Spaced out | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Spaced out

After toxic mould was discovered in the city-owned Bloomfield Centre last July, a group of artists lost their studios—and their last bit of confidence in HRM. “I feel that this city is afraid of artists because artists challenge them to define community,

Sophie Pilipczukphoto Danushevsky

At a Christmas party held earlier in December, hosted by the Cultural Federations of Nova Scotia, artist Jim MacSwain smiles and mingles with peers and friends.

It’s a sharp contrast to his demeanour back in October, when he joined fellow artist Suzanne Swannie at her home to talk about the loss of their studios last July. Both worked in the Bloomfield Centre’s Commons Building, a red- and brown-brick building in Halifax’s north end, also home to the Citadel Boxing Club. Built in 1919 by Cape Breton architect J.C. Dumaresq, it is the oldest of three brick structures—the Fielding Building came in 1929 and the Bloomfield School in the early 1970s.

MacSwain was feeling the festive season, in part, because he’d lived through the aftermath of losing his studio. He is now happily installed and working at a new space at the Manual Training building on Cunard Street, with a view of the Commons. Several of his former Bloomfield studio mates, including Swannie, now work on the second floor of the building, owned and operated by the Cunard Street Children’s Centre.

The memory of suddenly losing the studio he leased from Halifax Regional Municipality—which owns the three Bloomfield buildings—is fading from MacSwain’s mind. After all, he is now able to put energy back into his collage-based visual art and videos.

Still, MacSwain feels, as he pointed out in a couple of recent discussions, that the aftermath exposed the philosophical rift between the highly individualized, independent-spirited (even politically strident) Bloomfield studio artists and HRM.

“I feel that this city is afraid of artists because artists challenge them to define…community, how individuals work within that community,” MacSwain said glumly in Swannie’s kitchen during one of those conversations. “It’s a very activist process. A lot of people are afraid of activism because it’s change. Artists are at the forefront of change.”

MacSwain was part of a group, which had members from all three buildings and all professions and pursuits, called Imagine Bloomfield. The group formed around efforts—going back to 2004—to convince HRM to allow the tenants to manage the buildings themselves.

MacSwain related how the artists were among the first to call on HRM to better manage Bloomfield. The Commons Building, where up to 22 artists worked (MacSwain for about four years and Swannie for eight), was constantly overheated, MacSwain said. No one from HRM came around. It seemed like HRM didn’t care, he recalled.

Then, in July of this year, HRM did come around. During an evaluation of all its real estate, they had the Bloomfield Centre buildings checked out for environmental and engineering conditions. A harmful, toxic mould was discovered by Maritime Testing Limited, the independent environmental consultants hired by HRM.

“We were shut down within 24 hours,” Suzanne Swannie, an internationally renowned textile artist, said. “Our studios were locked. They were declared contaminated.”

In the intervening months following the closure, the artists were allowed in for the sole purpose of cleaning their belongings (HRM did provide guidance from an “expert,” according to an HRM staffer involved) and then moving them out—at their own expense.

This never sat well with Swannie. She hired a lawyer and “at long last,” in mid-November, convinced HRM to agree to vacuum and test her belongings, including “porous” yarn Swannie had imported from places like Norway—material vital to her practice making fine and functional textile works.

Everyone else had to vacate the studios by November 11, except for Swannie, who left her equipment and materials for testing and cleaning. Both happened and she was cleared to move into the new Cunard studio, where she was already paying rent.

“I stood my ground,” she said. “I could not move my stuff without a guarantee that it was not contaminated. I don’t want to be liable for something I didn’t create.” The stakes were arguably always highest for Swannie. “I don’t have another job,” the 64-year-old shrugged.

Swannie’s practice wasn’t exactly raging commercially. She paid—the average at Bloomfield—around five or six dollars per square foot, which made it financially feasible to have a space big enough to accommodate her three large looms, winders and materials. Her space also came equipped with a kitchen sink, which meant she could produce the work—from conceptualization to design to weaving to dyeing—in one location and on her own.

Other Bloomfield artists hold down jobs to make their living. Photographer Alvin Comiter and textile artist Frances Dorsey, for example, teach at NSCAD. Tonia Di Risio is the exhibitions coordinator for Anna Leonowens Gallery. Sophie Pilipczuk works at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

“We’re all so different in our art practices,” MacSwain pointed out. The group produced different kinds of work—some conceptual and political, some not. And few of them did so for commercial purposes, to sell. But if they did, they were only making enough to continuing making art, says MacSwain.

What depresses MacSwain about HRM’s treatment of the artists throughout the whole affair—the lack of warning that the studios were to be closed and the spotty communication afterwards; not to mention there were no offers for temporary relocation—stemmed from the fact local officials don’t understand the importance of studio space to artists. You don’t just yank someone out of their space, or the “mind-space,” as Suzanne Swannie calls it.

