Ignite Spotlight on Business by Quin Hauck
Alex Sarian's vision for Arts Commons
It is a question I've heard asked of Alex Sarian more than once. It is a question Calgarians always seem to be asking newcomers. As if we're missing something, like going nose-blind after standing in line at the pancake breakfast for too long, no longer able to differentiate between the aroma of just-add-water batter or air.
Sarian moved to Calgary during the pandemic, road-tripping from New York City, where he spent seven years in leadership at Lincoln Center. As the current President and CEO of Arts Commons, Sarian's perspective brings colour and context to where Calgary is and where it is going, helping make things more digestible.
Alex states: "We're no longer talking about ourselves as just oil and gas. I think we're starting to understand the nuances of what it means to make a life here and not just make a living... Calgary's becoming a more sophisticated city, which means that we need to become more sophisticated in terms of how we look at it. Investing in arts and culture is not a political stance. It's investing in our community. It's not about picking the arts over anything else. It's about picking the arts because the arts are what makes this place special."
Beyond simply a pair of fresh eyes, Sarian's globetrotting career has given him sight-- vision, really. "When we were coming [to Calgary] for the interviews, I remember saying to my wife, if Calgary can do this with the downtown library, it can do it with the performing arts centre. The library is proof of concept [that] you can have a downtown destination. That is a world-class destination for everybody, regardless of their zip code, regardless of their annual income, regardless of where they're from. If Calgary can do that, we can do this."
Alex Sarian///Arts Commons
Beyond his time in New York City, Sarian did time in Shanghai and spent 15 years of his growing life in Buenos Aires-- heck, he was born in Toronto. Yet, he can still smell it here, in Calgary.
I can hear Sarian's optimism for Calgary come through in his voice. There is a liveliness in his observations that reminds me of a proud parent describing their beloved child and all the great things they imagine them aspiring to. But for Sarian, Arts Commons isn't the single crowning achievement of the city. There are far more pieces to pin to the fridge door with pride.
"Our economy and city are at the forefront of becoming one of North America's most sought-after cosmopolitan destinations. And, when you think about being on the verge of that as a city, you think to yourself, we do need an arena, we do need a kick-ass zoo, we do need amazing public transportation and public education. If we're a world-class city, you have [it all]."
It strikes me that Sarian views Calgary as an ecosystem. He senses many unique industries and people that extend beyond the arts. He takes a holistic approach, knowing for the ecosystem to flourish, it's about equilibrium, a fine and fair balance. He's not the type of leader to look in one direction. He's constantly craning his neck in every way, taking in the experience of being in Calgary at this precise moment.
"My view on arts organizations is that we have a civic responsibility above and beyond an artistic responsibility."
It's not the type of statement I expected from the Lincoln Center veteran. Coming from New York City to the largest performing arts centre in Western Canada, I anticipated a more conventional recipe for success: a combination of passion, skill and hard work. In reality, community investment is the guiding maxim.
"Sometimes people say, that's not how we've done it before. Those people, I think, are just getting in their own way because, at the end of the day, Calgary is going in that direction whether we want it to or not. It's whether we harness that energy, whether we ride that energy, or whether we become irrelevant because we chose to ignore it... In practice, it shifts our role away from being God's gift to arts and culture, these arbiters of excellence. Instead, it puts us in this position of being facilitators of energy [and] community."
Energy is a term Sarian uses often. I can see him genuinely get excited. Looking out the window of his second-floor office that oversees the Olympic Plaza, he talks about the energy he sees and feels daily.
"I've had the most fun because I feel like I have unlocked energy that's always been there... it has nothing to do with me. I think I'm in the right place at the right time with the right story."
I would describe Sarian as humble, but that's beside the point. There's a selflessness about Sarian, in which measured success is in terms of the team and not the player. It's the merit of the city, its people, and all that raw potential. He says he sees his job as "shifting things around," stating that the energy bubbles to the top like shaking a soda and cracking the lid.
The energy is not two-dimensional, either. It involves a far broader demographic than the classic 'patrons of the arts.' And that's the core issue raised by Sarian: the scope can't be narrow. A limited range leads to limited accessibility, creating obstacles that keep the door locked for many.
"A lot of very well-intentioned organizations will say, 'we're going to do free ticket programs, and we're going to do discounts. And we're going to bring the price point down, but you can't stop there because it has been proven time and time again that you can make something free, and if people don't want it, they won't take advantage of it. This perception of, 'that doesn't belong to me, and I don't belong there,' is where we have the most thought leading into it. It is understanding the structure that we're working in and then learning, how do we change the perceptions?"
Sarian is not the sort of leader to beat around the bush. He is well-spoken yet forms explanations in honest terms that are easy to consume. Sarian is a foodie and breaks it down in digestible terms.
"We are a destination where we have 2000 events per year. That's a huge pie. And historically, because all these events were never terribly strategic, collectively, we were spending this inventory of 2000 events going after the same 50,000 Calgarians, which makes no sense. So if we can think strategically about this pie and say, okay, this slice will be for the classical music lovers, that's how we're going to get them into the building. This piece will be for families with kids. There are so many different ways to slice and dice audiences demographically and psychographically.”
Beyond ensuring the dessert is divided into enough pieces, it is ensuring everyone can get their hands on a slice. Perspective and experience allow Sarian to tap into the nuances of a diverse city like Calgary and draw out the obstacles that keep people away. This has given him some direction on the correct course, like a game of hotter-colder where you can never really see a concise endpoint. Still, as he explains, it is not a one-shoe-fits-all solution.
"It's going to be unique to Calgary. I've worked around the world [and] what worked in New York is not going to work in Calgary. What worked in Shanghai didn't work in New York. But if you ask the right questions, and the questions can be similar, it isn't how you answer them that, all of a sudden, you have a Calgary approach to breaking down silos or an approach to redefining arts and culture."
Sarian doesn't claim to have all the answers, but he does seem to be asking the right questions. What does it mean to be of and for and with Calgarians?
"How do we build a relationship with communities historically excluded from this sort of arts and culture environment? And not only engage with them, but frankly, we want to learn from them [to] become more and more relevant."
When asked for food recommendations, Sarian lights up, his answer a further extension of his entire philosophy. Within the same breath, he mentions both fine Italian dining from Luca's and Peter's Drive-In without prejudice against the latter. I left my time with Sarian with an appreciation for the all-encompassing ideology that he applies to every aspect of community and culture. He embraces the smells and tastes weaved into our tapestry and asks the questions needed to break down the barriers to cultural participation. I'm starting to sense it too.