Saturday, July 9, 2011

Questions about Arts Court expansion

For many decades Ottawa’s artistic landscape has been dominated by national institutions like the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery of Canada, but the local arts scene is about to get a major boost. This week the City’s Finance & Economic Development Committee approved the $36.1-million expansion of the Arts Court facility in downtown Ottawa. The expansion includes increased space for the Ottawa Art Gallery (42,000 sq. ft in a three storey space); increased space for the SAW Gallery; a new 350 seat theatre; a 120 to 150 seat screening room; an 18-storey residential building; and potentially a “black box” theatre and other facilities for the University of Ottawa. The previous space occupied by the OAG will be converted into a media arts hub.

Here are some points from presenters at this week’s Committee meeting based on live tweets by the Ottawa Citizen’s David Reevely:
  • This  new facility will be a destination for tourists and a boon for downtown businesses.
  • It will provide a link between the University of Ottawa, the Rideau Centre, and the Byward Market.
  • It will help to create a link between the arts and economic development, with video arts being important for an information economy.
  • It will also provide the Ottawa International Animation Festival, the largest animation festival in North America, with a hub and potential space for a small trade show; similat to what the TIFF Bell Lightbox is to Toronto's film festival.
  • If the University of Ottawa is involved it will provide their students with the opportunity to work alongside professional artists.
While I'm very excited about this project and believe it will be great for the local arts, I have a few questions on the business side of things especially when it comes to branding and communications.

Questions about Branding & Communications

If the whole complex will continue to be called Arts Court, I question whether the name will continue to communicate the significance this facility will have in our city. It won’t be just another arts facility, but Ottawa’s premier local arts centre. I’m picturing tourists browsing Where Magazine, a tourism guide, or the centre’s website and seeing the name Arts Court, Arts Court Centre, or even Ottawa Arts Court. Do those sound like must-see destinations? Do they sound like the city’s premier local arts facility? Will they get as many bodies through the door as possible? Would “Arts Court” be too abstract, causing people to ask, “What’s that?” Will it communicate to residents the important role this facility will play in our city, making it a destination for locals? It's something to consider.

When I hear “Arts Court”, or any of the variations listed above, I picture a small community theatre not the city’s main local arts centre. If I were visiting Ottawa I would rather visit the National Gallery of Canada or the Museum of Civilization than the Arts Court just based on the name alone.

The name Arts Court also sounds very local, and while the facility is local, it has the ability to be marketed nationally or even internationally. I question whether the current name would be effective in communicating to a national or international audience. Unless you’re from Ottawa you wouldn’t know what it is. The name may even sound incomplete. I can picture someone in Canada, the U.S. or Europe seeing the name and logo and asking, “Where is this place?” whereas many other arts facilities in our country give you an idea through the name and logo where it’s located or its scope, whether national, provincial or municipal. 

While the Ottawa Arts Centre sounds more official than artistic, if I’m looking through an Ottawa tourism guide this sounds like a must-see destination, the city’s main arts facility. 

Questions about residential tower

Lastly, I wonder about the residential tower. At 18 storeys the building runs the risk of being dwarfed in height, significance and as a focal point by other buildings in the area, including a potential 500-room “marquee” hotel next to the Rideau Centre. I’m not sure how the site is zoned, but there’s a precedent in the area for up to 28 storeys. I wonder why they wouldn’t want to build higher to make the site a focal point, to communicate importance, and to maximize their return. 

There’s another advantage to building higher. At the committee meeting a representative from the Arts Court said even with the expansion the space will be tight for tenants. If they were to add more floors they could perhaps put some office and/or workspace on the lower floors and residential space above that, in the process building Ottawa’s first office and residence development.

I’ve even heard someone who doesn’t like tall buildings say that 18 storeys is too short. In my humble opinion, this building should be one of the taller buildings in the city, at least 25 storeys if not 30, because of its relationship to a major arts facility. There is only a hand full of taller buildings in our city that could potentially be considered architectural jewels. This building, which is connected to the arts, should be one of them (Personally, I think this would be a good and more appropriate place for the 36-storey SOHO Italia design, LED screen and all). An artistic facility isn’t the place to play it safe, even in Ottawa. 

Parting thoughts

The convention centre, the potential Rideau Centre hotel, and this complex, including the residential tower, will probably form a corridor of new and exciting architecture; an area that communicates “the New Ottawa” and adds significantly to our local identity. I only hope that those working on the project get as much out of the space as possible; this is land you won't get back.

Aside from programming, design, branding and marketing will be important for this facility. With KPMB Architects, designers of the TIFF Bell Light box, involved the prior is in very good hands, but the success of the latter two remains to be seen. With the expanded role of the facility I'd only ask that those in charge consider how the whole thing communicates to an audience beyond our local borders.  

Kevin Bourne

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