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August 17, 2019

A Word With… Kathi Sundstrom

The executive director of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD) on the company’s new home and the long journey it took to get there.

 

The latest production from Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (the aptly titled New Universe) has the significance of being the first show in the company’s new headquarters and performance theatre in Victoria Park. DJD now fronts a brand-new 12-storey tower that abuts the existing Kahanoff Centre building (an office space for charitable organizations) at the corner of 12th Avenue and Centre Street S.E. The project has been 12 years in the making and is the result of a complex compendium of relationships

Photo courtesy of DJD

Kathi Sundstrom.

with the Kahanoff Foundation and the Calgary Foundation (which assumed the project when the former ceased operations), funding from all three levels of government, private and corporate donor contributions and plain old grit and determination. Executive director Kathi Sundstrom was there for all of it. We caught up with her to talk about what it’s like to finally be moved in.

 

How did the conversation about building a new home for DJD begin?

“To go back to the beginning: we moved into our 4th street facility back in 1993 when our operating budget was maybe about $600,000 and the rent was like $35,000. Every five years the rent would double: $35,000 went to $70,000; $70,000 went to $140,000. At $140,000 it was still reasonable for us because our operating budget had grown as well through the expansion of our dance school, sponsorships and donations. But with the boom economy the rental market was increasing, Calgary was heating up… We couldn’t handle another doubling of rent because there were limited ways for us to increase our earned revenues. Our classes were operating at a high capacity and there are only so many hours in the day you can program stuff. You can’t have dance classes at 3 in the morning.

“Our business model requires us to be in the inner city as our primary customer is an adult woman taking a recreational class – we’re not a suburban kids’ recital dance school. We needed a philanthropic partner as a landlord who wasn’t looking to make money off us. We’d had a long relationship with the Kahanoff Foundation through the Alberta Arts Stabilization Fund for which they were one of the key investors. They had the existing building and were expanding it and with us they recognized the opportunity to add life to what they were doing. So that’s how the seed was planted. They were working on their expansion and they invited us along for the ride.”

 

What year was that?

“The first conversation was 2005.”

 

There must have been times over that 12-year period when you were seriously over it. What did you do to keep your head in the game?

“I drank a lot of wine! But I guess it was just that if DJD didn’t find a home that would work in our financial model we would cease to exist, so it was a belief that what we’re doing needs to continue. But there are challenges to bureaucracy and process. With the government funding, sometimes you’d just want to scream and run from the room, but you just have to persevere.

“It was really important for the City to go first. The last step is the federal government and you have to show you have so much money in order to qualify, so it’s like putting together a house of cards. It’s very fragile and if you pull one pillar the whole thing can fall over. We were fortunate to have the City money ($5.5 million from the city’s 2008 allocation of $165 million for arts infrastructure), the Kahanoff Foundation support, the use of the land. We had two individuals who came forward early on with million-dollar pledges. And Suncor was pivotal because they challenged the province to commit to funding, and if we hadn’t gotten the commitment from the province, we would have run out of time.”

 

Why do you think Suncor took to the mat for you like that?

“They believed in us. We’ve had a long relationship with them. They also believed in what the Kahanoff Centre was about and the idea they could support DJD and also support the spirit of the Kahanoff Centre as a meeting place for charities and the community.”

 

You’ve thanked publicly two anonymous donors who made major contributions. Obviously you can’t name them, but can you say whether they were long-time donors already or did they come out of nowhere?

“I can’t say. Generally, people give to things they love. But anonymity was their choice and I have to respect it.”

 

So what did it feel like to open the show last Friday and introduce the new space?

“It was pretty magical. This project has been so overwhelming. It’s taken longer than we expected. We had been working toward a move-in target of February 1 and we learned mid-January that wasn’t going to happen, so we had some challenges because our lease (on 4th Street S.W.) had expired and we had to get a temporary extension. Because we were delayed, we didn’t have the luxury of much time to get the theatre outfitted so it was a scramble. Even though you get occupancy, there was a lot of work that needed to be done in the theatre chamber with lights and curtains.”

 

I’m not about to give away any spoilers, but there’s a point in New Universe when the significance of the new space is celebrated in a very unique way. What did you think when you saw that happen?

“It took my breath away. It does give you a sense like: is this really real, are we really here in this space? I never watch a show until dress rehearsal because I try to have as genuine a response as an audience member would. On opening night, people clapped, which was kind of appropriate, you know?”

 

What advice would you give to someone embarking on project of this kind? Another arts executive out there considering an infrastructure build for their organization?

“You have to be realistic that it’s going to take more time than you think. You have to have good advisors you can count on. And you have to be realistic about what you can build and realistic on what you can operate. I will deem myself successful if we are sustainable operationally as well. It’s like having the big house with no furniture. It is not just the building, it is what’s going to happen inside it and how you are able to operate it.”

 

New Universe runs until Sunday, June 12 at the DJD Dance Centre, 111 12 Ave. S.E., decidedlyjazz.com

 

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