The Khyber Centre for the Arts has an impressive 125 year history of use as a space for public presentation and social interaction. It was originally erected as the Church of England Institute Building in 1888, commissioned by Bishop Hibbert Binney and designed by architect Henry Busch in an eclectic Victorian style with strong Gothic Revival influences. Other buildings designed by Busch in Halifax include the Halifax Academy (NSCAD Academy Building) and the Halifax Public Gardens Bandstand. Originally the building hosted a library, gym, women’s auxiliary, billiards hall, smoking room, and lecture hall. All kept tidy by a custodian housed in the top floor of the building. The Church of England Institute Building closed its doors in the 1940’s after being a well-known hostel for many Naval Officers serving in WWII. The Khyber Arts Society (anchor tenants of the Khyber building), grew out of various progressive groups and organizations that began to use the then-neglected building in the 60?s, 70?s, 80?s, and into the 90’s. Such groups included a refugee clinic, youth clinic, health food store, pottery studio, the city’s first gay social hub (the Turret Club, Gay Alliance for Equality), the Heritage Trust, Atlantic Film Co-op, Wormwood Cinema, and the Khyber Café. The building was unofficially renamed the Khyber Building by the public in the 1970’s when the Khyber Cafe opened on the ground floor.
Eventually a more formal administrative body evolved to handle the growing number of cultural projects. In 1994, the Khyber was established as an arts facility by the No Money Down Cultural Society, a group of artists who negotiated an agreement with the City of Halifax to maintain the city-owned and then unoccupied building in exchange for permission to hold art exhibitions and operate a dance club. In 1995, when the building was slated for sale by the regional municipality
The Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia moved it’s office into the building to help preserve the property. Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia and the Arts Centre Project Society (soon to be Khyber Arts Society) collaborated to launch a widespread campaign to keep the Khyber public and to secure a long-term lease. With the support of several members of Halifax City Council, the Khyber Arts Society was promised a three-year lease at $1 per year. However, due to the expansion of the adjoining Neptune Theatre, the Khyber Building needed extensive structural renovations, and the Society was forced to temporarily relocate. As a result of these complications, the deal fell through.
A year later, in 1996, the Khyber Arts Society signed a new five-year renewable lease with the City of Halifax to occupy the Khyber Building. The agreement included restoration and business plans that provided the Society with reduced rent for the first four years in exchange for ongoing volunteer labour to restore the building. During this phase of renovations, the Society obtained a loan from the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia and fundraised enough money not only to self-finance the renovations, but also to purchase bar equipment.
In March 1998, after obtaining a liquor license, the Khyber Club opened to the public, and quickly re-established itself as a meeting place for visual artists and as an important venue for Halifax’s strong music scene. Since then, the Khyber has been host to many artists and musicians who have gone on to gain international recognition. Such artists as Emily Vey Duke, Shary Boyle, Kelly Mark, Joel Plaskett, Classified, and Buck 65 all spent formative years at the Khyber. Currently the Khyber Arts Society leases space from HRM on the second floor of the building while renting additional space on the second and third floors on an event-by-event basis.
The Khyber Board of Directors is made up of professional artists and other professionals from the community. The Khyber Centre for the Arts continues to be the heart of Halifax’s artistic cultural scene and a place for artists and non-artists to meet, explore career potentials, and to share with the larger community. The Khyber helps keep our creative people busy in the community.