The party’s over for CBC’s inadvertent incubator | Arts + Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

The party’s over for CBC’s inadvertent incubator

Arts refugees reflect on the radio building’s cultural legacy.

We know that CBC is shrinking. For decades we've heard of seemingly endless cuts to the federal funding that keeps our public radio and television services alive. In Halifax, the fact will be hard to deny when the iconic, Art Deco CBC Radio building at Sackville and South Park Streets succumbs to the wrecking ball soon to make way for a new development.

But what few of us will realize, as we watch CBC Halifax reshape itself to fit into a newly renovated space in the former Bay department store that's about one-third the size, is we've lost a major cultural hub.

The radio building was home to the Atlantic Film Festival. It hosted the Centre for Art Tapes. It made room for the Atlantic Filmmakers' Cooperative, the Linda Joy Media Arts Society and, in their day, the Moving Images Group and Shortworks. Upstairs, closer to radio staff, classical music presenters Debut Atlantic and the St. Cecilia Concert Series both had cozy offices. Mocean Dance started out there and Live Art Dance found refuge within after Hurricane Juan.

Not only did all these organizations live in the same building, but most remarkably, they lived there for free. Thanks to the vision of a couple of key bureaucrats, CBC Halifax became a major passive sponsor of the cultural scene over the course of two decades. Having a home in the radio building meant that these groups could thrive during a time when operational funding for arts organizations remained essentially flat. But the generous experiment has wound to a close, forcing these organizations to squeeze their budgets and venture out in search of new homes.

Ann Verrall was shocked when the CBC's director of television asked her what he could do to help.

In 1996, Verrall was heading up Moving Images Group, an effort by a group of industry players to bring professional-level training to the burgeoning film industry in Halifax. After a call to CBC Radio director Susan Mitton with a simple request to borrow some audio manuals, Verrall was approached by Mitton's television counterpart, Fred Mattocks. "That was quite shocking to me," says Verrall, "that the CBC had any interest in what we were doing. Then in that meeting, he asked what he could do to help."

Verrall told him the most pressing concern was space, and by early 1997 MIG was up and running in a beautiful office in the CBC Radio building. The group would continue training Haligonians in the film industry until NSCAD and NSCC eventually took over. "We had a great space. It was huge and looked out over the Public Gardens," says Verrall.

One of MIG's neighbours at CBC was the Atlantic Film Festival. Around 1993, Mattocks had approached the festival to offer it a home in the folds of the Sackville Street building. The AFF had been in temporary digs since 1991, when its home in the top floor of the National Film Board's historic Barrington Street building was destroyed by fire.

"I was talking to Robin"—Johnson, former director of AFF—"one day, and I knew that we had space available in the Radio building. So I said why don't you come here, and pay us rent, and we'll give you the rent back as sponsorship," recalls Mattocks, now the general manager of media operations and technology for CBC English Services, based in Toronto.

He went on to give space to the Centre For Art Tapes, the Linda Joy Awards and the Atlantic Filmmakers' Co-op. "What I was trying to do was bring key players together, and sort of create a centre of film culture," he says.

The CBC's occupied the Radio building since 1944, buying it in 1981 during the salad days of the Mother Corp. "We eventually filled the building," recalls Mattocks, "because we had grown to a certain size. And then we started to shrink."

Cuts in 1991, and then 1996 through 1998, left their mark. That, along with technological efficiencies, meant the Radio building was only half-occupied. Still, filling the space with local arts organizations free of charge met with some friction in the CBC bureaucracy.

"It was an unusual move for the CBC and it took some time to get it through," says Mattocks. "There were a lot of people who weren't happy about it, because they said it was an indirect subsidy. And they were absolutely right, it was an indirect subsidy. But my argument was there's all kinds of indirect subsidies in this business. And we had that big building with empty floors. Why wouldn't we do this?"

There was a need for the space, and Mattocks had a vision. He saw a huge pool of creative talent lacking coherence. By bringing them into the same building, and offering the same operational support, Mattocks hoped to not only boost the independent media arts scene in Halifax, but create a sense of camaraderie and combined sense of purpose. And he succeeded.

"We saw each other on a day-to-day basis," says Mireille Bourgeois, former director of CFAT. "We're all separate from each other now, but you'll see that some of our long-lasting programs are still linked to each other. And it's rooted in physically having been in the same space."

The Centre for Arts Tapes and AFCOOP were especially linked, says Bourgeois: "We shared some equipment, and members for sure. We shared mentors, artists, scholarship students at times too. Some people, like Andrea Dorfman, made a short film at AFCOOP and then did the scholarship program at CFAT to make the audio track. Being in the Radio building really propelled that connectivity to our membership."

The transition to life after the Radio building could have been disastrous for CFAT, AFCOOP and AFF, but all three organizations had prepared for the inevitability thanks to ample warning from CBC for the final evacuation of the building. "They would warn us every year as it was getting closer," recalls Bourgeois. "But then it was summer of 2010, and they said, 'We think it's imminent. You really need to space search.'"

