Taking matters into his own hands, one Calgary artist is creating spaces for creatives.
Douglas McKeag bought two buildings in one of Calgary’s industrial districts and is flipping them to provide space for artists
Douglas McKeag is an actor and real estate entrepreneur helping revamp Calgary’s art community. // Photo by Julie Patton
Creative people come up with creative solutions.
That’s why it’s no surprise that as artists in Calgary struggle to find space, a crafty man has turned an unusual district into an arts community.
Well, it’s not quite a community yet, but Douglas McKeag has a vision for what it could be.
The Inglewood industrial district is home to numerous breweries, shops, and scrap yards, however, there’s one colourful building that stands out.
The only building adorned with a mural, BonnyBoom is a multi-disciplinary arts venue.
McKeag is an actor and real estate entrepreneur. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, McKeag bought an industrial building with a particular art group in mind.
As a board member for The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, he knew the group needed a new space to workshop puppets and props.
By buying the building, he knew he could provide a long-term space for the Trouts. Additionally, he knew he could provide space for other artists.
McKeag has visual artists, an actress, a composer, and many other independent artists renting office/studio spaces in BonnyBoom. Also in the building is a gallery, multi-purpose room, and mirrored stage.
However, McKeag’s space for artists doesn’t end there because he bought another building just down the road.
As a board member of the Green Fools Theatre Society, he knew that the group also needed a new space. When another building and yard went up for sale near BonnyBoom, McKeag bought it and will take possession in November.
“I brought [the Fools] in to tour it and their heads exploded,” he says. “And eons ago, like maybe 30 years ago, the Trouts and Fools used to be in the same building in Inglewood… and now I’ve got the Trouts and Fools back in the same neighbourhood.”
Similar to BonnyBoom, the Fools’ new building has a large industrial space, plus office space.
Why do it?
McKeag has always been an advocate for the Calgary arts community and, working in real estate, he had the knowledge and assets needed to purchase the two buildings.
“I was on the board of directors of these two [art] companies, so I knew what the problem was intimately, and I knew exactly what they needed,” McKeag says.
Although he is now personally tapped out when it comes to purchasing more buildings, he hopes others will seize the opportunity to provide artists with space.
“If we show people that it can be done and you can make money at it… we can maybe solve a problem.”
In addition to providing space for artists, McKeag also has a vision to further revamp the art community.
He sees an opportunity to build a small theatre off the back of the BonnyBoom lot. Designed for puppetry and jazz, the theatre could support an 80-person audience. He hopes to host parties and social gatherings for the arts community in the building.
But his dream for expansion is currently on hold because of city restrictions. The city says there are no sidewalks, and apparently not enough parking to support the expansion.
McKeag argues the parking problem is false as there is plenty of street parking on every block, especially in the evening and on weekends. But if the city won’t accept that the Fools’ new building has an empty lot to provide parking that will back the expansion.
However, until he gains possession of the property in November, the theatre plans are on hold.
So much opportunity
In addition to his dream of a theatre, McKeag has many more ideas for his blooming arts community.
With his two buildings, he sees a street arts festival with vendors, live music, food, and drinks.
A festival will help him continue connecting with the Calgary arts community while introducing new people to it.
“We had a day market, people set up booths and everything, but it wasn't very well attended because it was a smoky Sunday,” he says. “But we had a great time meeting each other and we all agreed that we got to do this again.”
Another dream for McKeag is a gallery.
BonnyBoom has a gallery that is currently filled with funky art by Lucas Gilbertson, however, McKeag hopes to change out the gallery. With the artist studios, he hopes to rent one on a temporary basis to give an artist enough time to create a body of work. Once complete, the work could hang in the gallery space and the artist could host a reception.
“I had seen in my imagination, as I worked and scrubbed and painted this place, I just thought, ‘One day there's going to be a band over there. There's going to be people dancing. There's going to be food over here and everything,’” he says.
McKeag’s vision actually came to life in May when the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry gathered the puppet community for the First Annual Puppet Spring Fling.
“It was so alive,” he says. “I was walking into my vision, which is a rare thing in life… and it was a giant feeling of relief that this can happen.”
Although McKeag has many goals and ideas, he says the first step is to put BonnyBoom on the map for more events.
Though it’s not yet a hot spot, McKeag says word about BonnyBoom is spreading.
He has already hosted numerous groups and companies, whether they rent space long-term or short-term.
However, McKeag only has so much space to provide, and he can’t solve the arts community’s dilemma single-handedly.
“I’m starting to get invited into committees to discuss the problem of artist space in Calgary… and it's bizarre that I’ve become an instant expert in it just by virtue of the fact that I’m doing it.”
He encourages businesspeople to take a look at what space they have and consider renting it out to artists.
“It’s so vital to a city to have happiness bubbling away,” he says. “We might be entering a very grim phase for the earth, so therefore we have to battle against that… My battle line is basically drawn around puppets. Let’s set puppets upon the world and try to make it a happier, gentler place.”