A Cultural Hubba Hubba

Last week I got an email from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to say they were “thrilled to let (me) know that a very exciting announcement has been made today – one that will pave the way for a bold reimagining of what the Province’s premier art destination will become.” At last the stars had aligned for the Art Gallery and the NS College of Art and Design to start planning for a “cultural hub,” a new iconic home on the Halifax waterfront.

Both institutions have had their struggles in the past few years, so I hope this process will lead to good results for us all. I’m fond of them both, and it got me thinking of how I’ve enjoyed all their locations over the decades.

The Art College moved to my childhood neighbourhood in 1957. In fact they took over the big church hall on Coburg Road at Le Marchant, where I attended Sunday School and Cubs. In 1968 a new extension was built. The best photo I can locate on the Internet is of these buildings being demolished in 2008 to make way for the very smart looking Mona Campbell Building.

The old St Andrew’s Church Hall is in the background. It was attached to the 1968 building with the gallery space on the ground floor. (HalifaxHistory.ca)

On the ground floor of the new building was the Anna Leonowens Gallery, home to some of the most significant art events on the continent. It was NSCAD’s moment. Lots of good times here.


And then in 1978, NSCAD made a bold move to Granville Street and became the major tenant on the east side of the last block. This was a gift of life that other cities could only dream of: several hundred spirited art students injected into a derelict section of the failing urban core. It’s my sense that the College has never been sufficiently celebrated for their recognition that they could make a difference downtown. Imagine if other institutions and governments, of all levels, had made similar, enduring commitments.

The east side of Granville Street about 1975, before renovations began. The Anna Leonowens Gallery is now located in the building to the right.

The Bell Building had been a burned out shell for decades. It now houses the large Bell Auditorium.

Meanwhile, the proto Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was the Centennial Art Gallery, located in a 19th-century powder magazine in the Citadel (I’m going to guess the gallery started in 1967). This was not as strange a location as it sounds today. The History Branch of the NS Museum, the Maritime Museum, and the Army Museum were also located in the Citadel, along with the Parks Canada folks. Sort of like a cultural hub. And you were able to drive through the little arch and there was plenty of parking in the Parade Square. Those were the days!

This is what the Centennial Gallery space looks like today, a restored powder magazine. (Look before you live blog.)

The first real home for AGNS was, wait for it, the gallery space on Coburg Road that had just been vacated by NSCAD! This is where the first major folk art exhibit was staged, that was so influential in setting a tone for those early years. Here are some catalogs  for shows from that period.

Dalhousie now owned the Coburg Road site, and AGNS’s search for a permanent home continued for several years. The offer they accepted was a wonderful building that came with many challenges: the old Post Office across from Province House. This pile of Victorian carved sandstone was last used as the RCMP Headquarters, and had been empty for a number of years.

The old Post Office about 1975. Cheapside, the short street in front of the gallery, was closed so the temporary exhibition gallery could be built there, half underground.

Robust basement windows in 1975 are now in the lower hall of the Gallery.

The Gallery’s move into its new home was a really big deal. I was at the opening, and the building was packed with people celebrating what had seemed like an endless struggle to get a real provincial gallery. Here are some of the changes in the Gallery’s visual identity over the years.

And some of their helpful catalogs that we consult regularly.

So what do I really think about the cultural hub concept? I’m conflicted. I’m fond of both institutions. Every year we give both of them a little money, because it is important for them to have many small donors as well as the big philanthropists who will actually enable changes to happen.

One of the big reasons I appreciate the Gallery and the College is that they stepped up and brought new life to parts of the city that were dead in the 70s and 80s. I recognize that their current buildings have all kinds of challenges, but part of the planning for a new hub should include a bright future for the old locations.

The east side of Granville Street, where NSCAD is located, is such an amazing survival. Compare it to the lifeless west side of the block, or how the Royal Bank sucked all the energy out of the next street. Do you remember the window displays that the NSCAD Ceramics students used to install in the Morse’s Tea building?  We always loved to see the class project to make clay chickens. The Ceramics Department got relocated to that perforated metal-clad black box at the Seaport. I have no idea what students are making now.

Maybe I’ll just let the young folks decide what will happen in the future. I’ve certainly enjoyed the past.

Post script

  • A totally gratuitous suggestion (thought of by Sheila) for a future use for the present Art Gallery building. There has been no place to show the Nova Scotia Museum cultural history collections since the 1990s. And the first location of the NS Museum, in the 1860s, just happens to be this very building. You’re welcome.
  • And a few more of my pictures of the Granville and Hollis Street buildings before NSCAD arrived in 1978.

About the author

Stephen Archibald

It’s Stephen Archibald doing the noticing. I’m a huge fan of Nova Scotia’s material culture and cultural landscapes. Twitter (@Cove17 ) made me realize I could share what attracted my attention (perfect for my very short attention) and I’m gratified when folks enjoy my content. Pleased to meet you on the internet.