From Under the Ivory Tower: An Open Letter to the Banff Centre
By Jay Prichard
t is no secret that Banff is a contradiction. Geographically, Banff is located in the most pristine of environments while simultaneously existing in the province that causes the most environmental grief in Canada (1). Culturally, it is a landscape of perennial peaks manifesting the acme of stillness while being one of the most transient places on earth. Historically, a midpoint train station that later became a destination. Visually, a kinnikinnick shrub by a popcorn shop. But if Banff is a contradiction, then the Banff Centre of Arts (BCA) is a contradiction within a contradiction. Located on the slopes of Sleeping Buffalo Mountain, the mountain appears more awake than the Centre. Strolling the BCA campus with a few other visitors, we couldn’t help but notice a sense of eeriness. The campus felt as uninhabited as Bankhead, the abandoned coal mining town on Lake Minnewanka Drive, and although the Centre prides itself as a “catalyst for creativity,” the only catalyst the campus offered us was that of silence. Art, as the Argentinian petroglyphs in The Cave of Hands can attest, have always brought vibrant hands together. Art, according to Aristotle, is the medium with which we experience the universality of life, but both vibrancy and life were lacking from the Centre. Which makes one wonder, if the BCA, like a mallard, was to leave this winter, would the people of this town even notice? If the campus, with all its rooms, pools, scattered huts, and amphitheater, was to disappear tomorrow, would Banffites feel that a valuable resource is now gone or that the arts in Banff are now lacking? The disappearance of the Centre will pass like a bursting star, an event that seems significant, yet is silent and unnoticeable to us. What does Banff mean to the Centre, and what does the Centre mean to the town? If the Centre was in Utah or Tel Aviv, would that create an artistic void in the town of Banff? There is no doubt that the BCA is a globally renowned institution. In fact, it would be idiotic to argue otherwise, but the validity of the Centre is easily questioned when placed in a local context. It is this lack of community involvement that made me write this open letter: I want to ask and inspire the BCA to engage with the Banff community, to come down from its ivory tower on Tatanga, and, most importantly, to open its doors to Banff’s local artists. This letter is written less out of discord with the Centre’s mission and more out of love for local artists. Nothing would make us happier than seeing the Centre, as it was before, not a ghost town, but a bustling campus for the arts.
Picture from Wikipedia
On July 7, 2020, Shauna Thompson, the former curatorial assistant at Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery, wrote an open letter to the BCA after she sensed that the Centre’s purpose was shifting from arts to “lucrative business conferences and business leadership programs.” (2) The letter, which is now signed by 909 signatures including program participants, art professors, and artists, protested that “[t]hrough countless expensive rebranding exercises and successive poor leadership from the top of the institution, we are seeing an erosion of the function, reputation, and impact of the Centre on the international cultural stage.” The truth of this statement becomes evident after a quick glance at the BCA’s Board of Governors which is made of 6 businessmen, one Parks Canada Executive Officer, and one Stoney Nakoda artist. For a Centre dedicated to the arts, it is odd for businessmen to outnumber the artists 6 to 1. Reading Thompson’s letter made me realize that I was not alone in my grievances towards the Centre. However, as an outsider, it was difficult for me to support my feelings with tangible information. Was I wrong about the Centre? To answer myself, I decided to read the BCA’s Strategic Plan, Annual Reports, Comprehensive Institutional Plan, and Expense Reports. I also interviewed a few former art residents of the Centre and asked locals and artists about their opinion of the Centre (some locals didn't even know that the centre existed). After reading, listening, and researching, I found that an overwhelming majority of folks share my concerns. The BCA’s hamartia is its obsession with its own image, and, like Narcissus, the Centre is in serious need to look outside of itself and see beyond its own reflection before it is too late.
In Daniel Kwan’s movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once, the character Deirdre Beaubeirdre (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) points at a table full of receipts and tells us; “you may only see a pile of boring forms and numbers, but I see a story. With nothing but a stack of receipts, I can trace the ups and downs of your lives” (3). Receipts are not just numbers and expenses. They are indicators of place, time, and habit. They are, as Beaubeirdre insists, a story. We are what we spend our money on. Looking at the expense reports for BCA’s CEO Janice Price, I found that from the end of February to the end of September of this year (7 months period) she boarded around 14 flights, stayed at 9 different Fairmonts across Canada, and filled her car more than 12 times, making Price’s leadership very pricey, not only financially, but also environmentally. However, regardless of the fact that the CEO’s traveling habits produce more carbon dioxide emissions in a year than entire populations of Pacific Ocean islands, the traveling (and Fairmont stays) could be explained by the Centre’s need to connect and raise money to sustain itself. There is no doubt that the money is wisely and purposefully spent. What matters here is that in a 7 month period, only 2 expenses were reported in Banff restaurants (one of which is at the Fairmont Banff Springs). Out of 55 expense claims spent on all sorts of ways to get out of town, only 1.0% of the claims occurred in Banff. The expense report, then, is a glaring metaphor on what the BCA’s CEO prioritizes, and of where, what, and who she spends her time and money on.
