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