The road to recovery

Vocalist and guitarist performing in Calgary. Photo credit: ArtsCommons and Will Young.

Festivals and events, arts, and culture are important to achieving Calgary’s vision of a great place to make a living, and a great place to make a life. These experiences create joy for Calgarians, visitors, and tourists, and enhance the quality of life in our vibrant communities. The creative individuals and industries behind these events, art installations, and cultural opportunities also play a significant role in economic recovery and job creation.

“Cultural events and the arts, in general, are essential to building a resilient city,” says Maud Salvi, executive director of Sled Island, an eclectic five-day music and arts festival that draws over 40,000 attendees to multiple venues. “They foster community, provide outlets for expression, and have a significant economic impact that is too often overlooked. The art sector and creative industries can play a pivotal role in the diversification of Alberta’s economy.”

It comes as no surprise to learn the creative industry, like many other industries, was hit hard by closures and restrictions required as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with this challenge also came opportunity for innovation.

“We asked ourselves, how do we not only survive but also set ourselves up to thrive moving forward?" says Jennifer Johnson, Vice President of Programming at Arts Commons reflecting on the last two years. "We cared for our staff and leaned into the work we don't often get to do since our building is never closed - we upgraded and maintained every piece of equipment we could. Another priority was providing work and paycheques for as many local artists as possible, so we have a healthy ecosystem when we emerge from these tough times."

Understanding that nothing can replace the emotional impact and thrill of live performance, Arts Commons examined options where they could get artists to work, create safe experiences, and perhaps reach more audiences at a time when not much else was going on.

“Our ArtsXpeditions program was born out of the pandemic and will continue,” says Jennifer. “We moved performing arts outdoors for the summer of 2020 and 2021, with local artists performing everything from flamenco and jazz to Indigenous drumming and DJs mixing dancehall and electronic. ArtsXpeditions popped up in every quadrant of the city and made real human connections at a time when those opportunities were lacking.”

During the pandemic, the festival and event team at The City of Calgary recognized the need to simplify processes such as permitting, road closures, and applications to help organizers execute events and allow Calgarians to get outside to have safe experiences. The City also offered additional support guiding organizers through regulations and restrictions, brainstormed innovative solutions, sourced vendors for fencing, audio equipment and labour, and awarded microgrants to festival and event organizers to help speed recovery.

“The City cleared the way by coming to the table with very specific supports and it made a huge difference despite all the challenges of the past few years,” says Jennifer. “We can bring the artists, do the production, but The City helped ensure things like the security, and the permits for Olympic Plaza weren’t cost prohibitive when we couldn’t charge for a ticket. When The City clears that red tape, it allows us to do what we do best. And when we're allowed to do what we do best, we're supporting artists to do what they do best. Magic happens.”

Drummer. Photo credit: ArtsCommons and Sam Obadero.

Maud agrees that The City was instrumental in helping Sled Island bring to life the creative and outside-the-box projects they imagined, that lent themselves better to the circumstances of restrictions.

“Camp Sled Island, the first large-scale event to ever take place at High Park (a rooftop public park in the Beltline), was a celebration of our artistic community and aimed to provide audiences with exciting and exclusive programming in a safe environment,” explains Maud. “Given that the site was used for the first time in this manner, it required a lot of coordination with The City events team. It was a particularly challenging site to work with and The City ended up using a crane to bring tents and other equipment up, which is something we would have never been able to afford if it wasn’t for its support. In the end we were able to deliver a truly unique event, with a stunning view of Calgary’s downtown, and introduce Calgarians to this new park that many hadn’t visited before.”

Jennifer says that Calgarians, hungry for consuming creative experiences, were very receptive to taking in the arts in new ways. “That first summer we took about 50 pop-up performances around Calgary and yes, people were hesitant in that first year,” she recalls. “The crowds were small, but just so delighted. By the end of that first summer some of our colleague organizations started to add pop-ups as well. I think Arts Commons’ role was to just get out of the gate and help inspire other producers who were thinking about doing outdoor programming, to do it as well.”

Innovative and streamlined support of festivals and events give Calgarians places to be creative and growing our creative industries strengthens our economy, our recovery, and improves the quality of life for residents.

“The positive impact of music and arts on health and wellness is well documented and given the struggles of the past two years, it is more important than ever,” concludes Maud.

Dancer. Photo credit: Arts Commons and Lucia Juliao.

Did you know?

In the summer of 2021, Arts Commons programmed 78 ArtXpeditions experiences and issued 331 artist paycheques.

A 2015 economic impact study of Sled Island showed that the festival generated $3.4 million in economic activity in Alberta; $2.1 million occurred in Calgary.

The City’s festival and event team has over 150 years of professional event planning experience.

Saxophonist. Photo credit: ArtsCommons and Kiana-Evans.

Did you know?

In a typical year, The City supports over 275 events coordinating that need approximately 2000 City approvals, permits, and services.

It is estimated that there are 536 events held in public spaces in Calgary per year.

Throughout the pandemic, The City’s festival and event team supported 106 microgrants to local creative organizations.

Categories: Arts, Culture, Events

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