Price’s contract with the Centre ends in March 2023, but it is doubtful that the Centre will hire a successor with a different mindset. When listing Price’s accomplishments during her time at the Centre, the RMO reported that Price “oversaw the creation of a new strategic plan, the renovation of the Lloyd Hall residence, and growing the endowment fund from $40 million to $55 million during her tenure” (4). Her accomplishments make no reference to community engagement or art, but only of expansions and fund increases, making the Centre’s accomplishments seem interchangeable with a Walmart or a hotel. For the centre to remain true to its artistic commitments, it needs a shift in its philosophy. Money is crucial to support artists, but artists must be prioritized over money. An affordable suggestion would be to open some classes to artists who already reside in town and do not require BCA’s expensive rooms (A month long residency at the Centre costs the ridiculous sum of $7,605.74, plus taxes. A year long undergraduate tuition fee at the University of British Columbia costs $5,729.10, tax included). A local artist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me that she called the Banff Centre on three different occasions to ask about the possibility of using their space to practice playing the violin. The artist, who is not a novice looking to kill time, but an orchestra leading musician, was rejected three times.
In their Strategic Plan, the BCA compares itself to “the serotinous cones of the Lodgepole Pine Tree whose seeds are released by the heat of a fire.” The metaphor is used as a promise to “support new growth, while remaining grounded and nourished by its historical roots.” These roots are identified as “Convening - Arts - Leadership,” and each root is then linked with various pathways, and each pathway with a certain mission. In all the jargon and fluff that makes up most of the Strategic Plan, one in particular stands out; The Centre’s claim “to make space for sharing of knowledge and expression” (5). This magazine, Oesa, has reached out multiple times to the Centre to ask for space for its artists. Not a single response was heard, not even a rejection, but the same silence that surrounds the Centre itself. Is this what the Centre means by “sharing space”? Another artist told me, “you have a better chance seeing a lynx frolicking down Banff Ave than getting a response from the Centre.” Why is it that artists who live in the valley must paint in their cars and play guitar in their closets (both are true stories) while the Centre remains empty on its high hill? Oesa Magazine, with its limited resources, has provided recording sessions, publications, venues, and space for artists to work– all free of cost. The BCA’s consolidated revenue is around 70 million dollars, almost 30% of which comes from taxes through the Government of Alberta and other federal funds (6). Oesa’s annual funding is 0$, nonetheless, Oesa is able to “share space” that any artist can truly utilize. To put the BCA's expenses in context, I compared them to the expenses of an organization that is 600 times their size; The Town of Banff. The town pays all its employees, from garbage truck drivers to directors, a sum of $18.3 million (7). The Centre spends more than double that amount on salaries that total $40 million. $40 million that is tragically distributed. A report shows that only 10 out of all the Centre’s employees make more than 200K a year, and 3 make more than 300K a year (9)- a salary higher the Municipal manager of the Town itself (Keep in mind that the Centre is a registered non-profit). Yet, with all the resources and all the "state-of-the-art venues," and despite BCA’s claim of having “an immeasurable impact over almost nine decades on the lives of individuals,” one can argue that open-mic nights at Tommy's Neighbourhood Pub and the generosity of Beatnik Salon have contributed more to the art scene and the recognition of local musicians than the Centre has done for the past few decades. The Plan assures us that the “Banff Centre will continue to ground all of its offerings, whether in person or online, in the power of this place.” The same place which receives 1% of the Centre’s attention. So I will ask again, if the Centre was to disappear tomorrow, would that make a difference to Banffites? This is an open letter to the Banff Centre of Arts: Either change your ways, or change your name. And, in the spirit of your own Strategic Plan, we ask that you truly share the space with artists who desperately need it, we invite you to genuinely become part of this community, and we hope that you feel as enriched by this community as you do with your grant money.
1- Robert Boschman and Mario Trono, eds., Found in Alberta: Environmental Themes for the Anthropocene (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014).
4- Banff Centre CEO Looking Ahead at Last Year,” RMOToday.com, accessed November 30, 2022, https://www.rmotoday.com/banff/banff-centre-ceo-looking-ahead-at-last-year-5299204.