It’s not your typical place.
Under one roof, is home to a painting studio, costume design studio, glass artisan shop and a mustard factory.
“Some days it’s just a happening joint,” said McNally Community Association president Vaughan Coupland. “There’s so much going on you just think, ‘Wow, this must be a great place.’”
It’s the former McNally School, which opened in 1947. It operated as a school for over 40 years until the Palliser School Division sold it to the McNally Community Association.
For a while, the building was occupied by different school boards. But eventually, nobody wanted to rent the space.
“We had approached the college, we’d approached the university, we’d approached the school boards to say we have space,” said Coupland. “And they all said, ‘Well, no thank you. It’s not up to code and we’d rather not.’”
The south end of the building is used as a community centre. But the north end, with all the classrooms, was starting to collect dust; until the first tenants showed up asking for space.
Luco Farms wanted to use an old classroom as a mustard factory.
“We thought, well, there’s an unusual approach… so we said yes,” laughed Coupland.
But there was still plenty of space to fill.
“Then at a bridge game, a lovely lady said, ‘You know you have all those empty classrooms. I’ll bet artists would love to live there and have studios there.’”
Coupland took a chance on the idea and put an advertisement in a Lethbridge magazine. And it’s a good thing she did.
“And the next thing you know we’re full,” she said. “And we’ve been full for six years with a waiting list.”
Currently, there are 10 resident artists, Lethbridge Society of Glass Artisans and Luco Farms who rent space.
“What a great use of a building that would otherwise probably be falling to decay,” said artist Rick Gillis.
Gillis has been renting his studio for the last four years. Previously, he was renting a space downtown that he said “did the job.”
He heard about the McNally Art Studios through a friend, and there happened to be an opening.
“When we saw this, it was just a given,” he said. “It took maybe 10 minutes to make a decision.”
Walking into the studio, you would never guess it was once a classroom.
“We thought it was a great idea from an artists point of view,” said Gillis. “Because we are always looking for proper studio space with proper lighting.”
In the basement is a massive room that was once used for students to play in when there was an indoor recess.
Now, it’s home to the Lethbridge Society of Glass Artisans.
“It’s a great space for any artist, or anybody who wants to get into doing any kind of art,” said president of the Lethbridge Society of Glass Artisans Maggie Sawyer.
Glass artists who make their way to the space can find a kiln, pressed and stained glass, a library, any and all tools needed and maybe even a little bit of inspiration.
“I have learned so much just by being here with other artists,” said Sawyer.
Upstairs, the artists who occupy the building helped tear out the lockers and coat hangers that lined the hallways from the days it was a school and donated them. Now, walking through the former hallways you’re greeted by an art gallery.
Coupland is grateful for the artists enthusiasm for the space. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the community association couldn’t rent out the south side of the building for yoga, Zumba classes, or even weddings.
“It’s the artists that got us through [the pandemic],” said Coupland. “They came and used their spaces respectfully, and we were able to keep the lights on, to keep the heat on.”
She calls it a symbiotic relationship. When the community association needed to buy a new heating system for the building, some of the artists donated pieces to be auctioned off.
“The way that we look at it is there’s enough places for people to go and play basketball or pickle ball,” said Coupland. “But obviously there are not enough places for people to come and do artwork or music.”
The artists are thankful to have the space, and will take the chance to show off how lucky they are.
“I’d recommend it to any artist, but you know, there’s no room left,” laughed Gillis.
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