Dalhousie Arts Centre gives students and community creative space

Dal Arts Centre has been thriving in the Halifax arts community since 1971

The Dalhousie Arts Centre has created a space, which allows for creativity and collaboration, and provides a safe place to escape from the atrocities of the human-experience. 

“The arts centre gave me a good impression that creativity thrived there,” said Devon McCarron. “That was very important to me, I wanted to go somewhere where the arts mattered […] It’s an incredible and warming feeling to have a place like that.” 

The arts centre wasn’t always a fixture at Dalhousie. Starting in roughly 1887, the Dalhousie Glee and Dramatic Society put on a number of plays and musicals at the university, but performing in various spaces such as the Studley Gym and St. Andrew’s Hall. According to Dal’s archives, an anonymous critic reported that their 1969 production of Fiddler on the Roof had a whopping “150-member cast and production crew” and saved the Dramatic society from “extinction.” 

Aside from Neptune Theatre, Halifax didn’t have any facilities for music or theatre during that time. Henry Hicks, the president of the university from 1963 to 1980, recognized this growing desire for a proper theatre venue from the students and community in Halifax; the push towards building the arts centre began.  

Now, it’s home to the Dalhousie Art Gallery, the Fountain School of Performing Arts, the Sir James Dunn Theatre and the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. 

The Rebecca Cohn Auditorium is named after a Polish immigrant who came to Canada with her husband in 1906 and became a very successful landowner in Nova Scotia. Rebecca Cohn left her estate to her nieces Louise and Marion Keshen upon her death.  

As music lovers, the nieces decided in 1962 to donate $500,000 as the initial funding towards the building of a new auditorium at Dalhousie. With further support from Lady Dunn, the Nova Scotia Government, and the Molson Fund, the project started construction in 1968 and finished in 1971, costing Dalhousie just over $5,000,000.   

Dal’s website reads that “thousands of performers have appeared on the Cohn stage over its history, including some of the largest names in the worlds of opera, dance, and popular music.”   

The building provides a home for theatre and music students, which culminated in the 2014 merger of the Music and Theatre faculties to create the Fountain School of Performing Arts.  

“Those walls have seen collaboration and creativity so strong everyone present could feel sparks on their skin,” student Frietzen Kenter said. “[There is] a particular energy in the arts centre which I grew to love. It is a nervous energy, but not in a negative way. It’s alive. It stems from people who love the art. Stakes are high for these students and professors because their crafts demand discipline and focus from them. And we performers love it, even though it isn’t always easy.” 

Today, there are hundreds of students studying film, costume, technical theatre, voice, composition, acting, and theatre history daily in the classrooms and studios in the Dal Arts Centre.  

The Fountain School of Performing Arts has produced a wide selection of shows including classics by Shakespeare, Chekov & Aristophanes, and original plays written by Dalhousie Grads (such as the upcoming Drums and Organs written by Gillian Clarke and directed by Roberta Barker.) 

The Dalhousie Art Gallery is the oldest public gallery in Halifax, officially established in 1954 and was moved to the basement of the arts centre in 1971 and developed “a reputation for challenging contemporary exhibitions and scholarly historical research in Canadian art,” reads the Dal Arts Centre website. 

Not only has the arts centre upheld its cultural legacy, but it has an exciting future in store as well. A 37,000-square-foot expansion is currently being funded, which will provide a new 300-seat concert hall, more practice rooms, and an on-campus home for the Costume Department. The Joseph Strug Concert Hall plans to be a dynamic and necessary addition to the Dalhousie Arts Centre, and will hopefully ensure its longevity for the years to come.  

Time passes and the world changes around us, but a need for art and expression will never be lost, and the spaces we have for such things must be cherished.    

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