The deCoste brings the community together

The Sobey Foundation’s commitment of $2.5 million will enhance the centre’s transformation into a cultural hub for Central Nova Scotia.

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Dave Gunning’s career path weaves in and out of the story of the deCoste Performing Arts Centre like the countless rural roads that crisscross a map of Pictou County. “I've been on that stage a lot of times over the years, doing my own shows and doing shows with other people. As an artist, it's a place where I grew up,” says Dave, an acclaimed folk singer-songwriter who grew up in Pictou. “As my career was growing and things were starting to happen, it all seemed to happen at the deCoste.”

“It has been a developmental stage for so many Nova Scotia artists,” says deCoste Executive Director Troy Greencorn, rhyming off names like the Barra MacNeils, George Canyon, Natalie MacMaster, and Rita MacNeil. Considered one of Atlantic Canada’s signature art centres since its inception in 1982, the influence of the deCoste has been felt culturally, economically and socially. 

Thanks to a new funding partnership with The Sobey Foundation, the Centre’s influence will be amplified. A commitment of $2.5 million over the next five years will enable the Centre to grow its programming, ensuring its impact will be felt for future generations. “Initially we were seeking a final mile solution from the Foundation and we ended up with an extra mile opportunity,” says Troy.

The funding will enable the next generation of performing artists to be supported on their career paths. All Nova Scotians will have enriched access to a diverse mix of cultural experiences. 

“Our goal is to present shows that people would expect to have to go to Halifax, Toronto or Montreal to see. Sounds lofty, but we are proving it is possible. Frequently folks drive from Halifax to see major touring shows in our small, intimate venue. This drives spin-off impacts for local businesses,” says Troy.


The deCoste has always been about much more than music. The Centre is a touchstone for people who have grown up in Pictou County. All of life’s milestones – weddings, funerals, graduations and community celebrations – have been held at the deCoste, echoing the lives of those for whom the deCoste has personal meaning.

People like Crystal Murray, whose deep connection to the deCoste spans 40 years. The deCoste has been the backdrop to the important moments in her life, both happy and sad: Attending a Shakespearean symposium as a high school student. Holding her wedding reception. Hosting her father-in-law's funeral reception. Watching her children dance on the stage, and later, watching them cross the stage to accept their high school diplomas. “I'm just one person out of thousands of people who have their own connection to the deCoste, and their own stories” says Crystal, who has been a board member for the last eight years.  

Almost everybody in Pictou County has some sort of personal story and personal connection to the deCoste.

Crystal Murray

Chair, deCoste Entertainment Centre Society 

Over the years, the deCoste has achieved remarkable sector-defying success. “We more than doubled our ticket revenue and actually got ourselves into a place where we faced growing pains and a need for expansion. Needing more parking and washrooms is a wonderful problem to have,” says Troy.

As the deCoste approached 40 years, it was facing age-related facility issues, and growth-related needs. At the time, the community also needed a new library in order to expand its programming and its reach. In an innovative pairing, the two entities formed a partnership. 
“What's evolved is this incredible culture hub. By clustering like-minded arts organizations we are all stronger. Partnership opportunities will abound and operational efficiencies allow more of our budget to go into programming,” says Troy.

The project, unique for rural Nova Scotia, is about more than simply having a theatre and a library under one roof, says Eric Stackhouse, chief librarian for Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library. “We're trying to make this one seamless experience for library users, general users from the community, visitors to the area, theatregoers, everyone. Placemaking is based on the premise of delivering many experiences in one location.”

One thing that won’t change is the warm welcome people will experience, says Crystal. “It's a homecoming when people come to the deCoste. Many artists from here and across the country feel so welcomed and part of the community when they come to the deCoste.”


It’s that feeling of home that draws Dave back to the memories of his earliest introduction to the deCoste: attending shows as a kid with his mom and dad, including shows by legendary musicians Garnet Rogers and John Allan Cameron, both of whom had an enormous influence on Dave’s music.

