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Art History

The Khyber Arts Centre is bankrupt. But the city’s new civic heritage places program might just save it from being a thing of the past.


It’s a sunny but shockingly frigid January afternoon on Barrington. A thick veil of condensation covers the front window of the Mud Room, hiding Emily Vey Duke as she walks in from the cold. She looks tired, but that’s not unusual—fatigue is the uniform for anyone employed by a not-for-profit organization, especially one that faces closing its doors.

“I just got out of a meeting,” she says, looking a little shell-shocked. “Our bookkeeper said to me, ‘Emily, the Khyber is beyond bankruptcy.’”

Vey Duke is the director of the Khyber Arts Society, the artist-run centre best identified by the building it lives in. Built in 1888 by Henry Frederick Busch, the Khyber’s Victorian red brick façade sits confidently in the middle of Barrington, between a misfit mural of golden-age Hollywood stars, retail outlets and empty doorways offering a respite from the cold. It also serves as home to several arts-related businesses, the Nova Scotia Heritage Trust, and most famously, the Khyber Club, a bar and live music spot. It’s also the building that destroyed the artist-run centre and then saved it again.

The Khyber Arts Society, named after a popular café that operated in the building in the 1970s, came together the same way that the best ideas always do—over drinks. By 1994 the city-owned building was empty of tenants. A group of artists called the No Money Down Cultural Society negotiated with the city to take care of the building, in exchange for exhibition space and a dance club. However, it became clear that the city had other ideas for the Khyber, when it placed the building on the market—even though it was during the tail-end of a major real estate recession. The artists fought back with a public campaign, officially incorporating themselves as the not-for-profit Khyber Arts Society in March of 1995.

According to Dan Walsh, who served on the Khyber board of directors for three years until June 2004, the artist-run centre is a municipal success story. “The Khyber has a special relationship with the city. It survived despite the odds. People forget that in ’95, ’96, Barrington was like Beirut. Artists moved into the Khyber which was about to get hit with a wrecking ball, and basically fixed it up.”

The artists gained support from several members of city council, but when the adjoining Neptune Theatre’s expansion required extensive structural renovations to the building, the city’s promise of a $1 per-year lease was no longer on the table. The Khyber Arts Society negotiated a $3,000 per month lease for the entire building, in exchange for playing landlord to a motley crew of residents, which currently includes the Khyber Digital Media Centre, Wareshana Pottery and Ultramagnetic Recording (“The Mullet”).

Anyone who is a landlord (or tenant) knows the stress of dealing with late rent cheques, frozen pipes and tax issues. To combine those responsibilities with those of an arts administrator—an often thankless job of endless grant applications, budget juggling and public relations—borders on cruel. However, in order to put food on the table and paint on the palette, many ill-prepared artists take low-paying administrative jobs or volunteer to gain enough experience to qualify for low-paying jobs at other not-for-profit organizations. The Khyber’s last director, Chris Lloyd, was apparently “crazy” when he left Halifax for art-friendly Montreal, burnt out from juggling both roles for almost four years.

According to Vey Duke, whose lack of practical administrative experience is made up by her smarts and her profile within the artistic community (she and partner Cooper Battersby create poetic videos with wry social commentary—their video Being Fucked Up should be included on high school curriculums), the on-the-job training began immediately when she started working there last summer. On her first day, she received a phone call about outstanding debts to the city.

In 2002 when a property tax bylaw was amended, the Khyber applied for a special exemption status for cultural and social organizations. When a tax bill for $11,925 appeared in their mail-slot (smack-dab in the middle of their lease renewal negotiations), Walsh says they were reassured by HRM Tax & Grant staff several times that there was no reason to worry, their situation was still under review. Months would lapse between communications from the city, leaving Lloyd and the Khyber board to think that the bills would go away, then another would appear.

According to a report from the Khyber’s annual general meeting, invoices also started appearing for false fire alarm charges dating back to November 2000 (landlords are charged whenever there’s a false call). Then there’s an outstanding Business Occupancy Tax bill from the Khyber Club, plus the loss of revenue from when the bar closed for two months while between management. A lack of heat during the winter of 2003 made the Khyber’s Turret space too cold to rent.

The details of exactly what transpired during the past two years varies slightly depending on who you speak to; the Khyber board is now made up of a different group than when the debt started piling up, and staff members have moved on. But however they got there, by November 2004 the Society ran out of money, couldn’t pay its rent and Vey Duke started losing sleep. Interest was accumulating at $20 per day. According to John O’Brien, HRM’s corporate communications officer, the Khyber owes $40,000 ($17,000 in taxes and $23,000 in operating and rent).

