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Artist’s block 

Last Saturday, artists, advocates and city officials gathered to discuss the direction of the multipurpose Khyber Building. Sue Carter Flinn sits in.

Topping the poster advertising the Khyber Building’s community brainstorming sessions, led by the Khyber Arts Society and HRM last week, is a quote from urban philosopher Jane Jacobs, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” After Saturday’s session, when around 20 people, mostly representing arts and social justice organizations, discussed the long-term vision for the historic Barrington building, the old adage might need some updating. Perhaps “Old ideas sometimes work well in old buildings if old buildings are well-maintained and well-funded,” might be more appropriate.

Downstairs on the main floor, an eerie pallor has already settled on the former Khyber Club. More than just a bar, it was one of Halifax’s only affordable multipurpose performance spaces. The locks were changed on February 2 by HRM, which owns the building, while the city sorts through liability and insurance issues.

The session begins at 2pm. People shake their head in sadness—it’s a bit like a wake—as they walk upstairs to the Turret Room. Still, the bulletin board outside its locked door is smattered with advertisements for dance performances, art exhibitions and cartoon jams. There are signs of life here.

Past the Ballroom Gallery, still actively animated with shows from the Khyber Arts Society, and up the stairs, there’s a “memory wall,” constructed out of large pieces of paper—where people wrote reminiscences about NSCAD year-end parties, meeting their art idols and favourite concerts. Another paper asks participants to suggest successful operational models. Struts Gallery in Sackville, Western Front in Vancouver and the Drake Hotel in Toronto all make the page.

Around the table, participants are asked by HRM’s regional co-ordinator for culture and heritage, Holly Richardson, and community developers Philip Hammond and Heather McLeod, to “imagine what the Khyber will be in five years and beyond. What will be going on inside? Think of events, resources and activities.”

“An artist-run centre.” “A multi-purpose performance space.” “A cafe.” “Meeting space.” “Weekly film screenings.” “Studios.” In the past, the Khyber has served all these purposes—and it still is an artist-run centre. Even some of the new ideas: creating a physical and digital resource library with a bookstore, or a co-operative multi-discipline space for local artists, are extensions of what has already existed here. The Khyber’s artistic director, Krista Davis, wishes the space was wheelchair accessible. Everyone nods in agreement that the building needs repairs and stable funding. A few boldly suggest that the city shouldn’t be involved at all.

As the discussion continues, a well-dressed couple quietly enters the room, their suits a conspicuous contrast to Saturday afternoon sweaters and jeans. It’s Leonard Preyra, Halifax-Citadel MLA, and federal Halifax MP Alexa McDonough. “It always takes a small dedicated group to keep the doors open, to keep things going,” says McDonough, who, when not travelling as the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, is often seen at various cultural events with her grandchildren.

“It seems to me that we spend a lot of time talking about mega-projects like the Tattoo or the Rolling Stones concerts but we don’t seem to realize that a lot of our arts and culture rests on these types of incubating spaces for young artists,” says Preyra. “Apart from a vibrant arts and cultural community, there are economic benefits that the whole community benefits from—in many ways, the Khyber is a success story that’s somehow been undermined through poor planning and inadequate resources. In many ways, what these groups are saying is that they just want government to get out of the way. The Khyber is already doing what we’d like a cultural hub to do.”

For now, it appears as if steady government involvement will continue at the Khyber building. According to Richardson, a consultant will be hired to translate everyone’s input into a feasibility report, which will be presented to city council within the next six to eight weeks. Until then, there’s an aptly named “The Khyber’s Not Dead Open House” on March 10.

Khyber open house, March 10 from 9am to 5pm, with free kids’ activities from 9am to 1pm. Panel discussion featuring painter Andrea Mortson at 2pm. All is free.

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