The beginning and the end of MacEwan University's Big Orange Building
By C.B.W. Caswell | May 2, 2013
When I graduated from high school, I knew I would be going into the Grant MacEwan Music program, held at the Fine Arts campus on Stony Plain and 156th, better known as “that fluorescent orange building.” It wasn’t because I had any particular life direction in mind. If anything, it was the opposite: I wanted to avoid the responsibility of a career for a few more years, and I spent it studying what it took to be a musician. My father, a former student and instructor in the music program, advised that the life of a musician wasn’t a living, and I spent the year after graduation working in a window factory, looking through every frame, trying to see my future on the other side. I returned to MacEwan, this time to learn the art of writing: Corporate communications, novels, documentaries,screenplays and magazine articles.
Coming from the creatively frenetic atmosphere of an arts school can make the world seem as linear and formulaic as a cubicle. Especially in a city like Edmonton, whose cultural palette is painted as blue as its population’s proverbial collar. But City Council has taken up the cause of turning Edmonton into a creative centre and, while many arts students find themselves trying to fit their rounded skill set into Edmonton’s square setting, the home of my alma mater is making the same transition – graduating from school, and trying to make something of itself in the world.
With the City’s recent purchase of the MacEwan campus for the school’s asking price of $36 million, the Mayor’s Arts Visioning Committee – a group who brought the campus to City Council’s attention – hopes the space, along with many other projects, will help shift the perception of Edmonton to an arts hub by the year 2040.
Within the next few years, the old arts campus will be transformed into a venue for arts creation, rehearsal and performance, and it will be publicly owned but partnership operated. There are also plans to have private businesses help offset the costs (which could be as much as $678,000) of running the facility. Meanwhile, MacEwan will pursue its Single Sustainable Campus initiative, pulling its satellite campuses into the downtown core.
Macewan’s tentatively titled Centre for Arts and Culture campus will be one of many new facilities springing up downtown in a few years, including the transplanted Royal Alberta Museum, which is set to be finished in 2015. We’ll also be seeing the addition of the newly proposed Edmonton Downtown Academic and Cultural Centre. But while the city has many large facilities – including the Winspear, Citadel and Jubilee – these venues are unaffordable to many of Edmonton’s small creative companies, says Brian Webb, who founded his own dance company and co-chairs the Mayor’s Arts Visioning Committee. “Most art making takes huge amounts of space, whether it’s a dance studio, a sculpture studio, a symphony rehearsal space,” says Webb. “There are very few organizations that can afford to do that in the core of the city. It’s really a blueprint for failure. That isn’t to say that some organizations in our community – we call them the flagship organizations, like the symphony – can’t afford it.”
And the smaller venues have slowly been dying out, especially in the city’s music scene: Where Edmonton once thrived with a dozen live music venues on Jasper Avenue in the ’70s, today venues such as the Artery or Avenue Theatre have been relegated to spots where they can afford to operate, either on the fringe or removed from the city’s core. Venues on Jasper, such as the Sidetrack Caf and, more recently, the Elevation Room, have been choked out by commercial construction and high lease rates. But Webb says that the old MacEwan building will provide both a well-equipped and affordable option for smaller arts groups, which could benefit many artists, especially those starting out in the business.
Webb even sees the campus’s remote location as a strength. “Art making is a contemplative activity,” says Webb. “You need quiet and a sense of removal from the hubbub to make art and I think this campus space defines that extremely well.” Webb also points out how the campus could serve its community like one of Montreal’s Maisons de Culture, or Cultural Houses, that provide several of that city’s residential districts with libraries, galleries, art creating spaces and meeting rooms. “We need to start thinking of arts in the suburbs,” asserts Webb.
While some find it exciting to think about the building’s future, the changes mean an end to its life as an arts campus – and not everyone is happy about that. Some questioned what was “unsustainable” about the current model.
“For what it’s worth, I think that it was a nice alliteration – Single Sustainable Campus – and I don’t know if anyone seriously looked at what it meant,” says University president, Dr. David Atkinson. “It was an issue around money, that when you’re operating some smaller campuses it’s much more expensive than when you centralize. The second [issue] is that while the current CFAC (Centre for Arts and Culture) has been a terrific story, if you look at the Mill Woods and even Alberta College campuses, they have never enjoyed that sense of happening, and in that context, people wondered if they are really sustainable as places for academic activity.”
The view from his office in the City Centre campus – a blend of concrete, chrome and glass – reflects the downtown campus’s construction, intentionally built to be a part of its surroundings unlike the fine arts campus, which is surrounded by erotic massage parlors, XXX-video rental joints, pawn shops and cash-loan businesses. A regular attendee of the musicals and plays thrown by the MacEwan theatre arts program, Atkinson has made several drives down to the arts campus and is familiar with its unique atmosphere.
“I’m nervous about moving everybody here because I don’t want to lose that special quality that exists out there,” says Atkinson.
What’s distinctive about the arts campus is the common understanding shared amongst the students, despite their separate disciplines. It’s rare to see business and medicine students identifying with other education and sociology students in any institution, but arts students have an unspoken appreciation for one another, typical of any minority.
