First Impressions: Visions for the Future

Shannon Litzenberger

To ensure that Calgary's Arts Plan is as bold as possible in its aspirations, and is truly reflective of the best thinking on the arts in North America, we have engaged Shannon Litzenberger and Ian David Moss to serve as "consulting critics" of the process. To view a PDF of this article, click here

A great local arts plan aims to facilitate a healthy, vibrant and meaningful relationship between the arts and its community. It must create the necessary conditions for growing a community’s creative assets by providing opportunities for public access and engagement, nurturing sustainable industry growth, fostering a sense of local identity and pride, creating space for cultural expression, offering opportunities for cultural exchange, leveraging necessary investments, and planting seeds for future development. It is no small task and I commend Calgary Arts Development for its thoughtful efforts to incorporate the ideas and contributions of many individuals as the plan takes shape.

In this first analysis, I will focus on the outcomes of Phase II of the Arts Plan Process, offering some first impressions on the proposed vision and framework. What a great imagination this process has had thus far! The engagement of a Citizens’ Reference Panel is an innovative approach and it is evident that much time and attention was paid to equipping this group with the tools to do good work on behalf of Calgarians. The vision statements and recommendations articulated in their draft report provide an excellent point of departure for further analysis and comment.

It’s worth noting that Calgary is at an interesting juncture in its civic development, gathering tremendous momentum as a leading economic force both in Canada and internationally. Investing time and resources in developing its creative assets will elevate its national and international profile beyond that of a prosperous business centre to a place known for its rich cultural life – a place where people want to live, work and play. Leveraging and growing its creative capital will help Calgary attract talented workers and new business development across diverse industry sectors, and elevate its profile and status as a world-class creative city.

The seven vision statements articulated by the Citizens’ Reference Panel provide a necessary framework for their 34 recommendations and set the stage for the big-picture areas the Arts Plan would address. In reviewing these statements, I was curious about how other cities and communities thematically framed their goals for arts and culture development. Here are four examples:

Toronto’s 2011 culture plan Creative Capital Gains: An Action Plan for Toronto frames its recommendations across six broad categories as follows: 

  • Affordable and Sustainable Cultural Space
  • Access to Cultural Participation for All
  • Creative Clusters/Cultural Scenes
  • Promotion of Cultural Assets
  • Mayoral Leadership 
  • Financial Investment

The Mayor of London’s [UK] Cultural Strategy – 2012 and Beyond, articulates only five thematic areas: 

  • Maintaining London’s position as a world city for culture
  • Widening the reach to excellence
  • Education, skills and careers
  • Infrastructure, environment and the public realm
  • Culture and London in 2012 (an area specific to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad) 

Montreal’s Cultural Metropolis Action Plan 2007-2017 also outlines five major approaches:

  • Enhance Access to Culture
  • Invest in the Arts and Culture
  • Improve the Cultural Quality of the Living Environment
  • Enhance Montreal’s Status in Canada and Internationally
  • Secure for Montreal the Means of a Cultural Metropolis

Perhaps one of my favourite culture plans is actually more of a policy than a plan. It does, however, provide a framework in which goals are articulated like the plans noted above, so I think it’s worth referencing in this context. Saskatchewan’s first cultural policy in more than 25 years, Pride of Saskatchewan: A policy where culture, community and commerce meet outlines five goals:

  • Creative Expression: Foster artistic excellence and promote creative expression
  • Shared Stewardship: Promote shared stewardship
  • Understanding and Access: Build understanding of and access to culture
  • Capacity: Strengthen communities and build strong organizations
  • Economic Potential: Increase the economic potential of the cultural sector

Looking at these examples collectively, there are some observable trends. While named and grouped slightly differently in each case, these plans seem to all address what is essentially a series of relationships. In his recent publication Building Communities, Not Audiences, community engagement specialist Doug Borwick asserts, “The arts are not a product delivery industry. The arts are a relationship industry.” To both define a strong vision and think through a solid framing for Calgary’s Arts Plan, I offer these questions for consideration:

  • How can the arts effectively provide Calgarians with opportunities for engagement and participation in creative expression? 
  • How can the arts enhance Calgary’s physical environment?
  • How can the arts enhance the local economy?
  • How can the arts enhance the relationship between Calgary and the world?
  • How can the arts work effectively with public, private and social sector leaders to achieve mutual goals?

Inherent in these questions is a fundamental assumption about the nature of art and its service to citizens, to community, and to civic life. When art can be seen as an effective tool to further the aims of a city and its citizens, necessary support for the art itself will follow. Defining a clear vision for Calgary’s Arts Plan will benefit from strategic alignment with Calgary’s civic goals.

Building on the good work of the Citizens’ Reference Panel, I offer five revised visioning statements for consideration. There are many questions that seem to naturally derive from these statements and I have made an attempt to ask them conscientiously, as a way of focusing new thinking and discussion around these themes. 

Vision Statement #1 – CREATIVE LIFE

That all Calgarians have accessible opportunities to participate in the creative life of their communities and of their city, regardless of age, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, geography, or socioeconomic status.

Considerations extend well beyond notions of affordability when defining a series of goals and associated recommendations focused on access to creative experiences for Calgarians. Consider these questions: 

  • Do artistic offerings currently reflect the evolving demographics of the city? How can Calgary support a diverse range of affordable cultural opportunities that reflect the city’s changing population?
  • How are Calgarians currently engaged in the arts?  Are there ways to support the expansion of public engagement in creative life beyond traditional observational modes of engagement to include opportunities for participation and personal creation? How can new technologies be leveraged?
  • How are children engaged in the arts through Alberta’s education system? How can their experience be deepened and enriched? How can the arts provide a competitive advantage to Calgary’s students in the emerging creative economy? Can Calgary play a leading role in advancing arts education opportunities in the province?
  • Are artists and arts organizations appropriately supported as the generators and stewards of creative experiences in Calgary? How can Calgary better leverage its creative assets?

