Khyber building’s future waits on public input

The public speaks out for the future of Khyber, council still to vote on historic landmark.

Located on Barrington Street, The Khyber Building is a landmark for promoting arts and culture in downtown Halifax. Photo: Aly Thomson

The historic artist-run centre, the Khyber Building, may be going through some changes next month.

The 122-year-old building has only been in use 28 per cent since November 2005, when the Halifax Regional Municipality had to revoke a facility management agreement with the Khyber Arts Society. The HRM restricted their use of the building to one floor because the society wasn't holding up it's end of the bargain.

"For the amount we want to do, it's not enough space," says Daniel Joyce, Interim Director of the society, chuckling at one of the Khyber's recent events. "We have to serve cold drinks out of buckets of ice."

Joyce often gets calls and emails from artists wanting to show at the Khyber, but they only have limited time and space. Now, the city and the society have commissioned a feasibility study to find the best way to get the doors of the building opened again. The study outlines five possibilities for the building, as well as costs, benefits, the necessary restorations and benchmark comparisons to artist-run centres in other cities.

  1. KAS owns and operates building
  2. HRM owns; KAS operates under a facility management agreement (takes part in maintenance etc.)
  3. HRM Owns; KAS has lease as sole tenant with right to sub-let
  4. HRM Owns; KAS is one of several tenants
  5. HRM Owns; lease with other organization as facility manager; KAS may or may not move elsewhere

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Daniel Joyce is a NSCAD graduate and has been involved with the Khyber Arts Society since 2007. Photo: Aly Thomson

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The History of the Khyber Building, in Halifax Nova Scotia, from 1888 to Present

The HRM Culture and Heritage Development office organized two public meetings last month, to educate citizens about the options. 

"Every project that HRM works on we try to seek input from the public," says Christine Lavoie from HRM Culture and Heritage Development. "It's critical that the public gets to tell us what it is that they want, what they're looking for what they're ideas are."

After the meetings, an online and mail-in survey was made available to Haligonians to give residents their say about the building's future. Since then, the HRM has received 234 responses, and more are still coming in.

"The city has stepped up a bit more in the last couple years, I think they've slowly been recognizing the importance of having a cultural entity like the Khyber, that can do events for the community and help foster artists and foster musicians," says Joyce.

But it's been a long journey. Joyce says it was frustrating watching the city come and change the locks on all the doors in 2005.

The deadline for the survey was Friday, Jan. 9, but the results probably won't go before council until early February. Lavoie says it will take a while to tabulate and put together a report on the results. Joyce is optimistic the city will vote in the society's favour.

"Originally the Khyber was supposed to be a multi-purpose three-floor venue where there can be recording, community events, art galleries, a meeting space, cafes, bars," says Joyce.

"Our mandate is to promote contemporary arts, so that could mean anything. Now, we really only have the ballroom gallery...so it's primarily visual arts right now and then bands and music once and a while."

He hopes the city will choose the third scenario, in which it would own and maintain the building and have the society as the sole tenant. Ultimately the society hopes to achieve a progressive agreement with the city where the society can gradually take more responsibility for the building, and when able, buy it.

He says the society is already underfunded and in its present state wouldn't be able to afford all the necessary restorations for the building.

The report outlines several immediate changes that would need to be made in order for the building to be fully functional, accessibility being the main issue. The report says the building will need:

  • more washrooms
  • better ventilation
  • an elevator

Joyce says if the city can take the reigns, the society will be free to focus on programming.

"We want to start a licensed cafe on the first floor," he says. "Open up this space too so the whole second floor can be used as a gallery, then the third floor like an independent cinema, like it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s." 

NSCAD student Gillian Berry says Halifax has huge potential for the arts.

"There's a lot of potential in Halifax for there to be more. I think it's growing, but there's definitely room for more growth in that area," says the third-year interdisciplinary student.

She says buildings such as the Khyber create a community and a space where artists can come together.

"It provides a venue and organization for different groups of people and just draws everything together more. With any kind of music, dance, or fine arts there's always people doing new things but you never know about what others are doing. I think it's essential," she says.

Joyce agrees. "If you're going to be promoting your culture, this is the kind of place where culture is fostered and where it happens. It's not just in tourist shops with their folk art," he says.

"I think there's a really bright future ahead. There's going to be some major changes in the next couple of years and with the support from the city we'll really be able to do some amazing things."

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