Bourgeois took on directorship of CFAT right before its transition out of the building, and right after the board decided to cut staff to make budgetary room for rent. She had to handle her new responsibilities while searching for a new space and restructuring the entire budget to afford an extra $35,000 or so a year in rent. The only saving grace was this wasn't an unexpected problem.

"It was never supposed to be a permanent home," says Bourgeois. "Basically from the moment we moved in we started building a reserve account for the future, so we could move and have at least a starter fund. And that's the only reason we were actually able to build a new centre."

After a short "cushion" stint in the Roy Building, CFAT moved into a brand-new customized space on Maitland Street in the north end, albeit with less staff than the CBC days.

AFCOOP, despite having put away reserves similar to CFAT, also suffered staff cuts when its new rental costs came online. Currently its staff is down by half, with just two full-time permanent workers in the newer Cornwallis Street headquarters. Like CFAT, the co-op relies on the popular federal-provincial Job Creation Partnership program for extra staffers on six-month contracts.

"I think long-term in order for us to go back to a full complement of staff and be able to do the things that we used to do, we really need a place that is more affordable," says director Martha Cooley. "Though we would love to stay in this space."

Operational funding is a problem in arts organizations, as with most other government funded non-profits. Though the Canada Council has made changes recently, core funding for institutions like AFCOOP, CFAT, the Khyber and Eyelevel Gallery has remained almost flat for a decade. "We're essentially getting funded less every year, because all the other costs go up," says Cooley.

While governments are keen to provide funding for short term, results-driven projects, operational funding is not there to match it. "There's so much project funding that you can get your hands on, but that's really not what the need is," says Mireille Bourgeois. "The need is to help create these projects. Who will run these projects that you've got all that wonderful funding for?"

Here in the Atlantic provinces, organizations are also dealing with a regional disparity in funding. The east coast gets less per capita in Canada Council funding than central Canada or the west. Add in provincial and municipal governments with relatively few resources allotted to cultural development, and it's a tough world for an arts group in the Atlantic provinces.

In Halifax, there could be a sliver of hope on the horizon. The city just closed applications for a new program offering operational funding to arts organizations. City council approved $300,000 in new arts funding to help Halifax inch closer to the national average of per capita support on the arts. The city has already received 36 applications for operating funding, and another 21 for project funding.

Cooley is hopeful the new operational money may help AFCOOP stay put for now, and perhaps even hire back some staff. "It's true that more operational funding would help," she says. "But the other side of it is, how much sense does it make for the city to be giving us money to pay commercial rent? Wouldn't it make more sense for the community to donate buildings, that they could then have these organizations live in?"

Cooley says while AFCOOP is happy in its space, the board and staff are exploring long-term options like the Bloomfield Centre redevelopment, and the future of the St Pat's-Alexandra site, in hopes that they will include affordable spaces for organizations like them.

The Atlantic Film Festival has found a new space partially supported by a sponsor, "but they still have to come up with the other half in hard cash," says senior programmer Ron Foley MacDonald. "When they were at the CBC they didn't pay for that, and they could show more movies and bring more people in and have more prizes."

While AFF communications manager Darren Johnson says there were "no structural changes" due to moving out of the Radio building, in the previous year the film festival had shrunk from 10 days down to eight.

"People like to kick the CBC around a lot," says MacDonald. "But they carried us... AFCOOP and CFAT and the AFF. I mean it's not like they gave one little office. It was a lot of space. It was incredibly generous. And it nurtured the arts scene in Halifax."

To make up for the loss of that space has meant a large amount of money coming directly out of Halifax's arts organizations.

"You're talking upwards of $100,000 a year of passive subsidy," MacDonald surmises. "And those costs all just got applied to those little arts groups, so they all had to cut back, mostly on their programming. You could say it was an arts apocalypse but nobody seemed to notice it."

MacDonald sees a parallel between what the CBC did with the Radio building, and what the National Film Board had done with its equally iconic building on Barrington Street. Up until it burned in 1991, the NFB building was home to the Atlantic Film Festival, and it housed a 120-seat theatre that spawned Wormwood's cinema in 1976.

"The film board had a broader mandate to develop film and media culture," says MacDonald. "They're responsible not just to make films and show them, but to develop film culture. Just as the CBC's broader mandate is to develop culture in general. So this is what they did."

After the NFB fire, the film board moved to a smaller space on Spring Garden Road, and there was no more room for the AFF, or a theatre to be used by the film community.

Twenty years later, CBC is leaving behind the Radio building and moving out to a smaller space in Armdale. It's the "coming to the end of a rather long experiment" where national institutions like the CBC and the NFB were investing in regional centres like Halifax, and in turn supporting local cultural activities in very practical ways.

