New Art Gallery of Nova Scotia not a priority for Premier Tim Houston

Premier Tim Houston says building a new home for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia can't happen until the province gets a firmer grasp on other priorities, including crises in health care and housing.

"I have tremendous respect and I value the arts and culture of our province. It's incredibly important to us, for sure," Houston told reporters Wednesday.

But he said there are "tremendous demands on the public purse," and now is not the time to start a project that was last publicly projected to cost more than $160 million.

"We need to stay focused on investments in Nova Scotia through health care, through education, through housing, through supporting people in their times of need … and roads and other infrastructure," said Houston.

Plans for new gallery

Plans for a new art gallery on the Halifax waterfront were announced by the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil in 2019, with construction slated to begin in 2022.

But as the starting line approached, inflation sent costs soaring and Houston said the project was going on hold.

It remains on hold today, and while Houston could offer no timeline for when that might change, he said he wants to see it built, eventually.

"You can't have a thriving, growing, successful economy without a thriving arts sector. I fundamentally believe that," said the premier.

"But we just have to look at what's possible at every moment in time … I believe it will be possible at some point."

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia reopened to the public on Saturday after being closed for several months for a sprinkler installation, but the building still needs millions in renovations.
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia recently reopened to the public after being closed for several months for a sprinkler installation, but the building still needs millions of dollars in renovations. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Meanwhile, the existing gallery is racking up maintenance costs. It was recently closed for several months for the installation of a new $600,000 sprinkler system, and there are more than $2 million worth of repairs planned for later this year.

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said those costs will eventually make it more expensive to maintain the existing facility than it would be to build a new one.

He said he thinks the scope of the project should change to make it attainable.

"If Nova Scotia wants to be a growing and better province, I think we deserve to have a new art gallery."

NDP Leader Claudia Chender echoed that.

"It doesn't have to be the plan that already existed," she said. "This can be done, I believe, in an efficient, expedited and cost-effective way, and one that honours the arts here in Nova Scotia."

'We'll get an art gallery never'

Chender said if the province waits until it improves health care and housing before building a new gallery, "we'll get an art gallery never."

"We have a premier who wants to attract people to live here, who wants to create opportunities," she said. "People move here because of arts and culture."

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's design team worked on modifications to bring the cost down prior to the project going on hold, according to a spokesperson. They said no further work has been done and no plans have been discussed since 2022 when the project was put on pause.

"When the project is given the go-ahead, the AGNS will explore all available options to ensure efficiency and maximize the impact on the community and the provincial economy," the spokesperson said.