I’m tired of explaining why art matters, because I always figured it was something we understood, really, when we got out of our own way—a riff on that old, coffee mug-ready Picasso quote that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once [she] grows up.” We know it because, when the world turned upside down and closed its doors, we gathered around our phones for live-streamed plays and broadcasted concerts, a lifeline of community and connection. We know it because when the world showed us its ugliest parts, art was there with its most beautiful ones, waiting as a respite. We know art matters because it presents ideas and feelings for us to dissect and devour. Yes, art entertains us. But it also, as we know, challenges us. It reminds us we’re alive—and sometimes, helps us stay that way.
I’m tired of talking about how theatres, music venues and artist-run centres are money-makers, both because they offer meaningful employment and because they create economic spinoff and foot traffic in the neighbourhoods they enrich. I’m tired of explaining that art makes places interesting: Something to see and listen to and feel and maybe even identify with, breaking up the mundane of our routines and getting us out into the city we choose to live in, engaging with a place instead of just existing in it.
I’m tired of finding new words to say that art makes people interesting, too: In our consumption and metabolizing of art, it becomes a little part of us, the way our bodies hold onto the calcium we eat for stronger bones.
These days call for strong bones—and stronger wills, of course. And I know I’m not the only one who’s tired (we have all been burdened and broken in unique, awful ways this past year). I can’t help but think at this point, though, that art’s ability to survive—despite the ways we expect it to be cheap or free, despite the way it’s been scrubbed out of public school—is becoming its own, additional burden: Art’s always been there for us and we expect it to keep doing so, even as venues struggle and funding falls chronically behind. We undervalue it with one hand and ask for more from it with the other.
As we enter the next phase of the province’s COVID-19 reopening plan, we have the chance to imagine a better society. How does art fit into that? How can we show up for what’s always been there when we needed it most?
All this is rattling in my mind when speaking with Vanessa LePine, vice president of the Dartmouth Players Society. She isn’t just in the business of making plays come to life onstage. She’s also in the business of letting the idea of theatre pollinate in people’s minds, rooting and blooming in spite of themselves: “People come in and be like, ‘I've never gone to a theatre show before, but this is my first one and it was fantastic’ and they become regular customers or clients who come to see our shows,” she says, speaking with me by phone.
LePine’s work is about to get harder as the Dartmouth Players struggle to find a new stage. Right now, they're prepping to stage Molière's classic comedy Tartuffe, a story about a 1600s Caroline Calloway-type, from Oct 22-Nov 6. But, the company’s current home—Sawmill Playhouse, inside St. Peter’s Church—is on its last legs, with the Dartmouth Players needing to vacate by July 2022. The substantial work needed to make 33 Crichton Avenue a viable option (“over $100,000 worth of renovations and that’s just a bare minimum,” LePine says) mean Dartmouth's only community theatre needs to find a new place to call home.
In today’s reopening Halifax Regional Municipality, though, the question often is: Where?
“I think that it's been an ongoing crisis, maybe 10 years in the making,” Emily Davidson, president of the Turret Arts Space Society tells me, speaking by phone on another rainy morning. “But I do think that COVID has changed some of the aspects around art spaces, and worsened the realities in many ways.”
What does that worsened reality look like? In part, it’s talented creators being unable to display work, bands without a venue to play, and the few spaces that are doing well drowning in trying to meet everyone’s needs.
Davidson knows all about it: she’s been part of the team working to reopen an arts and culture hub in the historic Khyber building downtown since 2014. (That’s the gothic, turreted building at 1588 Barrington Street—not to be confused with the Khyber Centre For The Arts, an artist-run centre located on Hollis Street.) “We need The Turret Art Space and The Bus Stop [Theatre], and The Blue Building and Culture Link [meaning The Lighthouse Arts Centre, a multi-purpose culture hub in the former World Trade and Convention Centre], and a building for the Dartmouth Players. You need a big multiplicity so that there's opportunities for people to plug in—in their neighbourhoods, in central areas, and for people to go see this stuff,” she explains, comparing the city’s arts scene to an ecosystem. “The arts work because there's an audience and artists. And so we actually need the spaces to connect audiences and artists together.”
Without spaces for emerging artists as well as established ones to exhibit, for different genres and subcultures to convene, for different communities to take part in art, we run the risk (and arguably, the result) of atrophy.
