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Arts Guild building in Charlottetown undergoes major renovation

by Jeff Green

Architect Ole Hammerlund from Bergmark, Guimond, Hammerlund, Jones speaking of some of the changes planned for the Arts Guild building.A provincial arts organization is promising to transform the tired-looking Arts Guild building in downtown Charlottetown into a contemporary “cultural Mecca,” better equipped to showcase Prince Edward Island artists and performers and events from across the country.

ARS LONGA Inc., a non-profit group formed in the spring of 2004 to manage the building, recently secured $800,000 in funding to remodel the Guild, which houses a performance hall, art gallery and several floors of offices. ACOA provided $600,000 while Canadian Heritage offered $200,000 for the work. There is a long list of renovations planned including the addition of a new splashy canopy entrance and marquee, upgrades to the exterior façade, plus new washrooms and a mobile stage. Work began in February and is expected to be finished by the end of this month.

VIPs at the official announcement of the renovation plans for the Arts Guild building, from left: Alan Buchanan, chair of ARS LONGA; Darrin White, executive director of the PEI Council of the Arts; Clifford Lee, Mayor of Charlottetown; Shawn Murphy, MP for Hillsborough.“We’re hoping we will have a much more accessible, adoptable and useful building to support our arts community,” says ARS LONGA chair Alan Buchanan. “We want to make it a much more versatile space for established and emerging artists.”

The bulk of the funding will go towards upgrading the “mechanical guts” of the building, such as installing new heating and cooling systems.

“This place isn’t getting any younger,” Buchanan says with a laugh. “It was probably built in the early 1950s so looking after the heat and air conditioner is a must. That will improve the habitability and hospitality of this place. Much of our money will be spent on things you won’t see right away but it will improve the functionality of the building.”

Nevertheless, Buchanan says artists are excited about the other major visible renovations, in particular to the performance hall and art gallery. Blueprints call for new dressing rooms and a green area for actors and musicians, new lights and sound equipment, a remodelled art gallery, new attractive lobby and front doors and a small outdoor plaza on Queen Street.

Buchanan says his group is eager to install the mobile stage, which will be made from either tubular aluminum or steel, and will allow the Guild to host more dance performances. The old flooring wasn’t adequate for dancers.

The designs also include turning the performance area into a black-box theatre by closing off several windows and adding a wall to cut down on ambient noise. As well, the box office will move from the Richmond Street entrance to the front of the building and there are plans to add a gift shop or café in the near future.

Buchanan says the renovations will allow the centre to better accommodate more events year-round.

“There is a new recognition that the arts are valuable economic drivers so there is new business legitimacy to the arts,” he says with a wide smile. “But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that art has intrinsic value as well. Arts and culture say a lot about what we believe in.”

Well-known architect Ole Hammarlund is also hoping to say a lot with the renovations. He and construction manager Ian MacLeod have the task of designing the blueprints and overseeing the remodeling.

Hammarlund says he wants to give the arts venue an updated and “more dynamic look.” He says the biggest challenge architecturally is trying to open up the entrance area along Queen Street.

“We are squeezed in there with quite a narrow sidewalk, some existing parking spaces, and a few trees almost right in front of the door. I want to open things up a bit. The entry is tight and we have those black doors which always close in your face,” he says. “From the outside things will look different.”

Hammarlund says the renovations committee want to make a statement with the funding they have available.

“This building has a boxed feeling to it,” he says. “With a multi-purpose space you always try to do as much as you can. We’re making this a place where people have fun inside. This place is very important to the arts community.”

That sentiment is echoed by Darrin White, executive director of the Prince Edward Island Council of the Arts, who insists the Arts Guild building is a vital alternative to places such as the Confederation Centre and Mackenzie Theatre. He says the renovations will help attract new customers and artists such as independent productions, indie films and theatre.

“I believe that theatre, music and dance will benefit from an updated facility in terms of equipment and a truer black-box theatre as well as better and more inviting spaces for the public,” he says. “Visual artists can benefit from these same features as well as an expanded and updated gallery space.”

ARS LONGA wants all renovations completed by the end of the month. The first major performance in the new hall will be Kathleen Hamilton’s play Marion Bridge, set for early May. Buchanan says he’s encouraged by the feedback his group has gotten so far from the arts community and is confident the changes will breath new life into the building.

“This is a small community but it’s rich in appreciation of our culture, heritage and arts. I think these changes provide the groundwork to get much greater value out of this building,” Buchanan says. “I think it’ll be a real showcase and jewel for our arts here on PEI.”

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