Future of Old Fire Hall a mystery more than one year after loss of NSCAD artist residency

(Illustration: Jessie McLaughlin)

For fifteen years, the studio space at 40 Townsend Street – or the Old Fire Hall, as it’s known by locals – was a buzzing hub of artistic activity.

It was the home of the NSCAD-Lunenburg Community Studio Residency founded by Senator Wilfred Moore in 2006. Through the program, recent NSCAD graduates could spend a year making art and running community programming.

The building currently sits empty. Because NSCAD’s $1 lease for the space was not renewed by the Town of Lunenburg, the residency program was not renewed in summer 2021 as it had been each year since 2006. 

The abrupt end of the residency is an enigma for many artists in the area – and the future of the space remains uncertain.

Future of the space is still being evaluated by Town of Lunenburg

Michael Best, Communications Officer for the Town of Lunenburg, asked for an update on the property via email, says, “The Town is evaluating all Town-owned land and buildings and considering future use(s) which may include the sale thereof.”

According to the Town’s Comprehensive Community plan, there are three potential scenarios for the fate of 40 Townsend Street: “Scenario 1: Community rentals. Scenario 2: Sold as surplus with public use restrictions. Scenario 3: Sold as surplus to retrofit/redevelop for residential use that includes affordable and accessible housing, and maintains the heritage value.”

Decision to end residency happened behind closed doors

In early 2021, NSCAD notified Senator Moore that the current Agreement between the University and the Town was going to expire in August 2021, and not 2022 as he had been initially told.

Former NSCAD residence artist Sienna Maeba says Town Council did not try to connect with the residence artists.  

“They didn’t show up to any events even though we always told them it was happening,” says Maeba.

Additionally, local artist Douglas Bamford says there was a lack of involvement from NSCAD at different points throughout the residence’s fifteen-year run.

“About five years went by when I don’t think anybody from NSCAD came to any of the [residency] events,” says Bamford.

NSCAD residence artists Sienna Maeba, Undine Foulds and Jessie McLaughlin completed the residency in 2020-2021. Most of the community programming they wished to run could not be run due to COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. 

Senator Moore contacted the-president of NSCAD, Dr. Sarah McKinnon, who wrote to Town Council to request a six-month extension to the residence. The residence artists and others wrote letters in support of this. 

This item was added to the Town Council’s agenda for their upcoming meeting. The residence artists were prepared to speak about the importance of the program in front of the Council.

However, the Town Council opted to make their decision in-camera, meaning they discussed the matter privately. 

This is in accordance with the Municipal Governance Act, which allows Council to discuss a specific set of topics privately. In this case, the Council were permitted to have the meeting in-camera due to the fact that the discussion involved the  “acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property.”  

This meant that there was no opportunity for the residence artists nor Senator Wilfred Moore to speak. The decision was made behind closed doors. The residency would not be renewed.

This upset multiple people involved with the residency. 

In a letter published in Bridgewater newspaper LighthouseNOW, Senator Moore wrote of this meeting: “Such a culture of secrecy is unwarranted‎ and a sorry embarrassment.” 

Furthermore, Senator Moore points out the other leaseholder in 40 Townsend Street was granted a six-month lease extension, while the NSCAD residence was not. 

This could be considered contrary to what was written in a letter sent from then-town administrator Beatrice Renton to then-president of NSCAD, McKinnon. Near the end of the letter, Renton writes, “We trust that you will appreciate with the significant property portfolio NSCAD also has to manage, that the Town must plan for other ownership and use options for the building.”

Asked what Lunenburg loses in no longer having this program, artist Douglas Bamford wonders, “How do you quantify the value of the residence?” 

For some, the loss of the residence means less arts programming such as workshops, gallery showings, and special events. For others, the loss might mean fewer young artists coming to town (and staying, in many cases). Like many in the local arts community, Bamford says he worries the true value of the NSCAD residence is being sorely overlooked.


4 responses to “Future of Old Fire Hall a mystery more than one year after loss of NSCAD artist residency”

  1. Al Matheson

    This town’s existence is totally dependent on the tourist trade, like it or not! This council’s negative decisions on a number of properties needs to be open to pubic input! The housing shortage would be best resolved by eliminating AirBB in residential designated areas unless the units were purpose built in conforming areas or occupied by the owner year round!!!

  2. Sharon Gunn

    Sorry to hear of this. One only needs to drive down Lincoln Street to view the number of Art galleries and related businesses , to realize the economic impact of Arts businesses in the town of Lunenburg. It’s not like they are shutting down just any small business. The artist residency program is one of a group of arts related ventures that make Lunenburg unique. Instead of selling off properties for quick profits the town could invite public participation and look at how these support and enhance the cultural plan for the town. Perhaps endowments and fundraisers to own and support the artist residency facility could be a topic for discussion as opposed to the town shutting it down.

  3. It is incomprehensible why the town council continues to make in-camera decisions. They don’t have to. It is a very small town. Interested parties need to be and should be heard. Big losses everywhere we turn.

    Su Rogers
    Fine Artist

  4. Over a year to decide? Why then was such a policy decision reached BEFORE terminating revenue for the Town? Still no Request For Proposals(RFP) on this structure . Lack of responsiveness or extremely poor planning? You decide

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