15 years: Arts and activism, con't.

In honour of The Coast's 15th anniversary, our panel of seasoned experts and promising up-and-comers dish on 15 years of Halifax arts, music, comedy, film and style.

Andrew David Terris is an artist, consultant and activist who remembers when there was only one good restaurant in Halifax. He’s lived in the city since 1982. Sonia Edworthy and Sarah Evans are the driving force behind the Anchor Archive Zine Library and Arts Centre. They’ve both lived in Halifax since the late ’90s. They sat amidst the artwork at Eyelevel Gallery on Gottingen to share thoughts on Halifax arts, culture and community. On turnover, the Arts Council, and the up side of poverty

Sonia Edworthy: Something I’ve noticed about the art community in Halifax is that there’s always a lot of turnover. There’s a lot of artists coming, working on things, contributing and then leaving. And so, even as someone who’s only been here for 10 years, I find myself sharing histories with people a lot. You have to catch people up with what’s happened.

Andrew Terris: We keep reinventing the wheel.

Sarah Evans: Yeah. Someone will come and say, I’ve got a great idea for a free school. And we’ll say, ‘alright, here are the last few times this has happened.’ 

Terris: That was my experience too. A lof of my activism has been centred around things like trying to get an arts council. It seemed to me that when you looked elsewhere, having an arts council that was making serious grants to artists was a way to go, so artists could earn a living here. And it lasted five years and then the current premier, bless his heart, shut it down.

Edworthy: I’ve been fascinated with the arts council getting disbanded. It’s affected friends of mine who were working on applying to it, and also it was a very public kind of event. A lot of these funding changes happen and we don’t really know what happens, but when a whole council gets disbanded, it’s news.

Terris: It was a big signal to the whole community.

Edworthy: In a lot of other cities they’re just shocked that Nova Scotia doesn’t have an arts council.

Evans: When we started dreaming up an art space that we wanted to have in the city, we looked at other places that were similar across Canada. We both travelled a lot and would visit places and think this is kind of what we’re looking for, what Halifax needs. But it was always, ‘how do these people do it?’ And in a lot of cases is was like, ‘oh, we have this funding body, or a really good relationship with this foundation…’ And we were like, ‘well, there’s nothing like that here. So it’s not transferable at all.’

Edworthy: Being in Nova Scotia and trying to make a living you have to be really resourceful and almost self-employed in a lot of ways. With the Zine Library and Art Centre we were trying to make something work and stay here. We wanted to have a reason to stay in Halifax, and just make what we wanted happen here.

Evans: It’s been a whole process of figuring it out. When we first started we lived there, and so it didn’t cost us any money. And then slowly we moved out. Since then it’s been figuring out how to replace ourselves and pay the rent. It’s been a process. And I don’t know if we had tried to apply for funding in the beginning, where we would have done that. Or how we would have even dreamt up with what we ended up with. I think it wouldn’t have existed the same way. 

Terris: This is kind of the up side of poverty, if you will. It kind of forces you to use your imagination and I think that kind of stuff is really important. Because once you start getting into the establishment, even with an arts council, you start getting into these bureaucratic institutional structures and it all becomes very formalized and there’s a certain amount of creative freedom that’s always lost. Twenty-five years ago, I’d say the DIY stuff was setting up organizations like VANS and the Designer Crafts Council, and CFAT and AFCOOP. A lot of those arts or artist run organizations were started 25 or 30 years ago, and that’s kind of where the energy was going. But now you have that established, and there are more artists and more of a critical mass, and more room for the DIY stuff.

Edworthy: I really think there’s a need for all levels---doing it yourself and having those institutions that support the in-between activities, organizations and individuals producing artwork and events. Some of the organizations that we have relationships with appreciate the fact that we’re so underground and off the radar, because we can just pull something off in a week and not have any permission. 

Terris: That’s total creative freedom, it’s really important.

Edworthy: But I think the more so-called bureaucratic system there is, and the more and bigger funding bodies there are, the more DIY activity there is, really, because it all supports each other. On the cultural geography of Halifax

Edworthy: One thing I was thinking about with then and now, is that the development of condos and more expensive accommodations has been really significant even since I’ve been here. It’s been a noticeable change. It’s something that we at Anchor Archive deal with a lot. It’s a hot topic for discussion and something that we’re kind of in the middle of, as not-from-here, white, middle-class, entrepreneur-type people. 

Evans: And it’s an arts centre on Agricola which is the ‘art district,’ but then at the same time it’s such a scrappy arts centre…

Edworthy: We’re not what people think of as gentrification, but we’re definitely part of that discussion.

Terris: I lived just on the next block for 16 years, and Gottingen Street has changed, but in some ways not that much. I remember The Coast running an article saying that Gottingen was going to be the next Queen Street West. That must have been not long after The Coast was started, and it was a cover article. And you could feel at that point there just seemed to be this ferment that was going to happen. Well, this isn’t Queen Street West.

Evans: No, this isn’t Toronto, it’s Halifax.

Terris: You know, Eyelevel is here, and you’ve got, what’s that furniture store, and you’ve got Brian MacKay-Lyons… So there have been some things that have happened. But apart from that…

Edworthy: But when you look at Agricola Street, places like Creative Crossings. There are high-end furniture stores and stuff like that.

