Calgarians are far from conservative in the art they embrace

Steve Schroeder talks about how the Calgary International Film Festival contributes to the city’s cultural vibrancy

Steve Schroeder is executive director of the Calgary International Film Festival, which takes place Sept. 18 to 29 this year.

How has the arts/culture scene in Calgary evolved?

Schroeder: I’ve been working professionally in the Calgary arts scene for almost 24 years, so my perspective on this question takes the long view. There’s no doubt that the scene is dramatically different, and in many ways better, than when I started my career back in 1995. Many of our major arts institutions such as Alberta Ballet and Calgary Opera provide a consistent through line from then until now, but what’s changed is that they’ve come to embrace the value and power of locally-created work and community collaboration, to the point where some of their greatest successes have been original productions devised here, rather than only focusing on the classics.

We’ve also seen changes in the number and diversity of smaller arts companies, and in opportunities for individual artists to reach the public. When I started my career in live theatre in the 1990s, there were maybe only five or six companies producing work professionally; now there are dozens, representing a much wider diversity of perspectives. In the visual and craft arts, events like Market Collective have increased the ability for individual artists and artisans to show and sell their work.

We’ve brought a lot of arts spaces online in the past decade or so. While it’s true that there continue to be significant space challenges, and some have been lost, it’s also stunning to reflect on what’s been added: Vertigo’s Tower Theatre, the refurbished Grand theatre, the gorgeous DJD Dance Centre, cSpace’s vibrant King Edward School, the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell, and the internationally acclaimed new Central Library, to name a few.

To be sure, not all of the changes over the years have been positive, and we continue to face many challenges. But the overall arc is one to be proud of.

How does the arts/culture scene in Calgary compare with other cities?

Schroeder: The flavour of our arts scene starts with our incredible audiences. Far from the stereotype that comes from the choices we tend to make at the ballot box, Calgarians are far from conservative in their choices of what type of music, film, theatre and visual art they embrace. That’s not surprising when you look deeper than political trends.

We continue to have a young, well-educated, well-travelled and very diverse population. We also engage deeply as volunteers and in our communities. Those things add up to a populace that is smart, curious and willing to take risks. In my career, I’ve never known Calgarians to reward arts producers and presenters here for playing it safe.

All of those great audience characteristics are particularly reflected in our outstanding festival scene. Edmonton used to refer to itself as the “Festival City” back when I started in my career, but it’s fair to say that’s a better descriptor for Calgary nowadays.

We have very popular and internationally-recognized festivals in music (Sled Island, Calgary Folk Music Festival, Honens), literature (Wordfest), theatre and live performance (One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo, Calgary Fringe Festival), dance (Fluid Fest), popular culture (Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo), ingenuity (Beakerhead) and puppetry (International Festival of Animated Objects).

And of course the one I have the honour of producing, the Calgary International Film Festival. And that’s only a partial list.

What does the Calgary International Film Festival bring to the arts/culture scene in Calgary?

Schroeder: You can find every type of film at the Calgary International Film Festival from drama to comedy, documentary, horror and short film, from Canada, the U.S. and over 40 other countries. There truly is something for everyone.

Calgary is an ideal film festival city. We’ve known that since the first edition of CIFF 20 years ago, when an audience of over 8,000 showed up for a new event that as yet had no track record, little advertising and a tiny budget. By 2013, attendance was 20,000, and has since doubled over the past five years to over 40,000 strong.

Movies, in all of their incredible variety, are one of the world’s most accessible art forms. It’s hard to find someone, no matter their background, who doesn’t have a passionate connection to film in some way.

Not only is the growing energy around the festival incredibly fun; it contributes to Calgary’s cultural vibrancy and helps us to deliver youth education programming, celebrate local filmmakers, and publicly champion our growing and award-winning Alberta film industry, which is a significant contributor to economic diversity.

Where do you see the arts/culture scene in Calgary going?

Schroeder: The biggest challenge facing our local arts and culture scene, in my opinion, is awareness. We need more Calgarians to be aware of, and familiar with, our outstanding cultural offerings. The question is one of scale: individually, even the biggest Calgary arts companies have marketing budgets that are too small to produce top-of-mind awareness and deep familiarity across a significant number of Calgarians. We need to find a way to work together strategically as a sector to change this.

The good news is that Calgarians will be receptive. 2019 research conducted by Stone Olafson on behalf of Calgary Arts Development reveals that a whopping 93 per cent of Calgarians are “arts engaged,” meaning that they connect annually with arts and culture in some way, with 75 per cent being highly engaged (engaging in multiple ways).

As for CIFF in specific, we intend to focus on including even broader range of film from around the world and our own backyard in the festival, reaching ever deeper into Calgary communities to widen the celebration, drawing a growing number of filmmaker guests to Calgary to engage with our audience in exciting ways, and extending a vibrant festival experience far beyond the screen.

How was the arts/culture scene impacted in the last couple of years due to the city’s economic downturn?

Schroeder: The downturn has been tough for Calgarians, affecting people of every background and economic sector. In the arts, we’ve felt it as a tightening of corporate sponsorship dollars and a slight downturn in attendance (with some notable exceptions).

The larger arts institutions are arguably more vulnerable to a decrease in sponsorships, and in many cases the drop in those revenues have been downright alarming.

Fortunately, our sector has been placing increasing value on sustainability and developing strong management over the past couple of decades, so I’m optimistic that we can meet these challenges with skill, creativity and resilience.

© Calgary’s Business

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