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Contemporary Calgary looks for public feedback, input into ambitious transformation of the Centennial Planetarium into art gallery

Bruce Kuwabara - Contemporary Calgary

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by Eric Volmers

Hundreds of Calgarians got an early look at plans to transform the Centennial Planetarium into a world-class contemporary art gallery Thursday evening — and to provide input into what they would like to see the facility both become and maintain from its 50-year history in the city.

Roughly 450 people were expected to participate on Thursday, allowing them to meet with Contemporary Calgary CEO David Leinster and architect Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects, who will oversee the transformation.

“We want people to open up about their thinking, their memories of the planetarium,” Kuwabara said in an interview with Postmedia on Thursday afternoon. “A lot of people have a lot of experience with this place. I’m here like a kind of archeologist trying to figure out the cultural meaning of things: the original building, the site, the planetarium, the science centre.

“There are many identities here and then, of course, we are really looking for this to be the launching pad for the design thinking of Contemporary Calgary. That means thinking about the spaces, thinking about the landscape, thinking about how to get in and out the building, thinking about the kind of amenities and things people would actually do. We want people to tell us what would make a great hub.”

Participants were asked to write ideas with a marker on designated walls, along with their memories of the planetarium, which was built in 1967.

The building became the Calgary Science Centre in 1987 but has been vacant since 2011 when Telus World of Science moved to its new location.

Contemporary Calgary has been in the works since 2013, when an arts group comprising the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of Calgary developed a proposal to repurpose the planetarium. The plan hit a snag in 2017 when city officials said it would only commit to a short-term lease with the group until it raised more than 90 per cent of the capital it needed. But a year later, Contemporary Calgary and the City of Calgary announced a lease agreement had been reached. As part of the 25-year deal, the organization will be responsible for building operations and maintenance.

The city has already completed $24.5-million worth of upgrades to the building. In June, renovation will be completed to turn the 8,000-square-foot “north shed,” formerly the Creative Kids Museum, into a functioning gallery dubbed Temporary Contemporary.

The next phase will be a $30-million renovation to transform the planetarium into a contemporary and modern art gallery, expected to be compete by the summer of 2021. Contemporary Calgary has asked for $10 million from the federal government and $10 million from the province. The other $10 million will come from private donors, of which $5 million has already been raised, Leinster said.

The long-term goal is to eventually build a $50-million addition to the facility, a 10,000-square-foot gallery to draw international touring exhibits.

“It’s about embracing the fact that this building is the way it is, and that being the reason this is an amazing space for contemporary art,” Leinster said. “It’s not in saying ‘it wasn’t built as an art gallery, how can it become one?’ It already is one. It’s one just by walking through that staircase, it’s one by looking at these canted concrete walls, it’s one just because of the feeling that you get of wanting to curiously explore the space and be drawn through this maze. It already is art.”

Kuwabara is a founding partner with KPMB Architects and an invested Officer into the Order of Canada. His previous work has included Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature, the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.

He said public input is vital in these early stages of development to ensure the facility becomes not only a gallery but a gathering place that will help define the community and city.

“The gallery space is really important and I think we’re hard at work to reawaken and reimagine the building for the purpose of contemporary art,” he said. “That’s Job 1. But it’s also important that people have many, many reasons to come here. We’re making something that is totally unique. I don’t know of anything quite like it anywhere in the world because of the existing building, because of the cultural history of the planetarium, because of its location in Calgary, because of the changing urbanity in Calgary.”