Terris: Yeah, people thought it would be Gottingen Street, but you’re right, it’s actually Agricola Street. It’s actually happened faster on Agricola. The other big thing is the Seaport. That’s a major change. In the past 15 years you’ve had the artists studios down there, the cultural federations, NSCAD, the museum, and film-industry stuff. So that’s a big change and that’s ongoing.

Edworthy: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing, kind of like in Vancouver they have that development on the piers.

Terris: But once again it was the artists that first moved in. They moved into the old shed buildings when they were really very grungy and full of pigeon shit. They were just independent artists looking for cheap, dirty, affordable studio space. Typical kind of paradigm. They were the pioneers.

Edworthy: What about the CBC building?

Terris: That was eight or 10 years ago, when Fred Maddox was running it here. For whatever reason they weren’t doing as much production so they had empty space. So I think he came up with the idea of moving in non-profits. So you have the film co-op, CFAT, the film festival, Debut Atlantic, St. Cecelia Concert Series. But you know, they’re not going to be there forever.

Edworthy: Yeah, that’s always the big threat.

Terris: This gets back to the space problem. Where are they going to go next? And if downtown buldlings are being bought up by Toronto development companies… things like the Roy Bulding, the Green Lantern building.

Evans: And that also goes back to places like the Bloomfield Centre and the Khyber, where the city had a huge opportunity to step in and help. And they did nothing at all.

Terris: Well you know, I’m actually involved in some stuff that’s going on now with Bloomfield and Khyber, and there’s actually hope. There’s been some turnover in terms of city staff and it may be going in a positive direction.

Edworthy: City staff make all the difference. That’s something I’d like to see. I’m not going to make it happen, I’m not going to put my energy towards it, but I’d really love to see the city give a building to an arts organization, like the Khyber. Like really give it. I mean I know the city is strapped for cash, but I just think that would be great…talking about a dream future.

Evans: In Providence there’s a building called AS220 with tons of stuff going on, and the city is giving them this other building, because they’re doing such a good job and it’s so packed. And I was like, ‘They’re GIVING you another building?’ They grow because they have that support and the space to grow in. On the positive side

Terris: I tend to be too analytical and critical, so I sat down and tried to think of all the positive things that have happened in the last 15 years. And you know, it’s actually quite an impressive list, apart from things like the arts council. There’s the Seawall, the Neptune renovation, the Atlantic Film Festival which has just exploded, the Jazz Festival which has exploded, the indie music scene which has exploded. We have a zine library now which we didn’t have 15 years ago. It’s steadily gotten more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and I think it will continue to do so.

Edworthy: I think a cool thing is the integration of different organizations. We’ve been running zine fairs with the Pop Explosion for the past few years and that’s pretty cool, bringing together different mediums and different scenes.And the film festival just ran ViewFinders, their youth festival, and we got invited to do screenprinting and zine workshops with families and kids. It was so cool. Every different media organization was there, with their people, helping out. It was really fun to have everyone in one room. That was pretty exciting and lots of connections were made. And that was organized for a kids’ film festival.

Terris: A kids’ film festival which didn’t exist 15 years ago. Yesterday I was at the Writers Federation Atlantic Book Awards. I mean, that’s a big event. Or take Theatre NS, the Merit Awards, these are big events now. And 15 years ago they didn’t hardly exist, or were very small.  On presents and futures

Terris: I’m on a couple of projects right now, one which will probably involve resuscitating the Khyber. I think there’s a promising future for the Bloomfield Centre in terms of the arts community. I’m also involved with the Nova Scotia Cultural Action Network and we’ve hired consultants to do research on the creative economy in Nova Scotia. So I think that will help keep the momentum going. And I’m bound and determined to bring back the Nova Scotia Arts Council.And to bring it back bigger, better, stronger, smarter.

Edworthy: Right now we’re trying to support paying rent for an entire property that houses two main art projects and a variety of other activities. We’re trying to break even and continue including more and more people in the space for their projects—meetings, practice space, whatever. We’re also programming weekly skill-share workshops open to the public. We just became a registered non-profit last year. Before that we had no legal entity. So now we have a board and do a little bit of paperwork, but that’s about it.

Evans: And we have started to look at grants, but we weren’t going to admit that, really. It’s a hard line to walk to figure out how to make that work.

Edworthy: We’re happy to run as we go with the contribution of the 10 or 15 hardcore volunteers that help out. And getting donations, doing workshops for honorariums, selling zines. We’re kind of happy with that system, because along the way with all the participation and people involved, it generates more than the income for the space, it generates the activity as well.

Evans: And it will keep it going for longer. When all the funding bodies fall apart, or disappear, or get huge and really exciting… Either way, we know we can still pay our rent every month. On staying or going

Evans: People ask me and Sonia all the time, ‘Are you guys really going to stay here? Do you ever think about leaving?’

Terris: And what do you say?

Evans: I say, ‘I’m going to stay here.’

Terris: I remember years ago I had a friend, a colleague who was a fellow arts activist, and I remember her saying that it’s really important that people stay here and are committed to making things happen here. And then of course she moved away to Ottawa for a good job.

But you slowly build a critical mass. I’ve seen major changes in this city over 15 years, and that’s partly because people have made a commitment to stay and improve things.

---Erica Butler 

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