The art of surviving a pandemic: an interview with Arts Commons' Alex Sarian
Act 1: An unconventional start
When speaking of his journey from New York to Calgary and becoming the CEO of Arts Commons, Alex Sarian doesn’t mention his time as an executive with Lincoln Centre or his experience guiding the work of arts organizations like the Boston Ballet, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Singapore’s National Arts Council.
Instead, he starts with this: “The thing that surprised me most about coming to Calgary is how much time I’ve spent convincing Calgarians how amazing this city is.”
With an unconventional start to life in Calgary, Sarian’s first day on the job as President & CEO of Arts Commons was in May 2020, just two months into the pandemic.
Instead of shying away from the big questions of the organization’s survival and purpose, Sarian and his team leaned into the challenge.
“We couldn’t shrink our way out of our problems,” he says. “We needed to reimagine our identity by asking how we could be of value to Calgary at this moment.”
As Canada’s third largest performing arts center, Arts Commons was at a crossroads. Sarian and his team were tasked with trying to understand how the organization could serve Calgary and its resident companies without the very thing it was most often defined by – its physical building.
Above: Arts Commons underwent a series of changes during facility closures to enhance virtual performance experiences.
Act 2: “Who are we without our building?”
Enter, stage left: Community.
When it comes to fleshing out Arts Commons’ reason for being, Sarian starts with community.
“Arts organizations can only ever be successful when they embrace their responsibility to community above artistic responsibility,” he says. “The pandemic invited us to examine how we engage with our community and has been a unique opportunity to connect on the level of shared human experience. We were all going through similar challenges and in learning about how people were doing, it led to conversations about how Arts Commons could support the well-being of our community.”
Sarian describes how this underestimated task crystallized the organization’s focus in three areas:
1. Nurture and protect the arts community
2. Connect with people where they are at
3. Use the strengths of the Arts Commons team
Sarian notes a physical building was not needed when it came to leaning into these three areas, especially when indoor, in-person audiences were restricted.
“Government support programs meant we retained over 90 per cent of our full-time staff over the course of the pandemic,” Sarian says. “And they weren’t just sitting around.”
An empty building presented the perfect opportunity for the staff responsible for maintaining Arts Commons to devote more time and attention to its upkeep, and make technology enhancements to position Arts Commons as a future-friendly venue.
Above: Facility enhancements to the Jack Singer Concert Hall included audio-visual technology upgrades.
For staff whose roles were diminished or had disappeared, they were presented with a series of questions to help them identify how they could be of value to Calgary in the moment:
Is there someone else on the team you can support?
Is there a resident company in the building that would benefit from your skills?
Is there an organization in the community you can volunteer your time with?
This allowed Arts Commons to broaden its community impact while also keeping the team engaged with the arts community, Calgarians and each other.
“We know many arts organizations exist in a constant space of fragility,” Sarian says. “We were fortunate to be in a position where we could be both generous and adventurous in fulfilling our civic and artistic responsibilities. The team embraced the opportunity to serve Calgary in new and different ways.”
Act 3: A new stage
When asked about the future of performing arts in Calgary, Sarian thinks instantly about diversifying our economy.
“People talk about what sectors will be part of Calgary’s energy transition and to be honest, I have no idea. Whether it’s the arts, green technology, TV and film or something else entirely, what I know is organizations will look at Calgary and ask if this is a city they can relocate to and attract a workforce that wants to be here. Organizations like Arts Commons have a huge role to play in making Calgary the most livable and attractive city in the world. That’s a responsibility we take seriously.”
“For those reasons, I want Calgarians to know the Arts Commons Transformation and other arts initiatives aren’t just an exercise in spending money,” he says. “These projects are also an investment in our community with a tremendous return on investment for our city.”
As for the immediate future of Arts Commons, Sarian speaks honestly about the challenges ahead. “The live performing arts have almost become like a luxury good consumed by too few people. We need to break down barriers to participation – whether those barriers are financial, physical or perceived. The arts are needed to build community, protect mental health and foster inclusion.”
Above: Classic Albums Live performing at Showtime, and Arts Commons event. Photo Credit: Mike Hopkins
How will Arts Commons look different in the months and years ahead? Sarian draws the spotlight to how they’ll move forward:
The relationship with technology is here to stay to support new ways of consuming and creating art.
Arts Commons can support 2,000 events a year. Given its work in reconciliation, diversity and inclusion, along with lessons learned through the pandemic, the organization plans to be more intentional and strategic when passing the mic.
Not all sectors will bounce back at the same speed. Arts organizations can’t just flip a switch to reopen, and governments will need to recognize that to support a smooth transition.
Arts Commons, and the arts organizations it serves and partners with, will be easing back into live audiences events with care and will be sharing more on the upcoming season in the weeks ahead.
Last July, before the world started to feel the true weight of the pandemic, Sarian tweeted: “Science will get us out of this, but the arts will get us through it.” Over a year later, he says he hopes this time has shown the value of the arts in daily life.
“We have consumed more arts and culture in the last year than ever before. I hope we can take this newfound appreciation we have for the arts and use it to connect to our humanity and move forward.”
Arts Commons is the largest arts center in western Canada - and the nation's third largest arts facility. Occupying more than 560,000 square feet in downtown Calgary, the Arts Commons complex normally welcomes more than 600,000 visitors to its 2,000 events every year, and features rehearsal studios, production workshops, education spaces, art galleries, restaurants, public community areas, and six performance venues—including the Jack Singer Concert Hall, noted by The New York Times as one of the best acoustical venues in North America.
Alex Sarian is the President & CEO of Arts Commons. Prior to his current appointment, he spent 18 years in New York City, where he most recently served as the executive responsible for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ portfolio of regranting initiatives, global consulting, community engagement, arts education, and artistic programming for young audiences and families.
Sarian has previously worked with LaPlaca Cohen, SFMOMA, Boston Ballet, American Friends of Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, National Arts Council of Singapore, Seoul Foundation for Arts & Culture, Auckland Theatre Company, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Place des Arts, MCC Theater, and Urban Arts Partnership.
As a recognized authority on the civic role of arts institutions, Mr. Sarian has lectured and given workshops around the world. Originally from Toronto, Mr. Sarian lived in Buenos Aires for 15 years, where he had the privilege of performing in venues such as the Teatro Colon Opera House, before moving to New York City to pursue a career in arts management. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees from New York University and was an inaugural graduate of the Impact Program for Arts Leaders at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.