have referred to.
According to Glenbow’s current President and CEO, Kirstin Evenden, Glenbow is still committed to developing a stand-alone visual arts institution, a proposal CADA is prepared to support as part of the city’s reinvestment in cultural facilities over the next decade.
CADA is requesting a piece of city-owned land and $25 million in provincial funds to be earmarked for Glenbow and, if the Art Gallery of Alberta is any example, this will then have to be followed by major community support, private donations, more government infrastructure largess and that most unpredictable ingredient of all: the right timing. In other words, the economic stars in the sky will have to shine more brightly than they are now. Maybe then, CADA’s vision statement about “a culturally vibrant city that inspires and engages the world” will be more artfully true.
Mary-Beth Laviolette is a Canmore-based writer who is the author of An Alberta Art Chronicle: Adventures in Recent and Contemporary Art and the co-author of Alberta Art and Artists: An Overview.