Calgary’s Arts Commons Gets The Largest Philanthropic Gift In Canadian Performing Arts History

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Alex Sarian, Arts Commons’s president and CEO, and Alberta businessman Dave Werklund stand outside Calgary’s Arts Commons. Sarian has characterized Werklund and family’s $75-million gift as the largest to the performing arts in Canada’s history.Will Young/Supplied

Calgary’s Arts Commons performing and visual-arts complex is set to receive one of the largest philanthropic gifts in Canadian arts history Wednesday, with Alberta businessman Dave Werklund and his family donating $75-million toward the centre’s modernization and expansion.

The downtown Calgary cultural hub has been raising funds for a $660-million transformation, which will see its existing facility upgraded, a new building added and the neighbouring outdoor Olympic Plaza redesigned. Mr. Werklund’s gift brings Arts Commons to 76 per cent of its goal for the project – itself one of the country’s most financially ambitious arts-infrastructure endeavours ever – set to break ground in December.

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Arts Commons will be renamed Werklund Centre next year in recognition of the oil field waste-treatment industry giant’s donation. “A gift of this magnitude will be a gesture of confidence to others, who may never have given to the arts, that this is about city building,” said Alex Sarian, Arts Commons’s president and chief executive officer.

In an interview, Mr. Werklund said he hoped the gift would strengthen the Calgary community by extending the public’s understanding and embracement of the arts, which he has found have enriched his own life. “Everything has to do with the arts,” he said. “I believe in the arts so strongly.”

First opened in 1985, Arts Commons is one of Canada’s largest arts complexes, home to numerous gallery spaces and six theatres, and it hosts six resident performing-arts companies including the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Alberta Theatre Projects.

The new building, across the street next to Olympic Plaza, is scheduled to open by the 2028-29 season. It will include a 1,000-seat theatre and 200-seat studio theatre, boosting the complex’s cumulative seating capacity by about 45 per cent.

Donations the size of Mr. Werklund’s are rare in the Canadian cultural sector and usually directed toward the visual arts; as such, Mr. Sarian has characterized it as the biggest gift to the performing arts in the country’s history.

The philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, gave $100-million to the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2021, which helped jump-start long-gestating plans to construct a new building for the institution.

And in 2002, a few years before his death, Kenneth Thomson revealed plans for a $370-million donation of cash and art to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the cash portion of which was $70-million. Both Mr. Thomson’s and Mr. Audain’s gifts would be worth close to $114-million in today’s dollars. (The Thomson family holding company, Woodbridge Co. Ltd., owns The Globe and Mail.)

The capital campaign is tapping both public and private sources of financing, including $103-million over seven years from the provincial government and $315.5-million from Calgary itself, including from a community revitalization levy.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek said boosting Calgary’s downtown cultural offerings would help pull more people to the core, especially as the city encourages building owners to convert millions of square feet of office space into housing. “It’s going to be an incredible draw for people,” she said.

The reimagined Werklund Centre will also help diversify the local economy, said Tanya Fir, Alberta’s Culture Minister and a Calgary MLA. “I’m excited for what it’s going to mean in terms of setting Alberta on the world stage,” she said.

Mr. Werklund’s career began at Shell Canada, where he came to see a need for the oil and gas industry to develop more efficient waste-management processes. He went on to build Canadian Crude Separators, which was valued at $3.7-billion by 2007. (It combined with numerous related business units to become Tervita Corp. in 2012; Tervita was acquired by Secure Energy Services in 2021.)

He said the importance of community giving was instilled in him as a child living on a farm near Valleyview, Alta. His father would bring him and his brothers along to deliver hay to a pair of elderly, destitute neighbours whose cattle were starving. “I learned the excitement and the value of giving,” he said.

Until recently, Werklund’s most ambitious philanthropy has had a significant focus on learning, including a $25-million donation to the University of Calgary’s education faculty and a $16-million gift to Olds College for the creation of an agriculture institute.

Mr. Werklund’s commitment will fund half of the capital campaign’s goal of placing $50-million in endowment funds, which Mr. Sarian hopes will sustain the centre for many years.

The rest of the $610-million budget will pay for construction costs, Mr. Sarian said. He is looking to the private sector to cover the roughly $110-million that remains outstanding, hoping others will build upon Mr. Werklund’s philanthropy.

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