Bruce Kuwabara leading the design for new Contemporary Calgary
by Marsha Lederman
Calgary is a step closer to seeing its former planetarium transformed into a major art gallery for modern and contemporary art. Contemporary Calgary, the organization overseeing the project, is announcing the selected architects: KPMB Architects of Toronto and Calgary-based Gibbs Gage Architects, with KPMB’s award-winning partner Bruce Kuwabara leading the design.
There are plans to bring some temporary programming into the building this year, ahead of the tenant improvement renovations, which Contemporary Calgary expects to be completed by the end of 2020.
The decision follows an international search for a design team for the on-again/off-again project.
Contemporary Calgary (an amalgamation between the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary, the Art Gallery of Calgary and the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art) has for years been seeking a space to exhibit contemporary art in the city. In 2013, it landed on the former Centennial Planetarium at the western end of downtown. Built in 1967 to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation, the Brutalist building became a science centre in the 1980s, but closed in 2011.
In April, 2016, Calgary city council approved the plan to turn it into a contemporary art museum; later that year, the province endorsed the idea.
But things hit a snag in September of 2017, when Contemporary Calgary walked away from negotiations after the city declined to sign a long-term lease agreement. The city was offering a 33-month lease guarantee until Contemporary Calgary could raise 90 per cent of its $32-million capital campaign. But the organization felt it could not raise funds successfully under those terms.
“In fairness to our supporters and donors, it is unreasonable for us to embark on a campaign of this magnitude with such slim assurances from the City of Calgary,” the group’s board chair Jay Mehr wrote in a letter to the community at the time.
Then last June, after months of talks, the group reached an agreement with the city to move ahead, announcing a deal for a 25-year lease of the entire property, with an option for a 10-year extension. The city agreed to spend $24.5-million in significant base upgrades to the building; the facility is to remain the property of the city and part of its heritage inventory.
“This agreement is excellent news for Calgarians and our cultural sector,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in a statement that month.
The city expects its building upgrades to be completed by the end of January, with deficiencies addressed by the end of February, according to Contemporary Calgary CEO David Leinster.
With the architects now selected, meetings are scheduled for this week, with design concepts expected to be shared with the public this spring. “I think it would be reasonable to expect our tenant improvement renovations will be completed by the end of 2020,” Mr. Leinster said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
A second planned phase involves the construction of an addition to house a significant “Class A” gallery, which is required for some touring exhibitions. “We are currently focused on phase one, but our architects will be designing for both phases concurrently,” Mr. Leinster said.
KPMB’s past projects include the Remai Modern, which opened in Saskatoon in 2017, the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, the expansion of the Ottawa Art Gallery, which opened last year, and the 2010 renewal of the Canadian Museum of Nature, also in Ottawa.
“Contemporary art has the power to be a leading force in how we perceive and think about society and the world,” said Mr. Kuwabara in a media release. “The reimagination of the Centennial Planetarium – an icon of optimism – into a dynamic, game-changing cultural hub, is an ideal project of architecture in our time.”
The announcement follows a council decision last November to nearly double the funding for Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA), which allocates municipal funds to the arts sector. Also in November, Calgary’s new Central Library opened to rave reviews. Last week, the New York Times named Calgary number 20 of its 52 Places to Go in 2019, citing “a spectacular new library.”