Keyano College launched its first public engagement session with residents over its upcoming art gallery and theatre project on Thursday evening.
Dozens of people visited Keyano Theatre to ask questions and learn about the project. Set up in the theatre’s lobby were artistic renderings of the spaces, floorplans and a screen that allowed people to explore the facility digitally.
Once built, the facility will have upgraded and expanded the existing theatre, and turned an underused gymnasium into art studio spaces, a ceramics studio and an art gallery.
However, the project has been met with a polarizing reception because of its price tag. In November, council narrowly approved $16.85 million in funding during 2020 budget talks. Funding terms include quarterly updates, a legal review, investigating other funding sources and public consultations.
Mayor Don Scott and councillors Mike Allen, Bruce Inglis and Jane Stroud voted in favour of the project funding. Councillors Phil Meagher, Verna Murphy and Sheila Lalonde opposed. Councillors Krista Balsom, Claris Voyageur and Keith McGrath were absent from the meeting.
Since November, public opinion has also been split on the project. That split remained on Thursday evening.
Rick Oosterman, a Waterways resident, said he is not as opposed to the project as he first was after visiting the engagement session. He is impressed with the digital spaces planned for the new facility. However, he still feels the art gallery will be “dead space.”
“If they focus on that and do something spectacular, that’s going to wow people for the next 10 to 20 years, that’s money well spent,” he said. “But building a dead space art gallery is not going to wow anybody today, yesterday or tomorrow.”
He also said he doesn’t feel it’s fair public money should support something he predicts only a small portion of the population will use.
Fort McMurray resident Ashley Freimark said the project is needed in the community.
“I think the issue is people are thinking it’s just an art gallery. They’re not thinking of the studios and all the different opportunities it’s going to pose for students to be able to get into things like architecture or engineering,” she said. “Art covers a whole bunch of different things. It gives us the shelter over our heads, the cloths on our backs and without that then where would we really be.”
Keyano president and CEO Trent Keough said he knows not everyone will agree with the project, but listening to both people who agree and disagree with the project can be beneficial. He is also hopeful the meetings will win over new supporters.
“In that listening, I think we’ll also gain insight into how we might be able to strengthen our project and actually move people from naysayers to supporters,” he said. “And some of them we may never move.”
In previous interviews, Keough has pointed out Keyano spends more than $2 million annually maintaining the space, which is used by 35,000 people each year. The college also has no theatre or performing arts programs.
The gallery’s goal is to revitalize Keyano’s small arts program, which was gutted in 2012, with a public space and attract fine-arts programming. Currently, the college only offers one arts design program.
A brochure at the Thursday evening session predicts the annual economic benefit of the arts centre will be approximately $6.4 million.
On Thursday, Keough said he hopes a transparent approach will help people gain confidence in the project.
“We’re not asking the question, ‘do we need or do we want the gallery’, that’s already been answered,” he said. “What we want people to look at are the design concepts and say we’re lacking something here, how does this resonate Wood Buffalo, this design doesn’t reflect the city of Fort McMurray.”
Iris Kirschner, who sponsors the Kirschner Family Community Gallery at MacDonald Island Park, no longer lives full-time in Fort McMurray. She said during an interview earlier in the day that art galleries are important for communities, but questioned if this project would breathe life into its arts programs.
“I’m not sure an art gallery would be putting the cart before the horse. Do you have the programs in place before the art gallery or do you have the art gallery before you restore the programs,” she said. “I think that’s something I would be looking at and making sure my programs are already there.”
Florence Weber, the owner and manager of Points North Gallery, said she thinks the community needs the project.
“It’s long overdue, I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “Children who are exposed to art have a higher grade point average than otherwise and a better appreciation for the arts.”
The engagement session is one of multiple meetings being the college is hosting in coming months. The meetings will also include feedback from rural residents. Keough says the next meeting will be in Fort Chipewyan and the college is still setting up a date.
Community members can also fill out a survey on the Keyano College website.