Founded by longtime residents Jim and Susan Hill, the Esker Foundation is the largest privately-funded, non-commercial contemporary art gallery in Calgary. Located in the Atlantic Avenue Arts Block, the 20,000-square-foot gallery connects the public to contemporary art through exhibitions, programs and publications.
Opened in 2012, it was a way for the Hills to give back to the city that contributed to their success.
“There seemed to be a lot of funding of hospital services or educational services, but the visual arts had been an area in Calgary that had struggled for basically decades to have a real strong physical presence,” says Jim Hill, founder of Pason Systems Inc. “We have a strong interest in the arts and felt it was a place where we could make a contribution.”
Admission to the gallery – and for all programming – is free of charge. In addition to annual exhibitions in the fourth-floor main gallery featuring prolific national and international artists, the street-level Project Space aims to engage the community by increasing the presence and accessibility of contemporary art. As a commissioning body, the Project Space invites emerging and established artists to develop new, responsive projects that directly address the neighbourhood and explore important contemporary issues.
After years of searching for a site, the Hills decided to build Atlantic Avenue Arts Block. Seeing Inglewood as an emerging area of energetic revitalization, it has proven an ideal location for the gallery and the many creative businesses that now call it home. As a peripheral benefit, this building has contributed to Inglewood’s invigoration and is of substantive civic value. In the future, Esker plans to create a sculpture garden for the 900 block of 9th Avenue.
While arts is often dependent on donations from the community and government support, Esker’s model is a unique synthesis of commerce and philanthropy, as revenues from the building tenancy contribute to the foundation’s ongoing operation.
“In most art intuitions, staff is required to fundraise and lobby for government funds,” says Hill. “They spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising which over time can become quite fatiguing and can impact the arts programs. I thought it would be more efficient if we could have a group of people focused solely on the arts program…. Art institutions seem to have a pretty positive effect on the outside community, so we built our own commercial building where the Esker Foundation is just a subset of the entire space. The rest of the building is filled with tenants that have an interest in art. As the building and leases mature, I expect that will pay for both the mortgage of the building and the art program at Esker.”
The Esker Foundation is not only a perpetual gift of art; it is also a visionary and unique model that could inspire others while supporting Calgary’s economic diversification.