Vision Statement #2 – CREATIVE PLACEMAKING

That Calgarians and its visitors enjoy the presence of art in the urban landscape. That public spaces across the city are defined by their creative qualities. That Calgary is home to affordable, sustainable cultural spaces. 

Where there are artists, there is art. The creation of affordable artist living and working spaces is essential to enhancing the creative qualities of communities and neighbourhoods. Equally, the presence of art and the creative quality of a city’s physical environment contributes to its aesthetic value and desirability as a place to be. 

  • Is Calgary a place where artists want to be? Consider some of the factors that weigh into an artists decision to live and work in Calgary. Is there a critical mass of artists? Are there affordable housing opportunities? Are there sources of inspiration? Are there adequate cultural production spaces? Are there opportunities for collaboration and exchange? Do artists feel a sense of pride, belonging and connection to community? How can Calgary improve its offering as a home for artists?
  • Where is art currently present in the public space? What kinds of incentives, programs or initiatives currently exist to stimulate creativity in the urban landscape? How can developers play a role in providing cultural amenities to neighbourhoods and communities? Are current city bylaws and zoning policies limiting the creative potential of public spaces?
  • Where in Calgary does art happen? Is it visible and available to Calgarians where they live and work? Are there opportunities to develop emergent cultural scenes and creative hubs in neighbourhoods and communities throughout the city? 

Vision Statement #3 – CREATIVE ECONOMY

That Calgary is known as a desirable place to live, work, and play, to do business, to raise a family, and to enjoy a high quality of life. That Calgarians take pride in their artists and value the arts as an important contributor to the social, cultural and economic prosperity of their city. 

A creative city is more than a strong artistic community. It is a city where artists, business owners, civic leaders, and citizens alike value the arts and understand how they make fundamental contributions to a city’s vitality and prosperity.

  • How does Calgary currently celebrate its artists? How could Calgarians better know and take pride in their homegrown creative talent? Who are the stakeholders that could play a role and how can they better collaborate?
  • What kind of research and data are available to underscore the value of the arts to Calgary’s social, cultural and financial economies? How can research help to effectively make a strong case for the value of the arts, helping to leverage popular support and new investment? Who is advocating for the arts?
  • How can business, government and arts sector leaders work more effectively together to achieve the city’s social, cultural and economic goals? What kind of dialogue is already in play? Where is there a need to start new conversations and share information?

Vision Statement #4 – CREATIVE IMAGE

That the arts project Calgary’s unique image and identity onto the world stage. That the arts contribute to building relationships across provincial and national borders. That the arts draw national and international attention to Calgary as a livable, creative and prosperous city.

Calgary already boasts a wealth of creative capital to exploit, from anchor institutions that drive tourism, to individual artists, and small and mid-sized arts organizations that act as civic ambassadors beyond the city’s borders. These assets carry enormous potential and Calgary would benefit from infusing its image with the creativity already embodied within the city’s artistic community. 

  • How can Calgary best promote and celebrate key arts institutions, events and landmarks to attract visitors to the city? Equally, how can Calgary better support its artists and innovative artistic products to travel throughout the cities of the world? 
  • What opportunities currently exist for international cultural exchange? How can Calgary artists be more present on the world stage? How can Calgary provide attractive and competitive opportunities for visiting foreign artists? 
  • What is Calgary’s creative brand? How can the city’s creative assets be more effectively promoted across provincial and national borders?

Vision Statement #5 – CREATIVE LEADERSHIP

That the arts are championed and supported by Calgary’s civic leaders across public, private and social sectors. That the arts are known as a strong instrument within local government, local business and local communities to help the city achieve its aspirational goals.

Building a creative city requires leadership across public, private and creative sectors. Collaboration around shared goals will ensure the arts benefit from a sustainable and supported approach to growth and development. 

  • How do civic leaders currently support and champion the arts within local government and within their communities? Are current arts policies and investments sufficiently helping the sector build the necessary capacity to support the city in its social, cultural and economic aims? How can the arts become better integrated into city planning processes including economic and urban development? What targets for investment and policy reform should Calgary be working towards? How will progress be measured?
  • Who else champions the arts in Calgary? How can the pool of arts ambassadors be increased? In what ways can arts champions play a role in promoting the integration of arts into city-building opportunities?
  • How can the private sector best collaborate with the arts? Who are the private sector leaders that will advance the cause of the arts in support of building a creative city? How can more corporate sponsorship and philanthropic support be leveraged?


These are my initial thoughts, my first impressions of the great work done to date. I’m keen to hear more about the lively debate that continues to ensue as Calgary’s new Arts Plan takes shape. In my next article, I intend to offer up some models and examples that illustrate success in the pursuit of creative life, creative place-making, creative economy, creative identity and creative leadership. Stay tuned for more to come.

Shannon Litzenberger is a Toronto-based dancer, choreographer, writer, director and arts advocate. In 2010 she was named the first-ever Metcalf Arts Policy Fellow. In this role she’s been taking stock of current policy trends at home and abroad and identifying ways in which the arts sector can better adapt to its changing environment. She has published over 100 articles on arts policy through contributions to local, national and international publications as well as through her popular blog The Arts Policy Diaries. Her work in arts policy has also contributed significantly to shaping sector-wide advocacy strategies on behalf of the arts and culture community. She is the former Executive Director of the Canadian Dance Assembly, a founding member of the Performing Arts Alliance and current a member of the Canadian Arts Coalition Steering Committee.