The new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia planned for the Halifax waterfront is on hold.
Prime Minister Tim Houston said his government had decided the project should be “suspended indefinitely” due to rising costs. Construction was to begin later this year.
“The right-time, right-budget commitment remains,” Houston told reporters at Province House on Wednesday. “And the placement of this one will be the same.” The cost of that is out of control right now.”
The new gallery was expected to cost around $137 million when it was announced three years ago. But the province says it now expects that figure to rise by $25 million or more with inflation and rising construction costs. This was based on a reassessment of costs by construction company Ellis Don.
The Prime Minister’s Office provided a one-page summary of these increased costs, but declined to release the full assessment.
According to this “July 2022 high-level estimate”, the project would cost $162,594,778 instead of the “2020 control budget” of $136,594,928, a difference of $25,855,850.
Houston suggested that this figure was the minimum price increase and that the new gallery could cost significantly more by the time it was ready to open.
While announcing the consolidation of five state-owned companies into two on Tuesday, Premier Tim Houston did not respond directly when asked if he was considering canceling the project altogether.
“I’m a fan of the arts, a fan of this project at the right price,” Houston said Wednesday. “Now is not the right time to continue.”
Grant Machum, acting president of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS), said he heard the news Tuesday night. He said the prime minister asked to meet him around 5:15 p.m.
“It was disappointing, but it was explained to us (…) there is too much uncertainty to go ahead with the project as it is currently set up,” Machum said.
Machum said the board had reached out to those involved like the Capital Campaign Council and major donors since it became 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 didn’t know when the project might go ahead. He thinks next year could be a possibility.
“But currently the prices to build are very high,” he said.
He said Sarah Fillmore, acting director and CEO of AGNS, had agreed to stay on in her role until the fate of the gallery was clearer.
Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender said Nova Scotia’s cultural sector has been “hit harder than most” during the pandemic.
“We understand we’re in a time of inflation and a cost of living crisis,” Chender said, noting that $137 million for an art gallery “might be hard for people to digest.”
She said she hoped the Prime Minister would both determine better use of the millions that were supposed to be spent on the new building, but also find a way to accommodate the cultural sector.
Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said the decision would be “a disappointment” for those involved in the project.
“Our real question right now is, ‘What’s going on with the savings? How are these funds deployed? ‘” Churchill said. “It’s something the government hasn’t indicated.”
Like Chender, Churchill pointed to cost-of-living issues and health care as potential areas for more funding. He said he wanted to know if inflation will impact other infrastructure projects, such as new schools and the Halifax Infirmary redevelopment.
“Of course, we want to have a healthy and robust arts and culture economy,” he said. “To assess this decision, we first need to know where these 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 the Halifax Regional Municipality announced it would contribute $7 million.
The Donald R. Sobey Foundation and The Sobey Foundation announced a $10 million pledge in November 2020.