The Halifax-style community support model is not dead, however, with CBC Vancouver recently announcing a partnership with its city government to fund an entire floor of the Vancouver broadcast centre for use by community cultural organizations. While decisions were being made to sell properties in Halifax, Vancouver's downtown broadcast centre was being renovated and expanded.

With the Radio building coming down soon, and the television building on Bell Road next in line for sale, the CBC's capacity to support the cultural scene has taken a major hit. The remaining question is how will the change affect the broadcaster's ability to be a cultural producer on its own.

"Our production capability in the new building will not be what it is today," says Fred Mattocks, "and that just all comes down to dollars. It was a decision made by the president, Hubert Lacroix, who decided that we could not afford to continue operating a facility of that size in Halifax.

"Ultimately, those decisions get made and things change." a

More than media arts

CBC’s generosity extended beyond the media arts organizations. In fact, even before Mattocks was around, CBC Halifax not only supported but actually gave birth to a key player in the classical music scene across the Atlantic provinces: Debut Atlantic. Radio host and producer Adrian Hoffman founded the group in 1979 while working for CBC Radio, and then saw it grow into an independent organization with its own space in the building, courtesy of then-regional director Bill Donovan. “We started out with a small office on the second floor, just opposite the music library,” recalls Hoffman.

Another upstart in the classical music scene moved into the building in 1992, also thanks to Donovan. The St. Cecilia Concert Series stayed in the building for 11 years, later moving to an equally copacetic location in the Maritime Conservatory.

As CBC’s local top executive, Donovan was responsible for allocating these spaces, setting the precedent for the next few decades of community support by the CBC. “Bill saw the wisdom of saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re in the business of culture. Wouldn’t it be to our advantage to be even closer to these things that are happening?’” recalls Hoffman. Eventually, the dance community also made it into the CBC fold. Mocean Dance started out with an office in the Radio building when it formed in 2001, and kept it until about 2006. And Live Art Dance spent about eight months as CBC guests when its offices in the Green Lantern building were ruined by Hurricane Juan in 2003.

Halifax’s space oddity

Space for artists and arts organizations is a longstanding problem in Halifax, and some have not been fortunate enough to benefit from the free rent and operational supports that CBC provided to many.

Take the Eyelevel Gallery. Director Katie Belcher estimates that the artist-run centre has inhabited 10 different spaces in its 40-year history, with five of those in the last decade alone.

“Halifax is a difficult city in which to find affordable spaces for housing, workspaces and not-for-profits,” says Belcher. “This isn’t unique to the arts community, but given our lack of resources, sustainable space becomes increasingly important.”

After a proposed 30 percent rent increase at its Gottingen Street space in 2013, Eyelevel decided to try something new. The centre moved into a small administrative office in the north end, right alongside AFCOOP. It’s now focusing on a “roaming exhibition model,” programming temporary spaces such as a storefront in Park Lane and the grounds of the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site.

“My concern for the sustainability of art spaces in Halifax has as much to do with finances as real estate,” Belcher says. “With stagnating budgets at all levels, rising costs and a lack of private investment in the arts, organizations struggle to compete nationally, despite the quality of programming. Rent is not the only line in organizational budgets that is suffering from the lack of support. Funding impacts staffing, critical writing, public engagement, education and the development and presentation of artistic practice.”

Building up history

The curvaceous, white, Art Deco radio building was designed in 1933 by renowned Halifax architect Sydney Perry Dumaresq for Nova Scotia business magnate Fred Manning–grandfather of Halifax philanthropist brothers Fred and David Fountain.

Coincidentally, it was Sydney Perry Dumaresq's father, James Charles Dumaresq, who designed the National Film Board building on Barrington Street. Two Dumaresqs, and two iconic buildings that would eventually be inhabited by two national cultural institutions.

The building originally housed a car dealership, a gas station and two floors of offices. Especially noteworthy was Manning’s own office, a luxuriously decorated space looking out over the intersection of South Park and Sackville Streets. The building also featured a special freight elevator big enough to haul cars to a rooftop parkade. Ron Foley MacDonald recalls testing out the elevator in the mid-’80s, to retrieve a massive Steinbeck film editing machine on behalf of the NFB. “Steinbecks were heavy, awkward to move,” says MacDonald. “So we just drove the van right in.”

CBC moved into the building in 1944, and then purchased it in 1981. For a time, the Mother Corp was landlord to Zapata’s, a Mexican restaurant and lounge, which reportedly had the city's cheapest pitchers of sangria. Zapata’s would later become the Radio Room, a street-level event space used not only by the CBC, but by all of its tenants. Screenings, parties, meetings, workshops, even film productions took place in the Radio Room. AFCOOP member and filmmaker Heather Harkins was an avid programmer of the space. “I projected dozens of films in that room,” she says, “trying my hardest to bring good art to the eyes and ears of the Haligonian public…It’s painful to walk down South Park Street and see it all boarded up.”

New owners Southwest Properties plan to demolish the building, along with the neighbouring YMCA property, to make way for a new development.

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