"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 5

The next incarnation
When we set up the artist retreat, we chose to do so “under the radar,” so to speak. We understood the keen interest in the house and felt that “word of mouth” would be sufficient. We never advertised. Indeed, it was not easy to find out about the house for the first few years; if an artist tracked us down, we could be pretty sure the interest was genuine. We wanted to know everyone who stayed there, so direct, personal contact was preferred.

Our approach tended towards what is called “the sharing economy.” We charged no fee, but we were grateful for any gifts artists were willing to give, depending on how long they stayed and their means. And we did small-scale, community-based fund-raising. As the number of artists staying increased, gradually, the financial commitment required of each owner decreased, but it was never eliminated entirely. Residents in the community also became directly involved with the house and took pride in having this kind of endeavour in the village. They welcomed the many artists who stayed and visited.
Afternoon with Binnie Brennan at the EB House. 
(Photo by Brenda Barry)
Any such endeavour, regardless of the “model,” is labour intensive and involves a lot of communication. Such a modus operandi required someone on the ground at all times. I agreed to be the administrator for the house and within a couple of years, this work took up a great deal of my time. I did all this work gratis, because the agreement specifically stated that the administration, to be done by the owners, would not be paid.1

The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary in 2011 brought an additional surge of interest and activity. By that time the retreat was established and respected, with a hopeful belief among many that it would go on in perpetuity. But a decade brings a lot of change. As the tenth anniversary of our ownership approached, it became clear that this wonderful endeavour had a finite lifespan, at least as it was then constituted. For myself, I realized that I could not continue to administer the house, essentially a full-time job, without compensation; but the owners were not in a position to add a paid administrator to the budget, without ramping up the fund-raising. Reluctantly, we decided to put the house on the market. Initially, we listed the house with Oceans and Orchards Realty (http://www.novascotiaproperty.info/) in May 2014, with an asking price of $130,000. We closed the retreat in September 2014.

A year passed without any serious offers. With income from the retreat and fund-raising no longer coming in, the majority of the owners decided that the house had become, in the words of one of them, an “oppressive” financial “burden” and had to be sold quickly. In June 2015 the price was dropped to $109,500. In July the price was dropped again, to $99,500. In August a new realtor was chosen (http://remaxtruro.ca/listings/571/8740-hwy-2) and the price was dropped again to $79,000. In September, the price was dropped to $69,000 and in November it dropped to $59,900. We are still waiting for a buyer.2
The future of the Elizabeth Bishop House
The sale of the house will not stop pilgrims from visiting Great Village and wanting to see it. Indeed, the summer of 2015 saw Bishop pilgrims from Massachusetts, New York City, Ireland, France and South Korea visit (and these are just the ones who connected with me in some way — I am sure there were others who simply stopped by and took a photograph of themselves on the front step). For as long as people read Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose, there will a “common enough” desire to see Great Village, to see the places that were so significant in her childhood and in her art, to see this house.
Elizabeth Bishop House, May 2015 (Photo: Sandra Barry)
1. In hindsight, this is the one aspect of the agreement I would do differently: that is, provision for at least a part-time paid administrator should have been part of the budget from the beginning. We had no idea how successful the retreat would become. It may seem puzzling that such a provision could not be added at any point, that the decision to sell was based on such a practical and solvable issue. But by the early 2010s, life being life, it was too late to implement this kind of change because, for the majority of the owners, the house was no longer a priority.

2. Some might be puzzled by the difficulty we are encountering selling the house. The reasons are complex and involve issues in the real estate market in rural Nova Scotia, the daunting task of taking on a registered heritage property, the international interest in Bishop that has a direct impact on the house, and so on. Writer Ellen Brown has explored the pros and cons of owning a “literary house”: http://www.realtor.com/advice/buy/the-pros-and-cons-of-buying-or-selling-a-literary-home-2/

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