By Sarah MacMillan
The recent termination of the lease of the Khyber Centre for the Arts by the Halifax Regional Municipality has caused members of the Halifax arts community to speak out about the need for affordable rent.
The Arts and Activism group at NSCAD University (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), in collaboration with the Radical Imagination Project hosted a panel discussion Tuesday evening at the Bloomfield centre in Halifax’s north end. The discussion, “Art Evicted? (community roundtable): Property, Policy, Politics and Potential in Halifax,” drew a crowd of upwards of 80 people. The event featured panellists from the Khyber, the Roberts Street Social Centre, Eyelevel Gallery, Platform Halifax and the Anna Leonowens Gallery.
There are “all sorts of questions about what we’re going to do about space and art in Halifax,” said Max Haiven, who organized the event.
Haiven, assistant professor in the division of art history and critical studies at NSCAD University, said that the primary influence for hosting the discussion was the Khyber’s recent eviction.
The Khyber Arts Society was evicted in February from the Khyber Centre for the Arts, a registered heritage building located on Barrington Street which it has occupied since 1995.
The HRM cited hazardous materials including asbestos and lead paint as reason to terminate the lease. The society must be out by April 1st.
Daniel Joyce, the Khyber’s artistic director, said that according to the HRM, the society will have to relocate for about 18 months while the building undergoes between $2 million and $4 million in renovations. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if it takes longer.
The trouble with finding space
Joyce discussed the difficulty of finding a suitable temporary space. He wasn’t alone.
All members of the panel brought up the issue of finding and keeping space when discussing the problems facing the Halifax art community.
Emily Davidson, a member of the recently dissolved Roberts Street Social Centre, said that after facing eviction in 2012 due to changes in the landlord’s housing arrangement, the centre has been unable to find a comparable space at a reasonable cost. Several of the projects previously run through the Roberts Street Social Centre are now run out of the Plan B Merchant’s Co-op on Gottingen Street.
Davidson sited empty units downtown being marketed at high prices as a key issue contributing to the problem of a lack of available and accessible space for art organizations.
“We’ve looked at so many spaces and they’re all terrible and they’re all expensive,” said Davidson.
Davidson verged on yelling as she spoke passionately about the need for the HRM to establish regulations to ensure affordable prices for empty units.
“We live in a city where there are vacant spaces and developers that won’t rent to people,” said Davidson. “What we need is to pressure our publicly elected bodies to put in place policy that says you can’t have that space that is empty that you don’t rent to anybody.”
Haiven agreed, and said that in many ways, Halifax has failed the art community.
“I think the onus is on the city to reach out and say okay if we do want a thriving cultural sector, if we do want to make sure that these autonomous art spaces survive and continue to enrich our community, how can we support their activities, rather than trying to slot the art community into a particular place,” said Haiven.
However, despite the many criticisms brought forward against the HRM throughout the discussion, Joyce did acknowledge that city officials have so far stuck to their promise to work with the Khyber, rather than against it.
In a recent online update, Halifax city councillor Waye Mason reaffirmed his commitment to the Khyber, saying that he hopes “the Khyber will come back better than before.”
Broadening the discussion
Michael Murphy, a local resident who attended the event, was surprised to hear of the Khyber’s eviction. He said that people outside of the arts community need to hear about the issues facing it.
“People who had like-minded thinking about this are the people who came out to this meeting tonight,” said Murphy. “But for things to be different or better, certainly in a fiscal or in an institutional way, it would have to get out from beyond the people who are here tonight.”
Haiven agreed that broadening the discussion is difficult, but noted the large turnout for the event, which included many community members.
“I think that the process is ongoing,” said Haiven.