While the old campus has long been established as a thriving hub in the city and abroad, sending theatre students to Europe and musicians to Japan, the new downtown MacEwan arts campus will have upgraded facilities. The $120-million MacEwan Centre for Arts and Culture that Atkinson spoke about is currently being drafted by Bing Thom architects, who’ve designed esoteric arts and university spaces from Texas to Hong Kong. More importantly, the facility will have access to an audience of MacEwan students and the metropolitan public, something the arts campus remote location never had.
But, the old facility’s idiosyncratic construction and location is part of its charm.
If the MacEwan arts program spent its infancy in Jasper Place High School, it hit adolescence with the opening of the Fine Arts campus in 1981, with all the trappings of puberty. If the University of Alberta’s Fine Arts Building could be seen as your typical class valedictorian – strongly built, smartly composed – then the MacEwan campus was the gangly and socially inept freshman, complete with awkward construction and an obnoxiously loud colour scheme. And, in the beginning, sometimes it even smelled.
“It stunk of sewage for a long time, and it leaked like a sieve when it rained,” says Anne Gurney, former theatre production instructor for the campus, who had moved from England for a job in the program in the mid-’70s.
According to Gurney, the orange faade of the arts campus was chosen at the recommendation of then Fine Arts program instructor, Alice Switzer, who insisted the maroon the architects had planned to paint the building be replaced with the colour of the apricot brandy she had been quaffing over lunch.
What I’ll miss most about visiting the arts campus is sitting on the bottom floor in the midst of the musicians’ practice rooms, listening to 10 instruments simultaneously playing different songs.
Without being able to concentrate on any one instrument, your mind lets go and it becomes meditative, like listening to silence.
It’s my hope that the floors of the MacEwan Centre for Fine Arts campus never go silent, and will remain an ongoing cacophony of creativity in Edmonton.
The Practical Arts
When the facility was erected, the handful of fledgling arts programs stood apart from the collegiate community because of their -emphasis on practical art forms – the now-defunct dance program focused on American modern dance rather than ballet, and the music program prepared students for the recording studio.
“We wanted to become competitive with the university in a contemporary kind of form,” says Bobby Cairns, who served as the section head of the music program’s guitar department from 1971 until he retired in 2007. “There was a lot of flak, particularly even more so when we started -getting U of A students after they graduated.”
The draw from the home of the Butterdome to MacEwan’s Cheddar Block was based not only on the education, but the educators. MacEwan instructors were chosen based on their successes in their industries. Cairns was a veteran of radio and studio performances and was never asked to earn a teaching certificate in his tenure, and Tommy Banks – pianist, talk-show host, senator, but never teacher – chaired the music program for four years. Brian Webb of the Brian Webb Dance company served as chair of the dance program for 10 years while his ensemble acted as company-in-residence.
Slowly, the collection of arts programs that started with class discussions such as “Do you really perform better on weed?” have become degree offering, university-accredited courses recognized across Canada.
While the school has helped educate some of our most celebrated hometown celebrities such as TV host Bridget Ryan or country musician Corb Lund, the campus has provided Edmonton with what its arts community really needs: consumers. Even students who have switched disciplines have continued going to concerts, taking in plays, and buying art, driving the community to continue creating.
There was a discussion among the Arts Visioning Committee as to how the arts campus’ purchase would fit into the Jasper Place Revitalization project.
According to Sgt. Wade Stockman, head of the EPS West division beat program, the Stony Plain Road area where the old MacEwan campus is situated was a family place many years ago. “Will it ever be a family-oriented place again? I can’t see that far ahead in the future, but I really don’t think so.” Beat programs are distributed through areas like Stony Plain Road that have their share of public violence, prostitution and the drug trade. “The problem’s generational: Some of the people we’re dealing with now, we dealt with their parents before. A lot of the guys we try to move off the beat tell us, ‘This is where I live and I’m never leaving.’ I hate to sound like this, but one of the only ways we could make a change is if those people weren’t there.”
Increasing lease rates in the area would help drive out the criminal element living in the low-income housing along the strip, but the strategy would hurt legitimate businesses – such as East Indian eateryNosh Caf and music venue The Haven Social Club- trying to get their legs in the area, a vital factor in area revitalization.
In the City’s initial business case, it was stated that, “The community as a whole would benefit from the City’s support of the arts community. The arts … is a significant driver of economic development. The arts also help enhance the quality of life in a city, which in turn can be instrumental in attracting individuals and businesses.” The idea is that communities are drawn to culture, and these communities will attract businesses. And while some of these legitimate businesses do attract customers, it’s keeping them in the area that’sthe problem.
” [The Haven Social Club] is a good establishment,” says Const. Nick Leachman, “but it’s not fixing any of the problems in the area.” Leachman has patrolled the Stony Plain area for three years, and is currently off-duty while he recovers from a torn hand ligament, which he received while arresting a suspect. “You find that most of the clientele that come to that venue don’t live in the Stony Plain area anyway. In the end, you can change the look of the area, but if the same people are in the same area causing the same problems, then you haven’t really done much.”