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Tears and resilience as Calgary’s arts community assesses the damage

A volunteer carrying archives from the flooded basement of the National Music Centre in Calgary.

Chad Schroter-Gillespie

Two guys in white Tyvek coveralls are taking a break inside the entrance to the National Music Centre, one behind a desk, the other slumped on the stairs. On a scorcher of a day, the electricity remains shut down, so there's no air conditioning, no lighting. A few steps away, in a makeshift meeting area, six pairs of rubber boots line the wall and there's a Heintzman & Co. grand piano with a Canadian flag draped over it.

"Welcome to our disaster recovery centre," says NMC president and CEO Andrew Mosker, who a few minutes later would break down as he described what happened to the place – damaged historic instruments and artifacts, and a slew of cancelled events, ranging from student piano recitals to a fundraiser featuring Serena Ryder.

"I feel badly about not being able to serve the public like we have for the last 15 years. I can't believe it," said Mosker, his head in his hands. "I feel badly for the people that really care about this place and about this building. I just want to be able to give it back to them as soon as possible."

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As the Calgary Stampede is under way – minus KISS, Carly Rae Jepsen and a couple of other big-draw stadium concerts – some artists and arts organizations are struggling to get back in the saddle. With damaged collections and equipment, lost archives, cancelled shows and the scramble for new venues, it's been hell after the high water.

The Calgary Arts Development Authority, which is tracking the losses to arts organizations and artists, has gathered a pile of horror stories: Years of work or rare materials used in art-making – gone. A shop full of rare and second-hand books – destroyed. A major music festival's big weekend – cancelled. It all adds up, CADA estimates, to more than $3-million in damages – although it's early days yet and that's a conservative estimate.

"It's still really difficult to tell because people are still tabulating," says CADA president and CEO Terry Rock, who met with more than 35 agencies from around the province last week to create a concerted Alberta arts rebuild response. CADA has also established a Calgary Arts Flood Rebuild fund, which as of late last Thursday had received more than $100,000 in donations.

The damage figure will grow substantially once the National Music Centre's losses are determined. The NMC – with its collection of more than 2,000 instruments and artifacts – has suffered several million dollars in damages (officials can't be more specific than that at this point), surely making it the hardest hit arts organization in the city, in terms of dollars. The organization is insured, but the work ahead is staggering.

The NMC is scheduled to move out of its current home once the new centre – under construction, it was temporarily flooded but not damaged – opens in 2015. Officials were in the midst of negotiating a contract for an off-site storage facility when the flood happened. While the core collection (including the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio and Elton John's old piano) was safe, more than 200 items – including 143 pianos plus electronic instruments, its entire collection of electronic parts and its archives – were stored in the basement, which was hit with up to half a metre of water.

Among the lost item: A Chamberlin tape replay prototype, invented by Harry Chamberlin, and described by Mosker as the first machine in the history of music to tape a sound and be able to play it back via a keyboard, so in essence, the first real "sampler." Workers tried to save it that Thursday night before the building was evacuated by elevating it onto a riser, but it was futile.

"When I went down there on Saturday and saw it, this much of it" – Mosker holds his hands more than 30 centimetres apart – "still was in water. I found that heartbreaking."

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A square 1810 Kolbe piano made in Vienna and recently restored and in "beautiful working condition," according to Mosker, was also damaged. Another instrument that sustained serious damage was a stunning art-deco-inspired Gaveau grand piano dating to 1926, with a sunburst design on the lid.

After the flood waters receded, the NMC managed to get power restored to the freight elevator only. Workers, professional movers and more than 50 volunteers slogged through the muddied basement and were able to clear 7,000 square feet of storage space over six days and get the instruments and artifacts into that storage facility (negotiations were fast-tracked).

Some archival material was unsalvagable – including original schematics for electronic instruments. As for the instruments themselves, everything is repairable, but decisions will be made based on restoration costs and historical significance. And of course, they will not be able to be restored to their original state.

"You have to understand when a piece of wood is submerged in water, not entirely but even 15, 20 inches worth, it causes damage. It can all be fixed. But the damage and shock to some of these instruments is just difficult to process. Because what makes an instrument or an artifact of any kind is its pedigree," says Mosker. "Once you start replacing things it doesn't become original any more and all that's left is its story. So it's not so much: 'Oh, let's just fix it and no one will know.' … In our line of work, authenticity matters considerably."

Down the road in hard-hit High River, the Museum of the Highwood has also suffered substantial losses. The museum has two spaces – the museum itself, which is in the old CPR train station, and an off-site storage facility. After two weeks of uncertainty, director/curator Irene Kerr was finally able to enter the museum space, which houses the exhibitions and most of the museum's archives and photography collection.

"We walked into the main part of the station and it was like nothing ever happened," she said. "We were just overjoyed. … We all just burst into tears because we were so relieved."

