The new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia planned for the Halifax waterfront is on hold.
Premier Tim Houston said his government had decided the project should be “paused indefinitely” due to rising costs. Construction was slated to begin later this year.
“The commitment at the right time, at the right budget remains,” Houston told reporters at Province House Wednesday. “And the placement of it will be the same.”The cost of this is out of control right now.”
The new gallery was expected to cost about $137 million when it was announced three years ago. But the province says it now expects that figure to increase by $25 million or more with inflation and rising construction costs. That was based on a re-evaluation of the costs by the construction firm Ellis Don.
The Premier’s office provided a one-page summary of those increased costs but refused to publicly release the full assessment.
According to that “July 2022 High Level Estimate”, the project would cost $162,594,778 rather than the “2020 control budget” of $136,594,928, a $25,855,850 difference.
Houston suggested that figure was the minimum increase in the price tag and that the new gallery could cost a lot more than that by the time it was ready to open.
While announcing the consolidation of five Crown corporations into two Tuesday, Premier Tim Houston would not answer directly when asked if he was considering cancelling the project altogether.
“I’m a believer in the arts, believer in this project at the right price,” said Houston Wednesday. “It’s not the right time to proceed.”
Grant Machum, acting chair of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS), said he heard the news Tuesday evening. He said the premier asked to meet with him around 5:15 p.m.
“It was disappointing, but it was explained to us … there’s too much uncertainty to go ahead with the project as it was currently set up,” Machum said.
Machum said the board has reached out to those involved like the capital campaign council and major donors since becoming aware of the higher cost of the project.
“They all understand that we’re in a different world right now,” he said. “Everyone wants the gallery and it’s just a matter of timing.”
He said he doesn’t know when the project could go ahead. He thinks next year might be a possibility.
“But currently, the prices to build are very high,” he said.
He said Sarah Fillmore, the AGNS acting director and CEO, has agreed to stay in her role until the fate of the gallery is clearer.
Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender said Nova Scotia’s cultural sector has been hit “harder than most” during the pandemic.
“We understand that we are in an inflationary moment and in a cost-of-living crisis,” Chender said, noting that $137 million for an art gallery “may be difficult for people to stomach.”
She said she hopes the premier is both determining a better use for the millions that were supposed to be spent on the new building, but also finding a way to accommodate the cultural sector.
Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said the decision will be “a disappointment” for those involved in the project.
“Our real question right now is, ‘What happens with the savings? How are those funds deployed?'” Churchill said. “That’s something that the government has not indicated.”
Like Chender, Churchill pointed to cost-of-living issues and health care as potential areas for more funding. He said he wants to know if inflation will impact any other infrastructure projects, like new schools and the Halifax Infirmary redevelopment.
“Of course we want to have a healthy, robust arts and culture economy,” he said. “To assess this decision, we have to first know where those funds are going to be deployed.”
The project was originally announced in April 2019, with the province committing $70 million to the project. The federal government pledged $30 million and Halifax Regional Municipality said it would put up $7 million.
The Donald R. Sobey Foundation and the Sobey Foundation announced a $10 million pledge in November 2020.
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