All this was already on Halifax’s plate pre-pandemic, but after 500-plus days of financial and societal upheaval, it’s just one more turd in the shit sandwich that life is handing the city’s creative sector. Sweeping changes COVID demanded from arts organizations in the time of physical distancing—pivoting to online shows, slashing already-small in-person capacities, cancelling programming altogether—cascaded into trouble for venues, where business models are based on in-person attendance. The recently shuttered Cunard Centre is a high-profile pandemic victim.
“We are faced with a real problem of where to put on art shows right now, because not all the venues that existed before COVID are going to reopen,” Davidson adds.
To build on Davidson’s analogy, right now in a reopening, getting-back-to-normal Halifax, the arts ecosystem reflects the brittleness of the *actual* ecosystem in the climate change era: We need more spaces in more places to make more art. Today’s surviving venues have to be different things for different crowds, evolving into multi-purpose spaces that mimic a 10-function pocket tool.
“We would rather be spending our time developing amazing shows with great sets, with fantastic people instead of putting our time into ‘Well, where are we going to have this next show?’”
On its own, that versatility is not a bad thing—but when one space is booked (which is often the case for the successful ones, like the recently reopened Bus Stop Theatre, which evaded the chopping block last year when it purchased its building at 2203 Gottingen Street), there isn’t always a guaranteed second place in town to show your event.
Before COVID, The Bus Stop tended to be booked over 250 days out of roughly 340 operating days of the year, and that’s only stage performances. To put this in perspective, that means “In 2019, our last full year of operations pre-pandemic, we had turned away 69 booking requests, translating to 213 days of artistic activity lost or delayed,” as TBS’s executive director, Sébastien Labelle, explains one September afternoon in the building’s main room. (It’s worth remembering that The Bus Stop is the city’s last-standing indie theatre, with the north end’s two other theatres—The Waiting Room and The Living Room—papered over for condos and a doggie day care, respectively, in the last five years.)
Last summer, when artist Emily Falencki, artists and Wonder'neath Art Society co-founders Heather Wilkinson and Melissa Marr and artist/Wonder'neath board of directors president LaMeia Reddick announced the collaboration that would go on to be called the 2482 Maynard project (home of the city’s buzziest new art gallery, The Blue Building, as well as Wonder’neath), it was an immediate run-away success. In the handful of non-locked-down months the space has been open to the public, it’s shown Sobey award-winning artist Ursula Johnson’s first solo Nova Scotian show in seven years. It’s also become a new home for the chronically lease-insecure Eyelevel Gallery. (Eyelevel had been subletting the upstairs at 2177 Gottingen Street, a building leased by Radstorm—another important arts space in the city. Radstorm has been fundraising to purchase the building since 2019.)
“You can count on one hand the number of spaces that are actually suitable on the peninsula anymore; those spaces are going permanently,” Heather Wilkinson of 2482 Maynard told me last August. “So if you want to keep artists in Halifax, we need to make a commitment to space.”
And while that’s exactly what Wilkinson and Co. did, it’ll take more than one or two success stories—as vibrant and innovative as The Blue Building and The Bus Stop are—to turn the tide. Wondering about The Lighthouse Arts Centre, The Culture Link’s repurposing of the former World Trade and Convention Centre at 1800 Argyle Street? Even it isn’t a silver-bullet solution on its own—despite what politicians might promise when they say it’ll bring an “unprecedented number of creative sector entrepreneurs” under one roof, as then-Culture minister Leo Glavine said to The Coast in 2018, when $10 million in funding was announced for the project. (Home to a TV production studio, a dance studio and a performance hall among smaller event spaces, The Lighthouse is scheduled to host its first events in 2022.)
When I dream my most utopian vision of Kjipuktuk, one aspect that always comes to mind is The Lighthouse and The Blue Building no longer being the types of stories I rush breathlessly to report on, because art incubators are so ubiquitous it doesn’t feel like news. We’re not there yet, to put it mildly. (To put it strongly would be saying that we never will be without a major priority shift, a shoulder-shaking wake-up call.) The most exciting, highest-end venue alone won’t be enough—because an art-filled city requires art to have more than one postal code.
In the meantime, LePine keeps returning to the question of where Dartmouth Players’ fall 2022 slate will be held. “We would rather be spending our time developing amazing shows with great sets, with fantastic people instead of putting our time into ‘Well, where are we going to have this next show?’” she says.
“Let’s not mistake great creative problem- solving for no problem,” says Davidson. “And let’s not mistake the problem as the rents increasing—when the problem is under-funding from the city, the province and the federal government.”