Bar des Arts faces persistent administrative roadblocks in re-opening attempts

While construction projects across campus have disrupted the activities and plans of student clubs and associations, the Arts Undergraduate Society’s (AUS) Arts Lounge, home of the Bar des Arts (BdA), has been hit particularly hard. Normally McGill’s busiest student bar, BdA has been forced out of its space in the Leacock basement since Summer 2019. Only the bar’s glowing neon sign remains by the entrance.

BdA and AUS executives were originally informed by the administration that the space would be closed for renovations during the summer of 2019. But, according to BdA publicity manager Grace Jumbo who peeked over construction placards, work had barely been started by late Aug. 2019. Six months later, in Feb. 2020, photos suggest that visible progress was yet to be made.

BdA and AUS executives spent months attempting to cooperate with the McGill administration in finding alternative sites for the Arts Lounge, but these efforts have proven futile. As a result, by mid-February, BdA executives resolved to send an open letter to the McGill administration expressing their frustration and demanding action.

“Despite attempting to work with the McGill administration to resolve this issue, consult on alternative options, or simply inquire about the work being done in the Arts Lounge and its tentative timeline, we have continuously been met with dead ends and reluctance to find alternative venues,” the letter stated. 

 The letter garnered over 800 signatures from students across several faculties. Within a week of sending the letter, Deputy Provost of Student Life & Learning (DPSLL) Fabrice Labeau met with AUS executives, guaranteeing a construction end date of April 30 for the Arts Lounge.

AUS VP Social Affairs Kim Yang noted that the open letter served only as a last resort to express frustration regarding the administration’s lack of transparency.

“[We were] really trying to get as many resources and as many answers as possible,” Yang said. “And the problem is that we were just not getting any answers from the McGill administration.”

In an email to The McGill Tribune, Labeau described the ongoing construction in Leacock.

“The overall project includes renovation to the structure of the building due to water damages and degradation of concrete and rebar that have occurred over time,” Labeau wrote. “These damages were advanced, and if left unattended could endanger the integrity of the building. In some places, including in the Arts lounge, the underlying structure within the reinforced concrete had begun to show through and was rusting.”

BdA co-chair Ethan Casey expressed exasperation towards the administration. According to Casey, McGill provided vague updates about the state of the construction and only informed the BdA staff about electrical wiring work.

 Despite the administration asserting that the construction project in Leacock has been proceeding on schedule, photos taken by BdA executives between Oct. 2019 and Feb. 2020 suggest that little work has been completed. Yang believes that this apparent lack of advancement is due to the nature of the construction process. 

 “[The construction company doesn’t] really care about the order things are done, as long as all projects are completed by [a certain] deadline,” Yang said. “When we realized that, we went back to the school and [noted] that in that case, it’s very obvious that the Arts Lounge in Leacock is near the bottom of that list.”

Jumbo claimed that the administration gave limited information about the status of the Arts Lounge or of its priorities.

“[There was a lack of] transparency [from the administration],” Jumbo said. “We have no idea what the construction even is or when it’s going to end.”

 Yang shared the discontent of the BdA team, claiming that different people involved with the construction project gave inconsistent explanations for the delays in the Arts Lounge.

“I don’t know who’s lying and who’s not, because I’ve heard one story from the Leacock building porter, another story from the head of construction, another story from the DPSLL, and [finally] another story from the Dean [of Arts],” Yang said. “It’s just all over the place. It just seems like everyone was saying ‘The construction is going to be done now, the construction is going to affect all these areas.’ [But] when you use your actual eyes to go and look, for one, construction is obviously not done and two, there is no construction.”

As a result of the sluggish rennovation pace in Leacock, the BdA executives proposed multiple alternatives to the administration for the temporary relocation of the Arts Lounge. The options supported by McGill, however, were consistently problematic. One proposal recommended that the AUS rent out space in La Citadelle residence, which would have been impossible since the BdA is a non-profit student organization. Another alternative involved moving into the McConnell Engineering building—where the BdA hosted one event in Oct. 2019—but the building’s location outside of the Faculty of Arts created administrative problems with the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS). The most feasible option of relocating the BdA to the Faculty of Arts’ Ferrier building became implausible after the administration offered the use of a computer lab, where expensive electronics would be at risk of damage.

Associate Dean (Academic) of Arts Michael Fronda, who worked with the BdA executives on relocating the Arts Lounge, claims spatial constraints limited the administration to a smattering of imperfect options.

“To move the student lounge into the AUS computer lab was not ideal, [but] it was the best we could do [although] that compromises the computer lab and […] the space in the lab,” Fronda said.

Fronda believes that the struggle to find a space for BdA is symptomatic of a broader problem which are disruptions from campus construction projects.

“I share the [AUS’s] frustration,” Fronda said. “The reality is that we are in a serious space crisis […] across all faculties. We are short of classrooms, of offices for instructors [and] support staff, [and] of rooms or spaces for students [.…] Arts is being particularly hit hard right now.”

Labeau explained that relocating spaces such as the Arts Lounge poses its own set of challenges.

“One of the spaces that [is] the most difficult to find [is] a replacement for the Arts Lounge,” Labeau wrote. “This type of space, open space that can be used for social events, is among the rarest on campus.”

Yang, however, believes that the administration lacked consistency and initiative in addressing the problem.

“The administration [would say] one thing, and then a few months later when we actually [went] back and [showed] interest in learning more, they [would say] ‘No, actually this is not happening,’” Yang said.

The extended closure of the BdA has prompted AUS executives to wonder why the administration has not been more proactive in re-opening McGill’s most popular student bar. BdA co-chair Mercedes Labels thinks the reason is simple.

“We obviously [ran] a bar in Leacock every Thursday,” Labels said. “I guess it’s a lot easier for them to just be content with the fact that there is no bar [which] makes their life easier. They don’t have to worry [about] any problems that could result.”

BdA employees and AUS executives believe that the administration did not understand the full impact of the Arts Lounge closure on the student population. Casey hopes that BdA remains a staple of student life for years to come, despite this year’s setbacks.

“Even if it doesn’t happen this year, we can get the AUS lounge back for next year,” Casey said. “Our main goal now is for it to never die. We don’t want it to be forgotten.”

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