A question of priorities

Photo: Bruce Murray

Mere days after Nova Scotia public works minister Kim Masland vowed in July to cover an unbudgeted $8-million overrun for a new elementary school in Springhill, her boss, Premier Tim Houston, announced he was indefinitely delaying construction of the new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) due to a predicted $25-million hike in building costs. “We value the arts,” he said. “But now is not the time.” 

The decision, which effectively kiboshes Nova Scotia’s biggest and most-hotly anticipated cultural project in decades, is leaving many in the arts community wondering about the future. 

While all who spoke to Unravel agree that COVID-era angst over education, health care, housing, food, jobs, and runaway inflation is legitimate, they also wonder: when is it a good time for a glittering new cultural mecca? Can publicly funded arts ever get a break when the fiscal chips are down? 

More pointedly, perhaps, if a new gallery ever does get built, what should it be for increasingly diverse and perennially underrepresented segments of the citizenry? 

Speaking on behalf of AGNS management, spokesman Colin Stinson refused an interview with Unravel, instead emailing a carefully worded statement from board of governors acting chair Grant Machum. 

“We strongly believe that a new gallery is a … large part of what attracts people to Nova Scotia and contributes to the provincial economy,” Machum says. “We will continue to work” to revive the project. 

The cost of the halted project is now estimated at $163 million, compared with a 2020 budget of $137 million ($70 million from the province, $30 million from the federal government, and the rest from donors). 

Visual Arts Nova Scotia executive director Benny Welter-Nolan (they/them) says the project is well worth the cost. 

“Nova Scotians deserve this public space designed by a visionary team of artists and architects,” they say. “It’s disappointing to see this government undercut the value of the arts in their decision to defund the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The message it sends is that the arts are their lowest priority; that connecting with each other and our humanity, being exposed to new ideas and perspectives, and having public access to beauty and inspiration isn’t a valuable investment.” 

“The decision to defund this project makes us very worried about future funding decisions,” says Benny Welter-Nolan, Visual Arts N.S

At the same time, they note, “I believe that Nova Scotians deserve better health care and that funding the arts also contributes to (their) wellbeing and that these two, invaluable public goods shouldn’t be framed in conflict.” 

They’re not alone. Tara Taylor is a playwright, filmmaker, and a former artist-in-residence at Halifax Public Libraries. In 2021, she wrote an evaluation of arts funding in Nova Scotia for the social advocacy group Inspiring Communities. “The AGNS decision is a concern, as it is one of our largest, local institutions,” she says. “If you get rid of that, then what else are you going to get rid of?” 

Just as troubling, she says, is the scattershot nature of cultural grants in the province. She points, for example, to $23 million in funding in March for a new film and TV sound stage and content development. 

“Even though I am in the film industry, I kind of wonder: did that take away from funding for this and other forms of art?” she says. “To say, now, that there’s not enough money (for the art gallery), doesn’t quite fit right.” In her evaluation report for Inspiring Communities, she recommends the province make the grant process more transparent by having a clear process to set, define, and review its funding priorities. 

Even so, given the way governments work under the present, precarious circumstances, finding the yellow brick road might be easier. 

In its current budget, the Houston government says it “focuses on solutions for our most oppressing challenges.” Specifically, “fixing health care, strategically growing our population and economy, and investing in supports for our families and communities will move our province forward.” It leaves the details of this momentum to its departmental business plans. 

The summary for Health and Wellness, for example, stipulates total “departmental expenses” of $4.3 billion this year, compared with $4.1 billion (forecasted) in the last fiscal year. Under Education and Early Childhood Development, the expense is $1.7 billion, compared with $1.6 billion. For Community Services, it’s $1.2 billion, versus $1.1 billion. In each, departmental line items are explicable, showing increases attached to clear objectives (physicians services, health authorities, public education, early learning, family support, employment services, etc.) 

For Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage, however, it’s harder to discern the “supports” that “move our province forward”, let alone any “solutions for our oppressing challenges.” Of the department’s overall $142-million budget of (compared with $252 million forecasted last year), the AGNS accounts for $2.3 million, where it has hovered over the past couple of years. 

