Suddenly a new national institution

Calgary's National Music Centre project just received $25m from Alberta and the federal government

On a busy day, nobody will notice that the federal government and the Government of Alberta today each gave $25 million to a new National Music Centre in Calgary. And yet more people should notice. Added to $25 million from the City of Calgary, that’s $75 million toward a projected $120 million (or so) for the new institution. The rest will come from private fundraising, apparently. In Calgary that’s hardly an unrealistic expectation.

I’ve chronicled the development of this project for more than a year. In July of 2009 I wrote about the short-listed candidates for the centre’s architectural competition. A few months later I wrote about the winner, Portland up-and-comer Brad Cloepfil, whose design looks like this:

Here’s who should care about this announcement:

• People who were arguing, quite fiercely, that the National Portrait Gallery should not be relocated from Ottawa, on the (to me, mystifying) basis that all national cultural institutions should be in the national capital. Ever since that odd debate led to the death, for now, of the whole portrait-gallery concept, the Harper goverment has been cheerfully naming national institutions right and left. Here’s one in Winnipeg and another in Halifax and now this third one in Calgary. Not one of these three institutions was the Harper government’s idea; but they are ideas that will now proceed, with a “national” brand, thanks to the Harper government. The people who once thought they were winning the argument against dispersing national cultural institutions have apparently forgotten the argument ever happened. This government hasn’t.

• People who want, or who really don’t want, the feds to spend $175 million on a hockey rink in Quebec City. Obviously $25 million isn’t $175 million, but it’s non-trivial and it’s being spent in Calgary and I’m pretty sure somebody in Quebec City can be found who’ll call this a great injustice.

• People who think a major new music-oriented institution would be an excellent idea. This is the group I’m in. But this group can be subdivided into (a) people who want a major new investment in the arts in Calgary; and (b) people who might have any other idea. The latter group(s) have not paid much attention to the National Music Centre project and they need to start, because between the $25 million from the feds and the $50-odd million from fundraising, it’s about to suck a lot of oxygen out of the room for anyone else with an infrastructure project. If I were, say, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, or the gregarious and empire-building new dean of music at the University of Toronto, or anyone else looking to expand music facilities in Canada, I’d look to Calgary and wonder whether my job just got a lot harder.

Meanwhile, there is this new National Music Centre project in Calgary. It has gone from the drawing board to reality (or getting there) with breathtaking speed. It is part of a broader multi-use revitalization of Calgary’s hardscrabble East Village whose total public-private price tag will probably be up around $1 billion. It is all bigger news than the attention it will receive.

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