By Mina Atia/Halifax Chamber of Commerce
Photos by Tia Crouse
The arts and culture sector is a pillar of our community. It’s an integral part of forming our sense of identity as Haligonians and Nova Scotians.
Even so, arts and culture are often overlooked given how much the sector contributes to our economy by nourishing society, education and overall mental wellbeing.
“From an economic perspective, I think there's a lot that's not easily recognizable about the impact of the arts on our community,” says Cheryl Bell co-owner of 14 Bells Fine Art Gallery.
Her gallery is a commercial retail store that represents over 40 artists. Whenever the gallery sells a piece of art, the revenue trickles down into the community, back to the artist and their families.
That’s just one way 14 Bells generates money for the community and the economy. “Also, we're very involved in advertising and supporting different charities as an art gallery and part of the community,” says Bell.
Arts and culture is frequently the first sector to have its budget cut when the going gets tough.
The sports industry, for example, doesn’t experience the same level of cuts. We don’t typically see this industry as ‘unnecessary’ or an elective outlet when budget cuts come around, compared to the arts and culture sector.
Arts and culture end up facing tight budgets regardless of its economic contributions and many of its other offerings. Particularly when the Halifax arts and culture is considered a niche for local businesses, which employs many and stimulates our economy.
“If you look at cultural industries in Canada, it's a $59 billion industry. It's bigger than the value of agriculture, fisheries forestry and hunting combined. And it’s eight times larger than the sports industry in this country,” says Nancy Noble, Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Halifax is lucky to have several galleries, both public and private, including the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The 90,000-square foot building has a permanent collection of more than 15,000 pieces of art.
Noble, A 30-year veteran of Canadian arts and museums, thinks the Halifax art scene is rich and diverse compared to that of other cities she worked in.
Not only does it contribute to the city’s vibrancy, but the Halifax art scene is a business and an employment generator on a local scale.
“There's about 13,000 jobs, which is a significant number of jobs, and it contributes almost a billion dollars to the GDP of Nova Scotia,” says Noble.
The major social impact is made clear by the educational component of the arts.
“There are many studies showing children who are involved in learning music, painting or drama, really improve their cognitive ability, literacy and math skills,” says Noble.
These arts and culture elements, enriching the education of different age groups, ultimately lead to well-rounded young recruits. They are open to learning, improving and are creatively contributing to the economy through their chosen career paths.
“There's just a lot of evidence and it really has a serious impact in terms of how people learn and the way they see the world,” says Noble.
Halifax is a hub for the visual arts and home to a celebrated school for art and design, as well as more than 30 art galleries. Noble believes the arts and culture sector is strongly cemented in part by the support of post-secondary educational programs.
“In the visual arts, obviously NSCAD (Nova Scotia College for Arts and Design) has a long and very important history to the arts community not just in Halifax but across Canada and in North America” says Noble.
“Other community colleges and universities have great art programs as well, and I think that's really helped shore up and develop the arts community here in Halifax. I think it's fantastic.”
Given its generous contributions, the arts and culture sector is highly revered in Halifax and Nova Scotia.
“The art scene in Halifax is very vibrant, mostly because we have such a high population of artists in all venues like performing arts, musicians and visual artists,” says Bell.
As a result, the art scene has a lot to offer the community. It provides multidimensional outlets that help shape and strengthen a societal identity, on a communal as well as an individual level. It also brings people and communities together in shared spaces.
“There's an intrinsic value and a social impact that arts and culture have. In the broadest sense it gives us a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging to the community,” says, Noble.
“The impact of the art scene on our community is omnipresent; it’s part of our identity as Nova Scotians and Maritimes. You can't talk about Nova Scotia without talking about the music and the art,” says Bell.
Bell recently visited remote communities of smaller populations, who rely heavily on tourism business. “They’re really going to hurt with the lack of tourism,” she says. “At least Halifax has the population.”
“But even then, Halifax has so many great artists, venues, plays and singers, and we just don't have the population to support it all. So it's really going to hurt missing out on tourism here as well,” says Bell.
Noble believes that throughout the pandemic, people have realized the unequivocal longing for the arts and culture.
“We've learned a lot in the last few months being in quarantine about how much it means to us to be able to stand in front of a great painting, listen to live music or go to a festival or a concert,” she says.
“It's important; I can't imagine a world or a community without it. I just cannot. It's impossible.”
The visual arts have had it better than the performing arts during the pandemic. The latter has lost audiences, gathering opportunities and ticket sales.
While the former has maintained its revenues by selling online to people nesting at home, whom are trying to keep busy with home improvement projects, gardening and buying art.
Both forms of arts simply have different business models. “This current crisis has really focused on the importance of supporting local and I've seen it in my business that people are consciously asking: How can I support a local artist and buy local,” says Bell.
Those buyers affirm how important supporting the arts is to them. They want to make sure art commerce continues to prosper even after the pandemic is finished. “Art buyers are consciously making that decision,” says Bell.
Bell stresses that the onus is on art buyers to keep that top of mind and bring it back to the performing arts.
“Buy the tickets, go to the shows. I know that the industry is precarious at the best of times, so they’re really going to need support coming out of this,” says Bell.
This sense of urgency is possible as long as the spaces are safe and social-distancing rules are being followed.
14 Bells Fine Art Gallery shifted its space during the months of quarantine by renting it out for small private gatherings. “During the month of May, I offered the gallery as a safe place for people to come with just their household members to celebrate a birthday or have a date night,” says Bell.
“They were able to come to the gallery and have the opportunity to celebrate special occasions for the evening just for themselves. And it was very well received.”
It was a valiant effort on Bell’s part to keep the arts alive. She provided a commercial safe haven for people to still visit, gather and check out the art pieces displayed in the gallery. It kept the arts and culture top of mind during a time when everyone was solely preoccupied with safety.
At the same time, online sales and programming proved to be of the utmost importance to the survival of the arts and culture during that time.
Bell knew when she opened her gallery four years ago that she can’t rely solely on foot traffic. “I made sure that all of my art and services were available online, and we have a very big presence on social media with an e-commerce setup,” she says. “So when this all happened, I was perfectly positioned to still keep my business running.”
Unfortunately, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was closed for months to the public since stay-at-home orders were in effect.
Though their doors were closed, the gallery didn’t stop working with and providing for the community. It navigated those orders and implemented a new way to deliver its services and remained an available resource to Halifax.
“We've had a lot of success with online programs; we've had almost 800,000 impressions on our social media content during the closure. That's huge! We're not a huge art gallery. So obviously we engage people in the right ways, on the right platforms and we were able to keep our front line staff working,” says Noble.
“They were doing it from home. They learned a lot, and I think we'll take that forward and it'll make us a better art gallery.”
On the flip side, Noble thinks there might be a disconnect between the business community and that of arts and culture. When it comes to mutually beneficial relationships, she thinks there is more opportunity for business and arts to come together.
“The business community needs to collaborate with the art sector, invest in it and partner with us. I actually think they could learn a lot from the arts and culture sector,” says Noble. “There are great examples of collaboration out there, but I think we can both support each other to strengthen the community.”
The undeniable economic contributions of the sector make it easy to work together, and the arts and culture sector looks forward to further developing their prosperous relationship.
The arts and culture have an extensive history of resiliency tales. Despite budget cuts and unknowing dismissal, the sector remains a long-standing edifice of our economy. Its positive implications in our communities, educational programs and even individual well being are withstanding all storms.