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But the basement was completely flooded, and that's where the museum stored its negatives, oral histories and films. "Most of that stuff is gone," said Kerr on Sunday. The off-site storage facility was also in terrible shape – flooded almost to the ceiling.

"Most of our collection is toast," said Kerr. "Most of it is just not salvageable. It sat there for two weeks and mould has set in and rust and nasty things you don't want in your collection in the first place."

She quickly came up with a top 10 list of items she wanted to salvage, but many of those decisions, she says, were made for her.

"I picked up a 125-year-old wedding dress and it literally fell apart in my hands," she said. "So it's been extremely stressful."

The artifacts are covered in mud and the tags all gone, making the job even more difficult.

On the bright side, the museum was able to salvage some extremely important artifacts, including Calgary Stampede founder Guy Weadick's cowboy hat, and the cowboy boots belonging to his wife, Flores LaDue.

"We found those on the first day of the Stampede," says Kerr. "It was providence or something."

Elsewhere, other organizations are picking up the pieces – or trying to. There are concerns about Sled Island after it was forced to cancel three days of its festival, June 21 to 23. Late last week, artistic director Maud Salvi told The Globe that she was not yet in a position to answer questions about her plans.

Meanwhile, at the Calgary Folk Music Festival efforts are under way to ensure the show will go on. The venue is Prince's Island, which was hit hard; there was almost a metre of water in the mainstage area, and about a half metre of silt remains in the middle section. A second volunteer clean-up was planned for this past weekend, in an all-out effort to get it ready for the festival, scheduled for July 25 to 28.

"The city is cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to use the park and so we are also cautiously optimistic. As far as we know … we can use the park in the full state we've always used it, but we're also prepared that there may be some hiccups this year depending on the state of the park," says artistic director Kerry Clarke.

Plan A is to proceed as scheduled, but Clarke has backup plans in case some stages can't be operational. "The festival may be slightly amended."

The theatre community also took a hit with the loss of Green Fools Theatre's studio space. It sustained terrible damage – 1.8 metres of flooding in the basement – and the landlord has decided to demolish the building. This was a popular – and affordable – rehearsal space for a number of companies in the city. "It's an uber-inflated market and now everyone's looking for space, so now it's even tighter," says artistic director Dean Bareham, who charged other theatre companies only $10 an hour to use the venue. "It's going to become even more evident how hard-up we are for space."

In addition to the space, the company has lost an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 in gear, and has lost out on gigs and revenue from planned venue rentals. Bareham has even had to put off his own wedding, which was scheduled to take place in the studio next month.

The impact is particularly devastating for artists who operate without the support of an institution. Jen Somerville, a sculptor who works with glass, had studios in the basement and garage of her Bowness home. The basement studio was demolished; the garage studio is in terrible shape. Destroyed are artworks, works in progress, equipment, tools. She calculates her losses at upwards of $50,000 – and that doesn't include what it would take to pay herself to remake the work. Two other artists on her block also incurred enormous losses.

But amid all the devastation is the heartwarming. When Bareham knew the flood waters were coming, he put the word out on Facebook and within minutes, a bunch of people showed up to help move precious items – including puppets and archives – to higher ground.

Somerville is planning to make work from whatever she can salvage from her studios. "I'm going to be making some flood art," says Somerville, who is staying at a friend's place with her husband and 10-month old daughter. "That will be the way I will heal is making art about this experience."

There have been a number of relief concerts and other fundraisers. Musicians were hired to play at debit-card distribution sites, making the lineups a little less painful, and giving performers who were losing work elsewhere a much-needed gig.

The Art Gallery of Calgary, which was spared, has offered a temporary storage space for artists. Conservators at the Glenbow Museum – which was also undamaged – have set up an emergency triage operation at the vacant King Edward School (which is being redeveloped as an art studio/work space and has been opened temporarily for artists and arts organizations who have lost their studios or workspaces). The conservators, providing advice for damaged collections, have worked with the Calgary Stampede's prize bronzes and also with the Stride Gallery – which sustained heavy damage to artwork and archives – and will work with the Museum of the Highwood, whose collection is expected to be evacuated to the school.

At the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts, which houses several theatre companies and venues, including the Jack Singer Concert Hall, workers – including those who had to sleep over at the office that Thursday night because their homes had been evacuated – managed to build a makeshift dam wall on the Friday morning and thus prevent theatre and storage spaces from flooding. There is still work to be done – as of mid-last week their box office had some 1,500 clients to call about cancelled shows – but it's nothing compared to what could have happened.

Back at the National Music Centre, Saskatchewan rockers the Sheepdogs stopped by to tour the collection (by flashlight) and energize volunteers helping the recovery effort. ATB Financial has donated temporary office space. While it's not yet possible to know when the current facility will be able to re-open – they're hoping some time this summer – Mosker says the new building's opening will not be delayed as a result of the flooding.

"The water came and has left," he says. "But we're still here, and we're moving forward."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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