Though they were friendly and supportive of one another, MacSwain said each artist worked on his or her own. They made art from a purely creative and imaginative impulse to express ideas and, going back to MacSwain’s earlier comment, to help shape the community in which they live and that they love.

But mayor Peter Kelly sees it differently. “We had an issue of health. You don’t fool around with it,” he said in early November. “Once it was made fully aware of the overall situation, HRM had to respond.” Added Kelly: “Would I change that? Maybe in terms of…the notification process.”

A member of HRM’s interdepartmental Bloomfield Review Team (made up of members of the Real Property & Asset Management, Recreation, Tourism & Culture and Finance departments), Peta-Jane Temple, who also works in the municipality’s grants office, also participated in creating HRM’s draft cultural plan, the massive document that will guide the local government’s role in cultural development. It’s set to be launched in early 2006.

In an email, Temple queried: “For me there are critical issues such as how does one define an artist? Who determines if an individual is an artist? I fear that if we cannot find an answer to we may lapse into elitism whereby only those persons who earn a living through art, or who strive to do so, or who have been ‘recognized’ through some arbitrary ‘standard,’ may be included in any such policy to the neglect of those who cannot financially support themselves through their craft alone: amateurs, hobbyists, persons with special needs, students, etc.”

She continued on the phone: “At a minimum those tenants should’ve been paying business occupancy tax. They might not be represented as businesses—incorporated or limited—but they are full proprietorships. The aim of that person’s activity is to generate revenues for themselves, personal financial gain.”

The questions for Temple remained: “What is our niche going to be? Is it to provide funding to individuals? Because the legislation, as I understand it, presently does not permit us to give grants to individuals; nor do we give tax exemptions to individuals.”

Temple’s view contrasts with the artists’ own view on the value of their work—the community-building value. Besides the artists, other tenants in the Bloomfield Centre’s buildings, including Susanna Fuller of Bike Again, a non-profit clean transportation group, took issue with HRM’s actions.

Fuller recalled a gathering in mid-May that summed up the impact of the artists’ presence, not just among Bloomfield tenants, which includes seniors’ groups and advocates for the homeless, but in the north-end neighbourhood too: “The artists had an open house that was so full of hope and community spirit. Over 150 people from the community came to see the studios and were exposed to parts of the Bloomfield Centre they never knew existed.”

Added Fuller: “The artists could have easily been relocated to the Fielding Building, which is now empty as two large tenants moved out.” (According to Temple, at the time of the closure, the Fielding Building was under review for a possible use by the department of recreation.)

With her constituency office in the Fielding Building, NDP MLA for Halifax-Needham (which includes the city’s north end), Maureen MacDonald advocated for the artists. She corresponded with the mayor in September and then met with him in person in October.

“He told me that there had been complaints to HRM from other artists, whose position is that they—the artists that were over in the Commons Building—were getting the benefit of lower rents and this kind of space and then commercializing their production in direct competition with people who have to rent on the private market,” MacDonald said.

Mayor Kelly didn’t deny making this claim and added he also heard the complaints, as well as his staff, but chose not to disclose who made them. “I’m sorry, but that’s between me and them because they don’t need this—anybody going after them to say ‘how dare you’ or whatever. No, I’m not going to do that to them,” he said.

Mayor Kelly concluded his conversation promising that issues of studio space for individual artists would be addressed in the cultural plan. He emphasized that HRM has not ruled out leasing space to individual artists.

In mid-September, HRM Council approved the plan’s draft Goals and Objectives. Three months later they remain the same. (Read them at Goal 22 states: “Build on culture and creative development by enhancing cultural infrastructure and initiatives to enable artists in all media to work in HRM.” The first objective under this goal reads: “Review existing adequacy and quality of studio and production resources in HRM and the need for additional space including live-work and independent studio space and storage and administrative space within public and community facilities.”

Even with this publicly stated objective, the former Bloomfield artists have moved on. MacSwain and Swannie pay more rent for smaller spaces on Cunard. Sophie Pilipczuk, who creates object- and drawing-based art, moved into a space on Almon with three of her former studio mates. “The previous renter in the Almon Street space was also an artist. She paid $8 a square foot, eight months ago. We will be paying $12 a square foot for the same space,” Pilipczuk revealed.

Lucie Chan, a drawing and installation artist, got the boot from her Bloomfield studio and made it to the Atlantic Canada shortlist for the 2006 Sobey Art Award, all in one year.

“A studio space is important for my practice, as it is a good place to work alone or with others,” Chan offered. “I’ve often met curators to have studio visits, which have later led to future shows and other important connections. I’ve also used it to meet with people I’m collaborating with, as a neutral space to create some work.”

As it stands now, with only days to go to a new year, a vast plot of neutral ground—some would call it a no man’s land—stretches out between some of the city’s artists and HRM. Hopefully the city’s new cultural plan, once executed, will transform neutral ground into common ground.

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