Long known for ranchers, Rockies, and the oil patch, Alberta has redefined itself as a culture hub in Canada’s West. Take urban Calgary. The gateway to the Canadian Rockies, this city boasts a thriving theater and ballet scene, and has in recent years made major investments in its music offerings. Now, Calgary is beefing up its visual arts in pursuit of a new role in the global art dialog.
Centrally located Edmonton is celebrating its jewel, the reimagined Art Gallery of Alberta, and all over the province grassroots networks of pop-ups and informal artist-produced shows continue to gain momentum. What does it all mean? It’s time to see art in Alberta.
The Calgary mainstays
Diverse, vibrant, and growing — that’s how observers describe the burgeoning art scene in Calgary, Alberta’s cow town turned boomtown on the Bow River. First, there’s the Glenbow Museum, a gallery-library-museum-history archives combo that’s recently shifted emphasis to its impressive northwestern North American art collection. The city’s premier museum and oldest cultural institution, the Glenbow has the biggest assemblage of historical, modern, and contemporary works in Canada’s West, housing 28,000 total pieces, including 1,800 pressed glass works. The museum’s approach is to let visitors experience art in many different ways.
Then there’s Contemporary Calgary, a partnership of three visual arts organizations including the Art Gallery of Calgary, currently in search of a space and aiming to be the city’s go-to for contemporary and modern art. Calgarians want their own designated art gallery — one that’s challenging and relevant — and have pinned their hopes on this much-awaited initiative. On the streets, the city is filled with large-scale outdoor art beautifying communal spaces and has a downtown guide devoted to all 56 public and private works.
Contemporary and modern in Calgary
Calgary’s major institutions are just as significant as the city’s local artist network, which has cropped up in the absence of one main venue. It’s dynamic, cheeky, and bold. The Ilingworth Kerr Gallery of Alberta College of Art + Design stages avant-garde shows and events. Other envelope-pushers are Nickle Galleries, Esker Foundation’s 15,000-square-foot space, in addition to the many grassroots, artist-run informal exhibitions and emerging talent pop-up venues around town. These are coordinated by groups such as non-profit Untitled Art Society (UAS) and Stride Art Gallery Association. And since it’s not hyper competitive here like in other cities of one million-plus, the network of creatives feels like a community — one that’s accessible andwelcoming to both visitors and locals.
Art and architecture in the streets of Edmonton
Capital city Edmonton treasures its dazzling Art Gallery of Alberta, established in 1924 and completely redesigned in 2010 to double its exhibition space. It’s a gorgeous 85,000-square-foot public space of glass atriums wrapped in a 623-foot-long steel ribbon symbolizing the city’s iconic North Saskatchewan River and the iconic aurora borealis. The gallery spotlights 6,000-plus contemporary and historical paintings, sculptures, photographs, and installations from Canadian and international talents, with an emphasis on Canadian abstract painting and sculpture. And, the works inside are just as exciting as the building itself. July’s Whyte Avenue Art Walk, billed as an outdoor gallery and studio, is also a must: 450 artists from across Alberta painting, sketching, and sculpting in the streets of the Old Strathcona art district for three days. The goal: To close the gap between viewer and artist.
Arts hub in beautiful Banff
If you want to pair adventure with art, Banff is the place. The renowned Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity mixes and matches topical events and summits, festivals, the arts, film, music, and performance with Rocky Mountain grandeur and the natural beauty of the lively mountain town. Not only are there curated exhibitions, there are also hands-on workshops and participatory artwork projects with artists in residence in visual and digital arts, including photography, ceramics, painting, textiles and paper-making, sculpture, printmaking, even images projected on huge-scale living walls of grass.
Quirky and cool crafters in Edmonton
If it’s eccentric and original you’re seeking, then you'll want to visit The Royal Bison Fair in Edmonton. It’s a twice a year, vendor-run fest over two weekends that features the city’s top out-of-the-box, eye-popping design, crafts, and art. Think: Prints, photos, gifts for yourself (!), textiles, woodworking, apparel, toys, and more spread over two rooms teeming with regulars. The fair promises “tightly curated” offerings from 70 makers, designers, and illustrators, so you’re sure to come across really special finds, including handmade books and artworks made of plants. Bonus: It’s near the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, a lively place to pick up picnic supplies and rub elbows with the locals.
True, it may not yet have the cachet of New York or LA, but Alberta’s up-and-coming visual arts scene is worth a visit — especially now as it is just coming into its own. Add to that a bucket list road trip with a detour into the local wine cottage industry, and you’ve got a Renaissance-style trip with a little bit of everything.
Get vacation inspiration at the Travel Alberta website.