Sobey donation will help build new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on Halifax waterfront

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Rob Sobey says a $10-million donation from his family to help fund construction of the new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on the Halifax waterfront was two years in the works. 

“We are thrilled to be able to help out,” Sobey told Halifax Magazine today (Nov. 18), after the gallery announced the gift and revealed the team that won the international design competition for the new building. 

Sobey said his family had no hand in choosing the design winner, a group that includes KPMB Architects with Omar Gandhi Architect, Jordan Bennett Studio, Elder Lorraine Whitman, urban design and landscape architecture outfit Public Work and Transsolar. 

“It happened to be my favourite,” he said. “I’m not an architectural design expert, but It really struck a chord with me. Super-good people are involved. I think the region is going to be very proud with what they come up with.” 

Despite long-time speculation to the contrary, the extensive collection by the Group of Seven and other Canadian artists owned by his philanthropist and art lover father, Donald Sobey, aren’t being donated. 

“We’re still getting heads around the best role for collection,” said the younger Sobey, who was on hand for the morning announcement. 

“We decided to step up with cash because they need the cash.” 

The province is kicking in $70 million for the project, while Ottawa has pledged $30 million. The gallery hopes to raise $40 million, with $30 million going towards the development of the building and $10 million for an innovation fund that can be used for programming, new initiatives and some operational elements.

The Sobey donation is the first gift announcement toward the fund-raising campaign.

Of the $10 million pledged by the Sobey family, $7.5 million is from Rob Sobey’s wing, led by his father, retired head of Sobeys grocery chain parent, Empire Co. Ltd. 

The remaining $2.5 million is from the Sobey Foundation, a charitable arm founded in 1982 by the three sons of now late Pictou County businessman Frank Sobey, including the late Bill Sobey, David Sobey and Donald. 

Rob Sobey says the family is mulling different options for the art owned by his octogenarian father and the one collected by his late grandfather that is on display at Crombie House, the former home of Frank Sobey and his wife Irene Sobey, in Abercrombie. 

The new gallery and arts district will be located on the Salter block of the Halifax waterfront, with the aim of becoming a transformative destination spot to inspire and celebrate creativity and imagination. It also seeks to challenge the status quo and reshape institutional values.  

The winning design team’s submission was touted as a place for all seasons, rooted in sustainability and connecting the city at the water.   

“We proposed a sinuous building surrounded by regenerative gardens that will signal a radical new beginning for the AGNS, the waterfront, Nova Scotians and the world of art,” Bruce Kuwabara, founding partner of KPMB Architects, said in a statement. “We want people to experience art in a great setting. We want people to feel welcome and at home. We believe we have created a place for everyone.” 

The team will work with the gallery, the province and the public to to shape a final design. Formal public engagement is planned for early 2021. 

The two other shortlisted design bidders were: 

  • Architecture49 with Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Hargreaves Jones 
  • DIALOG, Acre Architects, Brackish Design Studio and Shannon Webb-Campbell