Centre for the Arts and Communications on the move

By Tejay Gardiner

EDMONTON — A web of string resembling an igloo stretches from one wall to the other in the west entrance of Grant MacEwan University’s arts campus. Jazz, rock and pop notes escape music rooms and wander the hallways. Lively dance music pulses from the dance studio where inside dancers jump, twirl and tap across the studio in unison. It’s impossible not to pause for a moment to watch the spectacle. The campus is in constant motion.


Inside the Centre for the Arts and Communications campus. Photograph by Tejay Gardiner, Wednesday April 17, 2012.

“It has a certain flavour to it. There is a certain feel when you go into the building,” said MacEwan president David Atkinson.

The big orange building at 100 Avenue and 156 Street, known today as the Centre for the Arts and Communications is a trademark of the Jasper Place community — you can’t miss it. Or can you?

As students, faculty and staff prepare to transfer to the downtown campus, they share memories and contemplate the building’s future. Ask students if they want to move downtown and the most common response is no. There is a deep sense of community at the arts campus, and many fear they will lose this once they move to the larger downtown campus.

“There’s a certain part of me that says it’s too bad to move out of that facility,” Atkinson said, “because it has a lot of history and a unique sense of community, but they’ve run out of space.”

The Centre for the Arts and Communications hosts several programs, many of which are expanding from two-year diploma programs to four-year bachelor degrees. Enrollment is also on the rise; the music program alone has grown from 40 students to 160, said Bob Gilligan, chair of the music department.

But that’s not the whole story. The University has plans to integrate all four satellite campuses into one downtown campus as part of the single sustainable campus initiative that was announced in 2009. A new Centre for the Arts and Communications building will be constructed for 2015.  On March 30, Atkinson announced the project was awarded to Vancouver firm Bing Thom Architects.

Recognizing the special sense of community of the west-end campus, Atkinson said he sought designers who were committed to designing a new building that could achieve the same feeling.

“There are several elements that are absolutely unassailable here, and the first one is the kind of community that exists there now has to exist here,” he told bidders.

Looking Back

Gilligan has a special attachment to the campus. He was one of the first to graduate from the Grant MacEwan music program in the early ‘70s and has worked as faculty ever since.

Back then, Grant MacEwan Community College had just opened and the campus was actually an old elementary school on the same plot of land just north of the current building.

“We used be called little Berklee,” said Gilligan.

That’s because MacEwan’s music program was similar to the cutting edge program offered at Berklee College of Music , which is one of the top American music schools. Where most schools focused on classical and jazz forms, MacEwan broke with tradition and offered contemporary music education in rock, pop and country.

“We pre-date places like Humber, Capilano and University of Toronto,” Gilligan said. “So we were one of the first of our kind in Canada.”

Flipping through MacEwan yearbooks, Gilligan points out familiar faces. The ‘70s MacEwan campus looks like a fun place. The black and white photographs tell a story of an active and connected student body. Themed ‘pub-nights’ seemed to be the pasttime of choice: Oktober Fest, Rocky Horror Night and the Jasper Place Hat Pub.

“We used to have great times in this program, we still do,” he said.

Room 182, also known as The Pit, is where today’s music students gather for jam sessions and coffeehouses.

The CFAC building is often mocked for being outdated, with an ’80s vibe, but Gilligan said that’s why they like it. “It’s an eccentric building for eccentric people,” Atkinson likes to joke.

Gilligan remembers moving into the new building, “This was a state of the art building at the time. It was purpose-built for music and performing and visual arts.”

Although there is some reluctance to leave the west end campus, Gilligan also sees the move as an opportunity to bring arts students closer to the action.

“It’s important to be close to the Winspear, the Citadel and the Art Gallery.”

Gilligan said he believes MacEwan’s programs are one of the reasons Edmonton’s arts scene has thrived.

Moving foward

While CFAC faculty and students prepare to move downtown, plans for the big orange building are undecided.

“The city is interested in taking over the building as a way of anchoring revitalization in that part of the city,” said Atkinson.

He believes the City of Edmonton will use the facility as a community centre with a focus on the arts, but Diane Kereluk, executive director of Stony Plain and Area Business Revitalization Zone has a different vision for the building.

“I do have a vision for the college and that is to turn it into a holistic urban market,” she said.

Kereluk believes in preventative health action and feels a holistic market would be a great benefit to the surrounding community. She envisions organic markets, holistic health education and yoga studios occupying the space.

But Kereluk isn’t sitting on CFAC’s doorstep waiting for students to leave. She has shared an important relationship with CFAC faculty and students over the last few years.

“It’s just like anything, just as you get to know something really well and appreciate it, then it’s gone,” Kereluk said.

She credits MacEwan fine arts instructor Agnieszka Matejko for establishing a relationship between her campus and the BRZ. Matejko and Kereluk have worked with arts students on a few different projects, the most recent being Community Week, where students brought their art onto Stony Plain Road and music into ATB Financial.

“I loved it,” said Kereluk of the art and music. “It was magic.”

“Had I known what I know now,” she continued, “I would have been knocking on Grant MacEwan’s door the first day I started this job.”

Kereluk and the surrounding community have a few more years to enjoy the students and their work. Programs are gradually being transitioned to the downtown campus; the communications students are on their way next fall.

As for the hesitation of students to embrace their new home…

“Everyone said the same thing about moving from the elementary school,” Gilligan said. “They said,’ We’ll lose the community, sense of connection and camaraderie.’

“And it did happen, but we still feel we are apart of something here — the arts.”