Standing inside the new expansion of the Dalhousie Arts Centre, Lori Ward (senior director of development at Dalhousie University) is in a hard hat, describing the sorts of acts that’ll play at the school’s new, 300-seat Joseph Strug Concert Hall. The acoustics are some of the best in North America, Ward explains, since the building has been built from the beams out with sound in mind (the thick walls aren’t just concrete, but layers of materials that stop noise bleeding in—or out). It’s a space that’ll be suited for choral music, chamber groups and other soft-edged sound. She and Jerome Blais (director of the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dal) mention it’ll likely be the future home of Halifax’s internationally lauded Scotia Festival of Music (which is the region’s largest chamber music festival). Today, though, it’s bandsaws and builders providing a different kind of thumping, progressing chorus.
“This project has been so many years in the making. It’s amazing to almost be done,” says Ward, taking me on a maze of low scaffolding so I can see the view from the stage. Over the next hour of The Coast’s exclusive site visit, she tells me what else the building will include: Soundproof studios for students, the aforementioned music hall and enough other mini-venues to offer a strong pushback to the city’s current venue crisis.
The new building, which attaches at the back of the original Arts Centre on University Avenue, will formally open its doors this October. It is primarily for Fountain School students, enabling a return to campus for the long-annexed costume studies program, which is on two floors, while the Strug Hall means the Fountain music students will finally have their own dedicated stage, rather than sharing the pre-expansion Arts Centre’s James Dunn Theatre—which Blais explains is better suited to dance and theatre, anyway.
But, before that, a celebratory concert—honouring the new building and, as Ward puts it, “the return of arts and culture” post-pandemic—will see the likes of Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher, Halifax indie gold Hillsburn and Kiefer Sutherland, with his first-ever public performance in Halifax, celebrating the space. (Titled Resounding, the show is happening May 27 in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, in the original part of the Arts Centre.)
“I always like to say the Arts Centre is like Halifax’s living room,” Ward says by way of explaining the building’s significance in the venue landscape: The Cohn is base camp for Symphony Nova Scotia, while the Dunn Theatre hosts many of the city’s dance performances. Now, thanks to the addition, which lumbers up Seymour Street with a box window displaying works by the costume studies students, our living room is getting a shop window, a salon, a parlour and a sitting room.
“I love thinking of there being a poetry reading in this room,” Ward says as our tour rounds into one of the multipurpose black box spaces behind Strug Hall, which I eyeball to be just smaller than the performance room of The Bus Stop Theatre (an indie venue on Gottingen Street that holds roughly 150 people). The possibility of a new arts hub fills the air before us as she gestures the vibrant scene in her mind’s eye. During the poetry reading, there could be a choir onstage in Strug Hall, a different show in the other multipurpose space, a dance show at the Dunn and a rock show at the Cohn. It’d work, Ward explains, because the obsessively acoustic-focused construction would result in zero noise bleed. (Even the doors between the old and new parts of the Arts Centre are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s spaceships.)
The group of us falls silent for a moment, as we picture it. A 500 percent increase in arts in a single building; one of the largest—if not the largest—investments in performing arts infrastructure the Maritimes have seen in decades; the ambitious, arts-forward thinking the city needs. We turn back to the main concert hall and bandsaws break our reverie. “You know how people say ‘Hamilton is a hockey town’?” Ward looks at me, a smile forming. “Well, Halifax is an arts and culture town.”