His first appearance on the stage at the deCoste was playing the role of Joseph in a high school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was there that he met John Meir, who was creative director at the Centre for close to 30 years, and the two formed an enduring friendship. Dave, who by then was playing gigs at local pubs, was hired to mix sound at the deCoste, including for the shows of his idols. 

While finishing up his studies at Saint Mary’s University, Dave would often return home and hang out backstage at the deCoste, writing songs with John. “He helped me write my first songs – well, my first good songs,” laughs Dave. It led to the release of his first CD in 1997 – and his first performance at the deCoste as a solo artist. 

John continued to nurture Dave and a host of other artists who came through the deCoste while following their career paths. “One of John's specialties was working with the performers to get them comfortable telling stories, talking and introducing the songs,” recalls Dave. “ All that basic training, heavy lifting and learning how to do things happened at the deCoste.” 


The new deCoste will not only continue to provide that sort of career building support, but it will provide new programming, experiences, and exposure to the creativity that abounds in the region. 

The funding partnership with The Sobey Foundation has enabled the deCoste to make critical enhancements to the original building plans, and to look to the future. Funds have been earmarked for two streams: infrastructure enhancements and public art; and program diversification and operational sustainability through endowment investments. “Basically we're developing our own internal source of funding for innovation. This takes this project over the top. I know that the physical design of the building will be celebrated, but these models for sustainability and innovation also have great potential to be embraced as best practices in the sector,” says Troy.

The public art component – which includes 13 commissioned pieces initially plus others to be completed on-site once the deCoste reopens – is vital to the inclusiveness of the Centre. “Not only is it a chance to experience art for people who don’t often get that opportunity, but it also expresses the community back to itself,” says Eric.

In addition to the theatre and library, the Centre will also be home to Creative Pictou County, the arts sector council for the area, with offices, an arts and culture workshop area for programming and for artists to work on projects. “This will lay the foundation for further growth of the arts sector in the county. There will be a heightened interest from the general public and awareness of the creativity and the culture in Pictou County that will become very well known as we move forward,” says Eric.


As a folk artist, Dave says he enjoys “flying under the radar” despite his international career and critically acclaimed success. He tells the story of an encounter with an older man at the local Sobeys store in the days that J.D. Fortune and George Canyon were skyrocketing to fame. “The gentleman said, ‘Jeez, your buddies are doing some good. You got to go on one of those reality shows and see if you can get your big break.’ I started laughing to myself, wondering what a show called Folk Idol would be like,” says Dave, smiling at the memory. 

Dave cherishes that sort of gentle ribbing he receives at home, along with the support and the warmth of the community. “Pictou County is down-to-earth. No one puts on airs,” he says.

A thriving and growing deCoste is good for the region, its people and its economy. It will support the next generation of artists and continue to bring culture to the community in its pivotal role as a gathering spot. “It's a place that I've always felt welcome to just drop in,” says Dave, who fondly recalls that first solo performance at the deCoste, back in 1997. “I remember the place was packed. People came out from around the community to support it.” 

The first song he performed onstage at the deCoste? Heading Home.


Fast Facts

The original deCoste Centre for Arts & Creativity opened in 1982. 

The Centre, located on the Pictou waterfront, celebrated 40 years in 2022, having presented more than 3,500 performances. 

The new overall facility is called the deCoste. The performing arts section is called the deCoste Performing Arts Centre. The library is called the Murray Family Public Library.

The new deCoste is being referred to as a major gateway project for a vibrant waterfront, and an economic driver for Pictou County.

The project is being financed by federal, provincial and municipal governments in addition to community donors.

The Sobey Foundation is the project’s largest non-governmental partner.

The deCoste is scheduled to open in September 2024.

It will be a state-of-the-art, 2,100-square-metre facility, with an upgraded and refreshed theatre, modern public library, expanded event capabilities, professional art exhibition spaces, meeting and office spaces, and art production suites.

A total of 13 pieces of commissioned public art have been integrated into the space. Other pieces will be created on-site once the deCoste opens.