08/16/2012 07:13 EDT | Updated 10/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Calgary: It's More Than Horses and Oil


I recently attended the 100th Calgary Stampede, a raucous celebration of western culture that's arguably as unique to this country as what you'll find in other provinces more known for their distinctiveness. The stampede is a world-class event, one with a massive budget that does not get wasted. Despite the big dollars and corporate presence, it manages to retain a small-town atmosphere that will charm any visitor. More than 7,000 volunteers help staff the event, greeting tourists at the airport and providing information inside and out of Stampede Park. While that's sweet, there's also a level of sophistication that was absent a decade or so ago, and to many who still know the city as Cowtown that may be a surprise.

Long considered a bland, western outpost thick with cowboy culture and thin on the cosmopolitan feel of Toronto and Montreal, Calgary is in the midst of a stark change. There's an emphasis on public art (new buildings, by law, must have an art component accounted for in their design) and on growing independent music and arts scenes.

The city of 1.1 million has grown by more than 20 per cent in the past six years as more Canadians from the east, who a generation earlier would have stopped in Toronto for work, skip over the nation's largest city for the draw of big paydays and security in Calgary. Until this year, however, there was little attention paid to Calgary's efforts in using money made from the oil and gas industry -- the source of plenty of Alberta's wealth -- to boosting the city's image as an arts, music and dining hot spot. In 2012, Calgary is one of two culture capitals of Canada (Ontario's Niagara Region is the other) and is receiving more than $3 million in funding from federal, provincial and municipal governments as well as the private sector.

When I ask how the arts scene has changed during her career, Anne Ewen, the Art Gallery of Calgary's director, says without missing a beat: "There is one."

Ryan Fairweather of Bee Kingdom, a trendy glassware studio, says he and his partners have decided to stick around the city because they want to help fill the vacuum of creativity.

"Being an artist in Calgary, we've really had to find our own way. We couldn't graduate and find a prescribed path because there really wasn't one. Everything we're doing we're kind of doing with trial and error. With that there's been lots of obstacles, but lots of successes too. Because no one else is really doing what we're doing, it's been relatively easy to get some exposure," says Fairweather, who attended the Alberta College of Art & Design with his Bee Kingdom colleagues. "One of the reasons we decided to stay in Calgary instead of moving to Berlin is because we had the opportunity to build a hot shop, and because there really isn't a scene here and we wanted to create a scene for glass in the city."

With federal funding for arts programs shrinking disturbingly across the country, it's ironic that the town of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's alma mater has become so keen on elevating its cultural stature. Festivals and public art exhibits are planned throughout the year, even after the stampede. Naheed Nenshi, the popular, 40-year-old mayor, has become a symbol of Calgary's newfound hipness.

The city is also becoming notable for its dining choices, with restaurants like Rouge, CharCUT and Home Tasting Room serving cuisine that's inventive, local and outstanding. One of Canada's top cocktail lists exists at Hotel Arts, where bartender Colin Tait, a Scottish immigrant, has earned international recognition for his drinks.

"We're seeing people use the money from the oil and gas industry to improve the city for everyone," says Fraser Abbott, general manager of Hotel Arts, a boutique property whose walls and ceilings are populated with blown glass and original paintings. "That's a real benefit for being in a province with such a strong economy."

It doesn't have to be. There are plenty of examples of governments that have squandered riches through cronyism, poor planning and mediocre vision. Give Calgary credit for focusing on change and going about it in a way that makes it more inviting to visit, and more enticing to return.