Requiem for Art Central

Art-Central-Calgary-+15-notice (1024x683)

Last week I walked past Art Central.  I noticed the signs on the door indicating that effective today, the +15 will be closed to all foot traffic between it and adjoining buildings.

It is a bittersweet day for me – ironically falling on Remembrance Day.  Like when a long-standing relationship draws to a close – one remembers both the good times and the bad.

I used to have a space in Art Central.  Truth be told, I had four or five of them over the years.

This is my story.

Sometime around 2001-2003 the leasing agent for Art Central came to visit both the owner of the gallery I once worked at, along with myself.  He was looking for established galleries to anchor the development.  After his presentation and others I attended in that timeframe, along with discussions with other dealers who were located close by, it became clear that it the location was not suited for a gallery and probably why no pre-existing and established commercial galleries ever a space.  Of course, there was Rob and myself but we both had pre-existing histories with galleries, but started afresh when we opened in Art Central.

The concept itself was very interesting, but as they say in real estate it is all about location, location, location.

Unfortunately, Art Central never had that.

I attended the grand opening of Art Central in conjunction with the grand opening of ArtCity probably in 2005.  There was no power to the building except as hooked up to a generator which gave a rawness to the building which was rather edgy.  The downside was once the party starting to roll, the music was shut off and we all got kicked out early for whatever reason.

Once the building was open in late 2005, I would often visit the First Thursday celebrations with my then new girlfriend.  She had never been exposed to cultural activities or galleries before we hooked up and this was a good introduction for her.  During the three and a half years we were together I was able to introduce her to other cultural experiences, something I took great pleasure in doing.

During this time, I was also running another gallery.  When things started rapidly going south at that gallery in March of 2007, I had to look for new space.  It was during a time when the overheated commercial real estate market had vacancy rates of less than ½ of 1%.  My choices for retail space were extremely limited.

For about week I would drop her off at her job downtown, park the car and then go to Art Central to see what the traffic patterns were like in the early morning prior to opening the old gallery in anticipation of signing a lease.  The foot traffic was very good as the C-Train station was just outside the door and it was still cool outside, so lots of people passed through.

Without getting into the gory details, I moved from a 3000 sq. ft. retail storefront space on one of the best streets for art galleries to a 300 sq. ft. space on the +15 level and was open for business two days later.  On one of the first days I overheard a short conversation during the afternoon foot traffic rush hour which sadly defined the remainder of my time in that building.   Two guys that I assumed were co-workers saw each other on the central stairwell.  One said to the other something to the effect of “I’ll race you and see who gets out of the building faster.”  Like relationships, sometimes when you start on the wrong foot, it influences everything else to come.

I have described my gallery as similar to a corner store on the 401.  Sometimes people need a drink or a bag of chips.  Most of the time they don’t and zoom right past without a second glance.

At first sales were okay.  But then the York Hotel came down across the street the next summer and the construction of the Bow Building and the huge underground parking lot with all the dust and noise only affected business even more.  The construction of the Bow was the beginning of the slow death of Art Central.

I left the building just before the current owners purchased it.  All I can say is that I am glad I left when I did.

Toward the end, tenant turnover was very high.  There were very few occupants in the Art Loop in the basement.  First Thursdays were nothing like they used to be and for the last couple years the basement had their lights turned off and the only activity was the music and a few small openings.

I am sure that by the time I left, the many accumulated disappointments and unmet expectations during my nearly five years there, only served to acknowledge that this chapter of my life had ended.

I look back on my time in Art Central with bittersweet memories.  I did some amazing shows there that few noticed and I met top drawer people.

When I left, I took the summer off and then started on a new passion – trying to figure out why this city is so weird when it comes to the visual arts.  After nearly two decades of running galleries and siting on boards and being actively involved in the community, I don’t believe that I am any closer to figuring out what makes this city tick when it comes to the visual arts.  Maybe I never will.

Art Central was a great concept that failed to deliver.  I am glad that I was part of it.

To an old friend.  Goodbye.

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