Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Community unites to transform old Marda Loop school into vibrant new arts hub
Visionary plan for King Edward School
By Stephen Hunt
Calgary Herald February 16, 2012

Calgary's arts community just got a sturdier foundation under its feet.

That's how it felt when a jubilant group of arts administrators, philanthropists, politicians and community representatives gathered at King Edward School in Marda Loop on Friday to talk about plans for the transformation of the 100-year-old school into an arts incubator.

"It's a phenomenal plan," says Ald. John Mar. "This is very, very avant-garde in its design and concept, and the community, fortunately, has been very, very positive and welcoming towards the concept of creating an arts hub for the community of Marda Loop."

The ambitious, visionary plan calls for a mixed-use development with a rehabilitated King Edward School at 30th Avenue and 17th Street S.W. as its focal point.

That building will house a mixture of arts groups, community non-profits and social entrepreneurs, in addition to providing rehearsal space and possibly studio space for artists and arts groups.

The goal of an arts incubator is to provide long-term stability for arts organizations, as well as to develop a synergy with the community inside the building, in addition to the community at large.

Evangelos Diavoltsis is involved with two organizations - Quickdraw Animation and the Caravan Dance Company - that have expressed interest in moving into the King Edward School arts incubator when it opens.

"A lot of energy goes into creating stability" for arts groups, he says. "I don't want to always problem solve month to month over how to create it because I think it's a bare bones thing to just have a space - it's kind of like survival. Humans, if they're not surviving, all they're thinking about is surviving - forget about creating."

There will also be a substantial real estate development where the playground now is, in addition to extra space created by knocking down extensions to the school that were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

The sale of the playground to private developers will help finance the anticipated $19-million to $21-million cost of rehabilitating King Edward School. The project hopes to begin the rehabilitation in 2013, with the development taking several years to complete.

It's all part of the vision shared by a group that includes Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA), cSPACE, the Calgary Foundation and various representatives from the arts community, who are actually daring to dream a little about the day when their organizations can spend less time dealing with surviving and more on creating and thriving.

The excitement over the proposed King Edward arts incubator stems from a partnership forged by the Calgary Foundation and Calgary Arts Development, who teamed up to enable Calgary Arts Development to buy the school site for $8 million.

For Eva Friesen, president and CEO of the Calgary Foundation, the project works three different ways: providing stability for arts groups, engaging the community and preserving a heritage building.

"Triple win," Friesen says. "Four years ago, maybe even five, one of our priority areas was arts and heritage. We were working on, what are the needs of the community? What is something transformational that the Calgary Foundation can put their support behind to make happen for a big impact in this community in that area?

"Parallel to our efforts, CADA was asking the same questions."

The Calgary Foundation was first in, making a $3-million loan to cSPACE, the artspace development arm of Calgary Arts Development, and following that with bridge financing to allow them to purchase the school and adjoining land.

"You always need that trigger investor," says cSPACE president and CEO Reid Henry, "that first organization that's willing to put the risk capital first and they've really stepped up to the plate. They're (the Calgary Foundation) our funder, our partner, our financier and our shareholder in cSPACE.

"That's sort of where we began.

"Long story short," adds Henry, "they (the foundation) really extended themselves, and are trying new things for them as a philanthropic organization, so they're leading the way."

Henry has worked on various arts incubator projects across Canada, most notably Artscape in Toronto, which has rehabilitated several buildings and helped that city's arts community to withstand a long real estate boom.

"We're looking for long-term stability now," Henry says. "This place, this school, this site will be a pretty significant anchor for a big, broad range of the cultural community, whether you're working in the community sector, traditional non-profit stream or doing some sort of enterprise."

They likely won't have a problem finding tenants: 45 members of the arts community responded when Henry put out a request for an expression of interest in the project.

For CADA president and CEO Terry Rock, his organization's successful effort to purchase King Edward School reflects a broader support across every spectrum of the city.

"The thing that I find most interesting about this process since starting CADA in 2005," he says, "is that we have champions all over the place - in elected positions, corporate Calgary and they were really looking for someone that could take on projects like this, that are exciting projects that show the promise of the arts to a city.

"We're really excited," he adds, "that we've got tangible ways to do this now with this new organization (cSPACE)."

When it comes time for the arts groups to move in, it's safe to say they'll be getting a warm welcome from the surrounding community.

"From a personal point of view, it's fantastic," says Marda Loop community association president Marc Doll. "As an association, when it was approached before the entire project had any legs at all, our reaction was, 'Fantastic idea.'

"It provides for access and is going to be something the community can use, on the bottom floor. It brings life back to a dead building."

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