Workspace of the Week: This Former Convent in Nova Scotia Is Now a Vibrant Arts Hub

Against the backdrop of a once booming steel city, the state-of-the-art centre is giving hope to the local creative community
Leatherworkers Robyn Young and Kyle MacPhee (Photograph: Corey Katz)

For years the vacant Holy Angels Convent in Sydney’s historic North End neighbourhood was a reminder of a community in decline. After 126 years of educating girls, with a focus on arts and music, the landmark school on George Street shuttered in 2011. The 3,700-square-metre building sat vacant as alumni crossed their fingers that it wouldn’t be torn down, and instead, preserved. To their relief, New Dawn Enterprises, Canada’s oldest community economic-development corporation, was on the same page.

New Dawn purchased the convent in 2013 with a lofty vision for the space: a mixed-use creative hub for local artists. At the time, there was a lot of talk in the community about repurposing the building in a way that preserved its history while revitalizing Cape Breton Island’s deep-rooted arts and culture scene. As a community development group, New Dawn received government funding to provide opportunities to expand the “creative and innovation economies” in the area.

Construction began in 2018. After two years, at a total cost of $17 million, the former convent reopened as Eltuek Arts Centre in February 2020. “Eltuek” is a Mi’kmaw word meaning “we are making ‘it’ together.” The new name came from a series of conversations between the developers and the Elders Advisory Group, which represent the Island’s five Mi’kmaw communities. The Eltuek Arts Centre team worked under the elders’ guidance to make sure the arts hub was welcoming to Mi’kmaw artists and communities in the spirit of Indigenous reconciliation.

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The design team behind the project is local firm Trifos Design Consultants and Toronto-based architecture firm DTAH. The Second Empire architectural exterior was refitted with composite timber wood veneer cladding, while the French mansard-style roof was replaced with a metal one to withstand chilly coastal winters and gusting winds. The original foundation stone was left intact where possible.

The inside was designed with high ceilings and lots of natural light. The creative hub features three multi-purpose art galleries to host exhibitions and community meetings. Twenty-one individual studios and 22 workspaces in a communal area are home to dozens of artists who work across mediums— leatherworkers, writers, graphic designers and textile artists—who rent space starting at $100 per month. Meanwhile, four larger arts organizations are anchor tenants: Nova Scotia Community College’s music arts program, media-production company NovaStream, locally owned radio station The Coast 89.7 and the Celtic Colours International Festival. 

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New Dawn brought on director Christie MacNeil and artistic director Melissa Kearney to run the space. Now, the Eltuek Arts Centre has established itself as a community-focused, inclusive space for the arts, the first of its kind in the province. The building also stands as a symbol of hope and renewal in an area that has struggled to reinvent itself after the closure of its once-thriving coal and steel industries. Back in 1901, Sydney was home to the largest integrated steel mill in the British Commonwealth and multiple coal mines, but following World War II, these sectors waned and never fully recovered—the Sydney Steel Corporation and the last coal mine closed in 2001. “The entire project came out of a need to celebrate spirit in the face of decline,” says MacNeil.

Here’s a look at the workspace:

The outside of Eltuek Arts Centre where a triangular bell sculpture stands in the garden. A large brown building sits behind
Visitors and tenants are first greeted by “Resonance,” a permanent art installation created by multi-disciplinary Mi’kmaq artist Ursula Johnson. The 12-foot structure—made with wood from the original Bluenose ship—pays homage to the sounds, materials and movements of Sydney’s historic North End neighbourhood; the steel and brass reminiscent of the bells that once rang when the convent and local steel plant were operating. (Photograph: Corey Katz)
The outside of Eltuek Arts Centre. A large brown building sits on green grass, and three flags wave in front outside. One says "Black Lives Matter" and the other is a Pride flag
In 2022, the design team behind the project was recognized with a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Architecture. Eltuek also received a Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification for its barrier-free entryways and accessible signage featuring Mi’kmaq, English and braille. (Photograph: Corey Katz)
A man with white hair sitting at a keyboard in an arts studio with computer equipment on a desk behind him
Sound artist, engineer and producer Bob Huott occupies one of the 21 private studio spaces in the building. At an affordable $287 per month, the waitlist for a studio currently runs about 15 people long. (Photograph: Corey Katz)
A woman sitting on a bench wearing blue overalls holds a coffee and smiles inside a small cafe
Many visitors are first introduced to Eltuek through Cafe Marie, a coffee shop run out of the community kitchen on the second floor. “Any revenue generated goes back into the projects that we do to support the community,” says MacNeil. (Photograph: Nova Scotia Government)
People looking at art inside a white art gallery with a green and orange fire installation in the centre of the white room
Last fall, post-tropical storm Fiona forced annual art festival Lumière to set up shop inside Eltuek. Here, visitors look at art in one of the three public gallery spaces. More than 2,200 people came through the doors to see artists’ installations, films, theatre and dance. (Photograph: Corey Katz)
Two people standing inside a leather-making studio. One man is wearing an orange hat and leans against the table. The other, a woman, is smiling with her hands crossed on the table
Leatherworkers Robyn Young and Kyle MacPhee run Phee’s Original Goods, an heirloom leather and canvas goods shop, out of their studio space in the building. (Photograph: Corey Katz) 
Four people stand talking to each other inside a communal workspace
For just $100 per month, painters, textile artists, writers and graphic designers rent out a desk in the shared, open-studio space on the fourth floor. “A designated workspace has really validated their practice and work,” MacNeil says of the 22 artists who have access to the hub 365 days a year. (Photograph: Corey Katz)
Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer is a journalist and fact-checker from Cape Breton Island. She has written for CBC, ELLE Canada, and VICE Canada.