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Features / August 26, 2010

The Khyber Controversy: Three Years’ Grace

"No Money Down: 15 Years at the Khyber" 2010 Installation view / photo Dan Joyce

Last year, Canadian Art reported on the ongoing controversy surrounding the past, present and future of Halifax’s Khyber Arts Society (formerly the Khyber ICA). Seen by many as the heart of the local art scene, the Khyber has been back in the news this month with the release of a much-anticipated city report on the municipally owned building in which the KAS is located—and, by extension, on the potential future path of the KAS itself.

At first glance, the report and its recommendations, which received the unanimous support of city councillors at an August 10 meeting, seem to give the KAS a degree of hope—at least for the next three years. That’s how long the newly approved plan extends both in terms of the overall building (which the city hopes to develop into an “arts and culture incubator”) and in terms of the KAS’ particular lease on spaces on the second floor of the building.

But that’s not to say that the Khyber’s future is secure. Negotiations between the artist-run centre’s board and the city have been lengthy, with discussions revolving around the KAS’ desire to rebuild its presence at 1588 Barrington Street (based on the quality of its programming and its longstanding importance to the local and national art community) and the city’s determination, in keeping with the revitalization strategies of many other Canadian cities, to develop the “creative capital” of a semi-destitute downtown strip.

Either way, the building itself, which opened in 1888 as a Church of England complex, was purchased by the Halifax Regional Municipality in 1986 and now bears a heritage designation, sits at the crux of the debate. The ornate façade and generous rooms of the building are a crucial part of the KAS’ identity, hence the desire to stay put. (The KAS was founded in 1995 in large part to keep the building publicly owned as an arts facility, with its lease beginning in 1996.) But even though the building is city-owned, it remains in desperate need of municipal-code renovations, including the installation of an elevator—no cheap task in a Victorian-era building. Often, the discussion has boiled down to the all-too-familiar question of cultural versus economic value.

All of these recent and long-past developments leave the KAS in an awkward, though guardedly optimistic, position. The terms of this latest plan are characteristically vague—while the city has officially endorsed the building as a site for arts and culture and promises to support the KAS’ continued operation on the second floor for the next 36 months, it retains overall say on arts programming and whatever else might happen in the rest of the building. At the same time, the KAS would like to expand its current gallery space and eventually turn the third floor into a semi-permanent venue for film screenings along the lines of its Carbon Arc series, a venture that intrinsically depends on city cooperation. The immediate future of the building’s main-floor space—which has been suggested as a viable location for a café or other culturally sympathetic business venture—remains up in the air. And there is no firm commitment for the required structural renovations or for the longer-term future of the KAS.

Nonetheless, many have their fingers are crossed that, one way or another, Khyber staff and supporters can achieve their wider vision while retaining municipal goodwill. Let the negotiations begin, again.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.