Clutching her chai latte, Vey Duke runs through her list of options. There are provincial grants available, but unlikely as the province doesn’t fund organizations that are not considered “stable” (the Khyber currently receives a pitiful $2,300 in operating money). They might qualify for $15,000 from the Canada Council, but the emergency funds would only be a temporary fix.

Vey Duke still hopes against hope that the city might see the value that the Khyber provides to the city. “The Khyber was the first place I had a solo show. It was the first place I ever volunteered. If it hadn’t been for the Khyber, there’s much I wouldn’t have learned about how things work. It taught me that even complete incompetent idiots could be in charge, and that was really reassuring for me,” she laughs.

Incredibly, just a couple weeks later, the demi-god we like to call “Heritage” saves the day. The Civic Heritage Places Program, launched on February 21 by HRM’s department of Recreation, Tourism and Culture, is a marketing program aimed at improving financial stability, awareness and tourist traffic to heritage sites around the city, starting with six pilot projects, including the Khyber building. In exchange for an early “friendly surrender” or cancellation of the Khyber Society’s lease on April 1 (the lease was not due for renewal until 2008), the city will absolve all its debt. Vey Duke is shocked by their sudden fortune—now she can resume programming and exhibitions in a scaled-back space.

“We would probably provide them some limited source of the space as a resource centre,” says O’Brien, “maybe four or six months and that will allow our staff and the Capital District to conclude our consultations with the public on our cultural planning.”

HRM is now forming a volunteer Cultural Advisory Volunteer Committee and planning public consultations with the intention of having a cultural plan for city council by September. “We’ll determine whether people think there should be more cultural centres in the downtown core,” says O’Brien. “We’re going to help the Society prepare a business plan to see where they’re going in the future. And we’re working with them to try to find a common ground.”

Part of the business plan includes finding the Khyber a less expensive and stressful home. Although the details are still being worked out, Dan Norris, manager of the new heritage spaces program, suggested to Vey Duke that a move to the skeletal burnt-out NFB building next door, along with the Paradise Sisters Film Society, is a definite possibility within the next two years. As to what the long-term plans are for the Khyber building, that’s in city council’s hands.

“The building could be put up for sale if council decides—it is protected as a historical building—or there may be other uses,” says O’Brien. “Right now, the main thing has been to address the Society and its growing debt.”

Although rumours are abuzz about NSCAD’s interest in the Khyber building, president Paul Greenhalgh is keeping the school’s plans quiet.

“It’s a very beautiful piece of architecture right in the centre of town and I want to see it remain in the public domain. I don’t want to see it sold to private interests,” he says. “I would want the general public to have access to that building. It would be a very good thing for HRM to make it clear that they’re open to a discussion about the cultural public function of the building. If it’s not going to be the Khyber, than some other public function.”

Greenhalgh and other SuperCitizens will have an opportunity to voice their opinions about heritage buildings and cultural issues at upcoming public consultations. Dates are still to be announced for these meetings which will give the public a say in the city’s new cultural policy. Without input from the experts—individuals in the visual arts, theatre, dance, literary and music fields—any cultural plan created by a city committee won’t be worth the binder it sits in.

But many in the visual arts community are rightfully skeptical about the city’s commitment to culture: There was no mention of cultural funding in last Tuesday’s budget, HRM is the only city of its size in the country without a municipal art gallery, and city councillors rarely make appearances at exhibition openings.

Jeffrey Spalding, director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, thinks that the visual arts community needs to get vocal in a positive way. “We have to tell people what we need,” he says. Spalding cites the promotion of the province’s music industry as an example of the possibilities. “If you can find the value in music, then you should be able to see the visual arts community’s achievements. We should be celebrating our fine creative artists. Look at NSCAD—it’s a highly ranked school. We’ve earned the bragging rights.”

If anyone needs more motivation to appear at public consultations about culture, stop in at the Khyber on a Saturday afternoon. Chances are you’ll see a group of teenage girls on the floor of the Ballroom Gallery, laughing and chatting amidst scattered piles of art supplies. It’s easy to miss Vey Duke in the circle—she could be a cool older sister to these teenagers who give up coveted Saturday afternoons to hang out in an art gallery.

The girls are part of a high school studio program, initiated by the Khyber as a response to a decrease in visual arts programs in schools. Their work is the next show scheduled for the Ballroom.

“They are really the thing that during all of this has kept me sane,” says Vey Duke. “They love it. Almost every one of them is going to apply to NSCAD. It’s changed their lives.”

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