(Disclosure: I am currently a member of the Khyber board)
This Monday, Khyber Centre for the Arts' artistic director Dan Joyce got a notification from HRM Events & Cultural Initiatives manager Elizabeth Taylor to leave and have no further programming at the Khyber Building on 1588 Barrington Street. The reasoning being that construction on a Starfish Properties building next door was potentially disrupting asbestos in the walls of the old building (it just celebrated its 125th birthday last year) and proved a potential toxic health hazard.
Shows—like this weekend's Upstream Music Open Waters Festival—were quickly rescheduled to different locations, and upcoming exhibits will be relocated to a new, yet-to-be-determined venue.
The construction next door wasn’t exactly new—it’s been ongoing since the summer—and assessments of the Khyber walls from 2011, 2012 and 2013 had turned up traces of asbestos—in 2012, one sample in 31 was found to be contaminated. But suddenly, the building was to be out of use until further notice. "The presence of asbestos was not pervasive," says Khyber Board Chair Andrew McLaren.
"It can't be that big of an emergency, they're not locking the doors, we met there last night," says Joyce. "They said 'we suggest that we don't use this as your office, and we will find you a new one.'"
The relocation was sudden, but a renovation of the building was being discussed for Fall 2014. “We’re hoping we can work with the architects to make suggestions and help with the planning," says Joyce.
"At this point we will have to seek assurances from HRM, to assure that we’re still in the plan for being a cultural part of the city,” says McLaren. "In fact, that was ratified with city council five years ago."
HRM will be working with the Khyber to find a new location for the interim, which they are initially estimating as a six-month period. A proposal will be going to council—as soon as the next month—to discuss and (hopefully) approve the renovation and restoration of the building.
HRM has assured the Khyber that the organization's involvement is integral to the city’s cultural plan, so ideally the new location will be able to adequately serve the city’s artistic needs (both as a venue and a gallery space), and this sudden relocation won’t devolve into a “renoviction” for the organization.
“HRM really wants to avoid the perception of an artist-run centre ghost town," says McLaren, referring to another recent eshuffle in the relocation of fellow artist-run centre the Eyelevel Gallery, having moved from Gottingen Street to their new space at Suite 101, 5663 Cornwallis Street last month.
“They [HRM] are very positive about working with us and keeping the place an arts centre," says Joyce. But as of right now, he says, "we don't have any official assurances."
"I think we're recognized and valued in downtown Halifax," says McLaren. "We should take the long view—the Khyber isn't just the current staff and board, the Khyber is generations of people who have used the space. The HRM values the place as a cultural centre."
"I'm trying to look at the positive side—these renos have been a long time coming," says Joyce. "Let's get it out of the way and get us back in. It could be really good if HRM does work with us. We could turn it into a really great arts centre."
An official statement from Khyber Board Chair Andrew McLaren is below:
The Khyber Arts Society is in the process of temporarily relocating from the Khyber Center for the Arts, at 1588 Barrington Street, due to long awaited renovations, and recently exposed toxic building materials. In a recent building assessment, chrysotile asbestos and lead paint fragments have been detected in plaster residue loosened by ongoing construction work next door. Prior surveys from the past two years have found asbestos in some (but not all) walls, cracking and potentially delaminating from age, now further exacerbated by the new development activity on the North side. Identifying, and replacing plaster surfaces which contain these materials, should be undertaken ASAP. Under the terms of Occupational Health and Safety policies, public access to 1588 Barrington St can no longer be permitted.
The Khyber staff and Board of Directors were informed on Monday, January 13. The Khyber and the HRM Property Management and Events & Cultural Initiatives divisions would like to emphasize that this decision is neither an eviction nor a closing down of the Khyber Arts Society, although it certainly impacts our ability to host events, generate revenue, and serve our community at our well recognized location.
HRM is helping us find temporary premises for Office and storage space, and other venues for our programming. As this is all very recent, we (and NS Heritage Trust) are currently exploring our options in consultation with HRM; these will undoubtedly become better resolved in coming weeks. Please be assured that the Khyber will continue operations, and remains on excellent terms with HRM, having been designated as a Cultural Incubator in the municipality's cultural strategy for the past five years. Our current programming is now being re-notified and relocated as best as we and our community collaborators including HRM Property Management and Events and Cultural Initiatives, can, and we are notifying the public about the venue changes.
Proposals for the comprehensive renovation of the Khyber Building at 1588 Barrington St have been deliberated at HRM for the past few years, and we understood that renovations might start as early as the fall of 2014. We knew that this work would likely require our temporary relocation for 12-15 months. Given current circumstances, that time frame is advanced to the immediate present. HRM Council will decide over the next few weeks whether to approve this work on their property, which beyond full removal of hazardous building materials, should present an opportunity for structural improvements (including accessible entry for disabled persons) and restoration.
This should not be characterized (as some say of gentrified urban communities) as a case of “renoviction”. The Khyber has been recognized as a key presence on Barrington St, occupying a heritage property which is uniquely suited to hosting cultural activities, meeting and exceeding the expectations of Halifax's independent arts communities, while achieving financial stability and organizational growth. As an organization we have been fiscally solvent for several years running, and consolidated our revenue generation upon sound management practices. We are recognized as a stakeholder in HRM's downtown, in a building which had always served as a public meeting place.
The Board and Staff of the Khyber Arts Society believe that assurances are due, that our organization and public role in the cultural life of downtown Halifax at the Khyber Building is ratified by HRM Council, consistently with our 2010 designation as Cultural Incubator. Along with Heritage Trust, we note with concern that Barrington St is a bellwether of inactive public space in Halifax's core; there has been a long term decline in cultural, entertainment, and public meeting places along Halifax's former High Street. Our hopefully temporary departure is another such loss. Nevertheless, this is a valuable opportunity to grow downtown cultural demand and resources. The Khyber is excited to be part of that growth.
According to a proverbial Chinese saying, a moment of crisis also presents opportunity. As a mature organization (we are now 18 years old!) the Khyber Arts Society is prepared to grow, to adapt to change, and to face the future. Our longstanding relations with HRM should become stronger, and both parties will benefit from further collaboration in this place, where our organization's identity has grown with the community. We hope to work closely with HRM and consult with the designated architects in consolidating 1588 Barrington St as a cultural space.
In the meantime, please bear with us. We anticipate holding a general membership meeting in the very near future to provide further information.
Chair, Board of Directors
Khyber Art Society
1588 Barrington St, Halifax, NS
Thursday, January 16, 2014