Left and Leaving Halifax

It has not been a good year for those that sacrifice themselves to lead the energetic arts and culture sector in Halifax. There is a growing feeling, hovering somewhere between ennui and abject despair, and it is expressing itself throughout the province’s creative continuum.

Halifax has never been an easy town to love if you are a creative person, or as the bureaucrats call them, “cultural worker.” The city and the province it is capital of have never had particularly good support for the arts, and if anything, the gap between expectations and support has never been wider.

In fact, many worry that the limited success we have had in the absence of adequate funding and resources has in fact made it even harder to convince government that more funding is desperately required.

Arguably, Halifax’s reputation as an international centre for art has its roots in the incredible experiment that was NSCAD in the 1970s. For a time, our humble art college was THE world leading institution in art and design.

Garry Neill Kennedy lead the college to unimaginable heights, but the support to continue this momentum, for growth and international leadership, was simply not forthcoming from the Provincial or Federal funders. Don’t get me wrong, NSCAD is still a good institution, and probably better than we deserve, but like most things in Nova Scotia the raw potential of the organization is not being realized due to insufficient leadership and lack of funding.

The situation with NSCAD can be used as a template or referent for the challenges faced by virtually every other arts agency, institution, or business in the province. From craft to film to music, from higher education to art galleries, the potential for greatness is there, but not realized.

Provincially, funding is stagnant. The current government promised to double funding during the election, and then increase the $7 million dollar budget by just $450,000. Vital organizations from the Tattoo to the Writers Federation have not seen significant increases in funding since the 1980s.

Costs continue to rise, funding does not, and the end result is decreasing programming and slashed services. Depending on who you speak too, Nova Scotia’s funding is either the lowest or the middle of the national pack, per capita. How can we lead the nation with anything less than top notch funding?

On the municipal level, the much vaunted “culture plan” has yet to result in concrete action or funding. The HRM has, I am told, over 2200 pieces of art in storage. The city has an entire museum, the Dartmouth Heritage Museum, in storage. The city has finally, after 23 months, reposted the cultural officer job that has been empty since Keith McPhail fled the position is despair in 2005.

There may be meetings underway, there may be “multi-stakeholder committees” meeting and discussing plans, but at the end of the day, the council has yet to commit serious and even adequate money to funding culture.

The most depressing example was told to me at a recent brainstorming session for Symphony Nova Scotia, where we were told that Halifax funds our symphony the least of all municipalities in Canada, with $15,000 a year. The next lowest, you ask? Edmonton at $100,000, and the support rises rapidly in other cities from there. Halifax wants world class art and music? Show us the money!

The creative energy in Halifax has never been stronger. The raw potential is there to have a cultural powerhouse, to be a centre, if not the centre, of independent arts and culture production in English Canada.

The people who sacrifice to stay in a city they love, to create and live their lives, do so in large part because they perceive that things will change for the better. They think that society wants art, wants creativity, and is willing to fund opportunities, and also, to fund not just good or adequate institutions, but amazing and world class institutions and agencies.

Halifax has the potential to be better than average. Halifax can and should be great, but the question remains, will leadership, vision, action and money come in time? Will it come before the current batch of cultural leaders end up packing up and abandoning the city in frustration, and exhaustion? Time is running out.


Waye Mason is music and festival promoter, business consultant and activist in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


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