Nova Scotia

Building where Viola Desmond stood up to racism to feature art inspired by her

The owners of the building where Viola Desmond stood up to segregation are immortalizing her iconic protest in a series of art pieces for the former theatre.

New Glasgow, N.S., law firm seeking submissions to adorn one side of the building

MacGillvary Injury and Insurance Law is renovating the historic theatre. (Submitted by Alexis MacDonald)

The owners of the Nova Scotia building where Viola Desmond stood up to segregation are immortalizing her iconic protest in a series of art pieces for the former theatre. 

The law firm that bought the historic Roseland Theatre building in New Glasgow, N.S., is asking artists from across Atlantic Canada to submit work inspired by Desmond, who refused to give up her seat in the whites-only section back in 1946. 

"It's an amazing story that she helped spark a change and helped create this world we're in now," said Alexis MacDonald, marketing manager at MacGillvary Injury and Insurance Law.

"There's just something very significant and very powerful about being able to stand inside the building where it happened."

The firm had the idea for the art contest when the neighbouring building was torn down last year. It exposed a 12-metre-high wall that looked like "a big, brick blank canvas," said MacDonald. The proposed art pieces will be featured on the wall.

A portrait of Viola Desmond, circa 1940. (Communications Nova Scotia/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

The company's founder, Jamie MacGillivray, bought the century-old former theatre two years ago to save it from the wrecking ball. It is still being renovated and it's still unclear what will be in the space. 

The three-storey structure, which started showing silent movies in 1913, had most recently been a night club and was in desperate need of repair.

"It was really just a big brick empty shell, so we had to tear out all of the heat, all of the electrical, all of the plumbing," said MacDonald. 

New heating and electrical is expected to be installed by the spring, she said, and the company hopes to rent the building out.

MacDonald said she's not ruling out a return to what it used to be. 

"It still has the very tall ceilings so it would certainly still suit a theatre. It could be anything," she said. 

Wanda Robson, Desmond's sister, said she's excited to see what the artists come up with.

"I think it's wonderful that Viola's is being memorialized at the theatre," said Robson.

"The image I would hope would be all encompassing … not the incident itself but racism and the result of what Viola did." 

Deadline for proposals is end of May

Amateur and professional artists of all ages have until May 31 to submit their work. The law firm is also offering cash awards to the chosen artists. 

"It's not limited in any way to a portrait of Viola or a depiction of the event — although we certainly welcome those as well — but any art of any form inspired by her, by her story. We're really excited to see what comes in and we really encourage people to be creative," said MacDonald.

In 1946, Viola Desmond made history when she refused to leave the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. (Submitted by Alexis MacDonald)

Desmond, a beautician and businesswoman from Halifax, stopped to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre in 1946. When she refused to leave the whites-only section, she was thrown in jail. 

Seventy years after that quiet but powerful protest, Robson said she's overwhelmed by the recognition that her sister has received.

"I told my husband the other day ... we should sit down and catalogue, you know, make little notes," she said. "Viola's here, Viola's got a ferry, Viola, she's in the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, she's been on the stamp. It's endless! I'm getting speechless here."

About the Author

Emma Smith

Reporter

Emma Smith is a journalist from B.C. who has covered rural issues and Indigenous communities. Before joining CBC Nova Scotia in 2017, she worked as the editor of a community newspaper. Have a story idea to send her way? Email emma.smith@cbc.ca