As the government’s Communities, Sport and Recreation, and Policy and Corporate Services units receive funding hikes, the budgets for Culture and Heritage Development, Acadian Affairs and Francophonie, and African Nova Scotia Affairs all drop. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping the minister’s and deputy minister’s office is expected to rise to an estimated $1,008,000 this year, from $778,000. 

None of which, critics say, bodes well for the arts or the prospective new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. 

Says Welter-Nolan: “The decision to defund this project makes us very worried about future funding decisions for the department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage … It’s a disheartening failure of imagination.” 

Imagination is, of course, the AGNS’s stock in trade. Established in 1908, the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts was entrusted to maintain the Crown’s 200-piece art collection. In the early years, the institution went from one sometimes unlikely spot to another (including, at one point, Citadel Hill’s gunpowder magazine). 

That began to change in 1975 with a new name and a mandate to develop its collection and find a permanent home. In 1988, it moved into the Dominion Building on Bedford Row, and, 10 years later, expanded into two floors of the Provincial Building on Hollis Street. 

Many renovations later, the AGNS’s 90,000 square feet of space houses more than 19,000 works from more than 4,000 artists — including Alex Colville, Tom Forrestall, Edith Smith and, of course, Maud Lewis — and attracts more than 60,000 visitors from across Canada and the world. 

In recent years, the AGNS’s board and management have been explicit about their objectives: to remain (or become) more inclusive, diverse, and broadly representative of Nova Scotia’s visual arts community and secure bigger, better digs. Until July, both goals seemed on track. 

The 142,000-square-foot facility, announced in 2019, would be the centrepiece of a new Waterfront Arts District, drawing as many as 120,000 people a year to see more, and more diverse, art. The winning design by KPMB Architects included an entrance patterned on the traditional peaked hats Mi’kmaw women sometimes wore. 

A rendering of the proposed new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Illustration: Submitted

“This is just the beginning of a new beginning,” Elder Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, told a public event in 2020. “It’s a circle, so to speak, with no beginning and no end. Just a world of opportunity.” 

Indeed, as the AGNS’s most recent “vision” document poignantly points out, “The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has a bold future ahead as it takes its place as the icon on the Halifax waterfront and as a leader in contemporary Canadian art. Our ongoing and critical research and scholarship programs will continue to provide context and thought leadership in the arts as we shift our story to a contemporary focus.” 

Above all, the brochure says, the AGNS “is a gallery for the people of Nova Scotia and visitors to the province. This vision is just the start. We aim to ignite new ways of thinking among all Nova Scotians as we challenge perception and complacency by sparking conversations about relevant issues through art and art programming.” 

In the end, several in the arts community believe this may be the AGNS’s way back from this preemptive cut and, possibly, future ones. 

After all, a provincially funded art gallery that is “for, of, and by the people” has a better chance of weathering budget cuts if the public feels it has its own skin in the game. “Just because you have a new building doesn’t mean that everyone’s just going to flock to it,” says Adriana Afford, founder and proprietor of Argyle Fine Art on Barrington Street. 

Afford likes to specialize in emerging, local talent, and thinks the AGNS would do itself a favour by following suit more often. “In for the long haul, you have to make sure you have programming and events and more accessible times so that you really do reach a broader audience,” she says. “They have had some really, really strong shows featuring Nova Scotia artists in the last couple of years … That’s probably what they’re envisioning that this is going to be like when they get the new building.” 

For his part, Machum isn’t ready to hang up the brushes just yet. Although he appreciates that rising construction costs and “health-care infrastructure” is ordering government priorities right now, he insists the AGNS is a space for community wellness and education. “I have been personally assured by Premier Houston that his government remains committed to a new gallery,” he says. 

As for private support for the new building, he told the 30-some people who attended the AGNS’s annual meeting in September that about $30 million is ready to flow just as soon as Nova Scotia stops biting the bullet. 

Of course, governments will always find some bullets easier to bite than others. 

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