An American in Halifax: Exploring the City’s Arts Scene

Boston-based travel writer Paul Kandarian spent four days in Nova Scotia’s capital, absorbing its arts, history, dining and nightlife. Though his time was too short, he still fell in love. The following article is the second travel story in Paul’s four-part series. In this installment, he chronicles his experiences of Halifax’s arts and culture.


 

I’m in a long queue waiting to get see Romeo and Juliet at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia one fall Wednesday night.

The line, full of young and old alike, winds out of the theater on Argyle Street, down Sackville, around the corner and halfway down Barrington.

Biding my time, I look around. Over there, the Fireworks Gallery, fine jewelry crafted by the hands of maritime artists. Nearby, the Khyber Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Quite close is Attica, a fine furnishings store begun by two graduates of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, selling wares designed by many local artisans.

And it hits me: Halifax is one great Canadian city in love with the arts. Theatre, galleries, music, exhibitions: you want it, you got it.

My first-ever visit to Halifax is a scant four days, hardly enough time to embrace the arts the city teems with.

Perfect Storm for the Arts

“Part of it is being the biggest city in four provinces, we attract people from across the region,” says Ray Cronin, director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, a whopping 90,000-square-foot entity on Hollis Street with a permanent collection of 15,000-plus objects.

“It’s having an art school, the visual arts, some 30 university galleries, commercial galleries. There’s a do-it-yourself attitude here, people don’t expect anything, you see little theatre companies popping up and artists setting up temporary spaces, in apartments, wherever they can. There’s a feeling of making it happen despite a lack of resources.”

Culture, Cronin tells me, “has always been a big part of the Maritimes. It’s central to us, it spreads through the walls of all places.”

What It Means to Be Canadian

At the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, I get a sense of what it means to be Canadian as I marvel at a wonderful exhibit featuring the work of Maud Lewis, renowned Nova Scotia folk artist—which includes her tiny, painstakingly restored house.

I’m partial to small galleries touting local art, and one that can’t be beat is Bog Gallery over in the Hydrostone Market on Young Street. It’s fun, funky, alive, with items by some of Atlantic Canada’s finest artisans and crafters, pottery, glass work, photographs, handmade baskets.

Over on Doyle Street is Zwicker’s Gallery, featuring the work of many locals, including Douglas Lawley, famous for his paintings of Sable Island ponies; Don Manning, another Nova Scotia College of Art and Design alum who lives in Halifax and paints stunning coastal scenes; and Joe Norris, local fisherman turned artist, creating folk paintings based on his life in the fishing village of Prospect, whose work has graced national collections.

One terrific gallery—and not just because of the free admission—is the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, which focuses on contemporary art featuring emerging and established artists active on the regional, national and international levels.

Growing Arts Scene

As numerical evidence of Halifax’s abiding respect for the arts, consider Nocturne: Art at Night, a free, annual fall festival bringing the energy of arts to the streets that last year drew 20,000 people.

“The energy is the artists doing performances, projections, impromptu things,” Cronin says. “We had 5,000 people in just at our gallery, we just couldn’t fit any more in.”

And Romeo and Juliet? Blew me away, and so worth waiting in a long line.

“Halifax is so compact, it’s easy to see it all,” Cronin says. “Evenings with the openings of two or three galleries, and plays going on and all the music. You can literally feel it.”