Calgary’s 2008: the year of dreaming BIG

By DJ Kelly January 2, 2008

Hello all! I’ve been rather silent over the holidays so apologies in advance for the Ken Chapman-sized post…

Now that the New Year has arrived it is time for all of us to get back to work. And I think it is time for Calgarians to seriously begin looking forward at what we want 2008 to be. What do we want to accomplish for ourselves this year on our path toward becoming a “great city”.

I know I’ll have plenty to say in the coming months about the political direction we have to head in, so I want to take this opportunity to make my first post of aught eight about the quality of life in Calgary. Specifically our arts and cultural sensibilities.

During almost every one of my years of involvement in Calgary’s arts and cultural scene there has been a sense going into any new year that things are building — and certainly this year is no different. But this year I think there is something a little extra in the water: a sense that this could be the year we officially “arrive” on the arts scene. Of course nobody has any idea what that means, and I doubt anyone else will admit the same, because “arriving” is impossible to measure. None-the-less I think you can feel it in the air.

So what can we do to make sure this happens? I turn your attention to a comment I wrote on the Calgary Arts Development blog last June about “branding Calgary’s arts scene”. I suggest here that the four steps I outlined for Calgary’s arts and cultural community should be accomplished in 2008.

1. What is the problem we are trying to solve? Is it: are Calgarian’s proud enough of what their artists do? Is it: that Calgarians don’t attend enough arts events? Is it: that we want more visitors to come to Calgary for the express purpose of our arts and cultural scene? Is it: that the arts aren’t as intrinsic in what Calgary “is” as we’d like them to be?

2. Once that is done we must identify what the key issue of that problem is. What is the blockage? What is the barrier to successful communication? Why doesn’t this exist/work/happen already? We’ll need to dig deep and find the specific issue (not the symptom but the actual problem).

3. Then we can finally look at what our current equity is. What IS Calgary’s arts scene? What do all these artists and groups have in common? There is some kind of current brand, what is it? This is important because we can’t just make something up and apply it. That’s false advertising and will fizzle quickly. We also have to do this so that we get a brand that is as dynamic as Calgary’s artists are, otherwise we’ll get something lame and corporate like “js” points out in Edmonton: “The Art of Downtown”. (WTF is that? What does that mean?)

4. Then, and only then, can we bring together all three answers and state what Calgary’s arts brand is. (A brand is not a logo, that’s just a visual representation of your brand. A brand is what you are. What drives you. Its your heart, why you do what you do.)

And for a little extra cream in your coffee I’ll look back again to a Facebook message I sent Eugene Stickland that he wrote about in his weekly Calgary Herald column this past July (when he was querying friends on their thoughts about the Calgary Stampede). Hopefully this helps get the juices flowing for 2008.

I love Stampede for all the reasons I hate it. And I hate it for all the reasons I love it.

Stampede is the one time of year all Calgarians come together in clearly defined community, if you will. Downtown becomes alive. People actually talk to one and other on the streets. And judging by the CHR post-Stampede STD stats: Calgarian’s love each other during those 10 days. They love each other a lot.

I’m not a Stampede fanatic (I doubt I’ll go down to the grounds this year) but Stampede is the only thing that I have found that offers Calgary an identity. That’s why Tourism Calgary and Calgary Economic Development created the “Heart of the New West” tagline that now greets all as they enter our fine city’s ever expanding city limits. But what the heck does that mean?! Those who know me have heard me say it a thousand times however: you might as well have called it “Heart of the Old West”.

Sure those agencies make pretty posters with ballerinas. But they’re wearing cowboy boots. This only perpetuates the redneck myth. But the Stampede can be used as a cultural beacon. Let me explain…

I used to be one of those arts community folks that said the Calgary arts community would be better off if the Stampede disappears. Calgary artists are doing some amazing things and breaking some rules and creating art unlike anywhere else. But on civic, national and international levels the Stampede is all consuming and people rarely notice these artists. Everything Calgary does is framed by the Stampede. The amazing offerings of Calgary artists don’t stand a chance. It’s like sleeping next to a giant. Nobody really pays attention to you. Least of all the giant.

But over the past couple of years I’ve been spending a lot more time with business people in the downtown core and I’ve notice that their “stories” are not so different than those of the arts community. However they have tended to find a way to frame them better. This is what I call the “Calgary maverick” story.

Calgarians in both the business world and the arts community are breaking new ground (or a new trail if you want to use old west language). We’re constantly creating new things and thinking in ways that are different than in the past. We’re all mavericks in the same way the cowboys of the old west and founders of the Stampede were. And certainly Calgary has a maverick mentality: if you want to do it, go to Calgary, you can make it happen there.

That is how the Stampede can be embraced instead of reviled.

This means we as arts organizations have to start re-shaping our stories (or key messages). Think of the Alberta Ballet’s Fiddle and the Drum. They could have just said look at the beautiful ballet we have created. But no, instead they said, look at how Jean tracked down Joni Mitchell from self imposed exile and worked with her to create something unlike anything Joni’s music has been used for before. That is a maverick story.

As an added bonus the media love maverick stories! (They love pretty much any personal story but if it is one of someone overcoming odds it’s even sexier). Everything about the High Performance Rodeo is a maverick story. That’s why it gets so much coverage every year. Why did the Grand Theatre re-opening get three double page spreads in the Herald? Because it is a maverick story of both a theatre company and an old building breaking the boundaries. (Tooting my own horn, yes. Sorry.)

Let the Stampede continue to form the identity of the city, but let’s all start framing our stories as part of the cities identity. There’s no need to fight it when we can make it work for us.

Also, just an observation: the Stampede used to be about family fun like Carnival d’Hiver in Quebec City but it has turned into a more adult oriented booze fest a la Mardi Gras. I wouldn’t say either of these events is better than the other. They’re just different but equally fun for different reasons.

The ‘I hate’ Stampede part of me is excited for August to hit so our downtown will stop smelling like stale beer and urine on every block. (And go back to just smelling like urine on every other block.)

More to follow for sure! Have a great year everyone! One filled with creative ideas that help make Calgary an even better city.

  • Ken Chapman

    You are right dj – it is a Ken Chapman like post…long but enlightening ;~).

    See I can be brief!

  • Ken Chapman

    You are right dj – it is a Ken Chapman like post…long but enlightening ;~).See I can be brief!