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History

An important part of Nova Scotia's cultural community

In 2016, we marked the 45th anniversary of the Dalhousie Arts Centre, Halifax’s premier performing arts centre and host to the Dalhousie Art Gallery, the Fountain School of Performing Arts, the Sir James Dunn Theatre and the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. The Arts Centre is tied to the development of the arts in Nova Scotia and plays an important role in the local community and as a cultural hub in the Maritimes.

By the early 1960s, Dalhousie University was becoming a major national institution and over the next two decades it would grow under the leadership of Dr. Henry D. Hicks, president of the university from 1963 to 1980. Aside from Neptune Theatre, Halifax did not have any facilities for music or theatre, which meant many artists could not perform in the area. It became obvious that such a venue was needed. Dr. Hicks is credited with giving momentum to the Arts Centre project.

The initial funding for the project came from the estate of Rebecca Cohn, a Polish immigrant who made a fortune buying and renting real estate in downtown Halifax. Childless upon her death in 1942, Cohn left control of her sizable estate to her nieces, Louise and Marion Keshen.

The Keshen sisters were ordered to let the estate gain interest for 20 years and then to distribute the funds to worthy charities of their choice. It is not known how the Keshens came to donate the funds to Dalhousie, especially since Cohn’s original intention was apparently to have the money given to Jewish charities in Poland.

It has been suggested by Dalhousie historian P.B. Waites, that making such a donation in a post-WWII world was too difficult, so the Keshens looked to causes in Halifax instead. It is thought that the Keshens were simply music lovers and when the wife of a faculty member suggested the auditorium idea to them, they liked the idea.

By 1968, when ground was broken on the centre, the university had managed to raise another $100,000 from the Molson Foundation, $500,000 from the Sir James Dunn estate, and $2.1 million from the provincial government. Early estimates for building the auditorium were around $1 million, it ended up costing $5.5 million and Dalhousie paid for 40% of that.

Construction was not finished when the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium had its first official performance on January 18, 1971 by cellist Gary Karr and the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra.  From 1971 to 1989, the Dalhousie Arts Centre’s mandate was to present national and international touring artists and it boasts a proud history, having presented artists such as Pavarotti, The National Ballet of Canada, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, and Joan Baez.

In 1989, the Dalhousie Arts Centre became a rental facility and stopped producing a regular program of performances. This change did not lessen its popularity and it remains a primary location for mid-sized concerts and performances.

The Rebecca Cohn Auditorium is one of Atlantic Canada’s most important venues for the performing arts. As one of the largest soft-seat theatres in the region, it acts as a flagship for the province’s arts and culture activity, supporting our community’s status as a world-class destination.

Literally 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 Arts Centre continues to attract and host exceptional artists such as Measha Brueggergosman, Stuart McLean, Renee Fleming, Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Leonard Cohen, to name a few.

The Rebecca Cohn Auditorium has a rich symphonic history, having been the performance venue of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra until it ceased operations in 1982. In 1983, we became home to the newly created Symphony Nova Scotia. The Arts Centre works in partnership with Symphony Nova Scotia having developed a sound pro-active relationship, far exceeding the boundaries of a rental/client relationship.

Some of the performers who have been on stage at the Cohn over the years include:

  • Billy Connolly  
  • Bruce Guthro
  • Lisa Fischer
  • Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers
  • Canadian Mime Theatre
  • Chris DeBurgh
  • Vienna Boys Choir
  • Dan Hill
  • Diana Krall
  • Gordon Lightfoot
  • Joan Baez
  • Gord Downie
  • John Prine
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Les Ballets Trockadera de Monte Carlo
  • Luciano Pavarotti
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia
  • Mr. Dressup
  • Renee Fleming
  • Tony Bennett

Dalhousie Art Gallery 

The Dalhousie Art Gallery was initiated through the efforts of Dalhousie University faculty members, and officially established in the 1953-4 academic year, making it the oldest public art gallery in Halifax. From the start it received and exhibited touring exhibitions from outside the province (mainly from the National Gallery of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy); it also initiated solo exhibitions of the work of prominent regional artists and offered lectures and films on art, all of which were presented free of charge to the public at large as well as to the university community. In 1971, the Gallery moved to a purpose-built, secure and climate controlled home in the Dalhousie Arts Centre, and, with the appointment of professional staff, rapidly expanded its programs, developing a reputation for challenging contemporary exhibitions and scholarly historical research in Canadian art. The Gallery is a Class ‘A’ exhibition space that meets the standards of the National Gallery of Canada with the added Class ‘A’ status of our collections storage vaults and preparation facilities that meets the approval of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, permitting us to seek Certification of Cultural Significance for works that have been donated to us by artists and collectors. 

As an academic support unit within the educational and research context of the University, the Gallery serves as a public exhibition space and vital cultural resource for the whole community. In practice: we seek to not only encourage public interaction with the Gallery, but to promote visual literacy, and facilitate a familiarity with and appreciation of visual art through our varied exhibitions, ongoing schedule of films, lectures, panel discussions and artist's and curator's talks, and our permanent collection. In the absence of a visual arts faculty on campus, we stimulate and inspire our publics, making art relevant and accessible.