Part 6. Planning the Future / The Barlow Report

This series has been direct in its criticism of Interkom. This isn’t “unfairly harsh” so much as a direct record of the concerns expressed by many individuals, whether speaking for themselves, or representing larger groups, over the four evenings of this “consultation.”

Thus, it’s a good point to return to the report put forth by Janis Barlow & Associates.

If it seems inexplicable that Van Zon would so often fall back on “assumptions”, it may simply be because he is not qualified (or was not hired, arguably) to compile a report like Rodman Hall: Planning the Future A Preliminary Planning Process Report.

That report “is the result of the work of a task force of ten from Brock and Rodman Hall under the supervision of Stuart Reid and financed by the Ontario Arts Council’s Compass program…and it is my understanding it was approved by the Brock Board.”(Janis Barlow, in conversation).

Even more enlightening, Barlow elaborated on the history that brings us to this moment:

Martin Van Zon sat in on a couple of meetings and pushed me to include a sale of Rodman Hall and a downtown building option in my report.  He felt that Rodman Hall was old, poorly located, too run down and represented the past…I facilitated a discussion at the task force on the value of Rodman Hall versus a new downtown gallery.  The task force was unanimously in favour of preserving Rodman Hall as a heritage site, an art museum, a learning centre and the grounds as a park and sculpture garden and pursuing long term options for expansion with a possible downtown satellite in the future. They talked about better leveraging the existing asset and the inspiration that Rodman Hall provides artists.  Remember, the PAC hadn’t even opened yet and we felt it would need a few years before another new arts centre was proposed for St. Catharines.

I also pointed out that Brock had turned Rodman Hall into a Brock resource (there was supposed to be a Community Advisory Committee but it was dismissed after Rosemary Hale stepped down as Dean of Humanities) and it will take some years for the community to “own” Rodman Hall again.  Martin had convinced some of his PAC donors that a new art gallery could be built for $10 to $15 million…In my experience, which includes working on business plans and feasibility studies for 10 Canadian galleries and museums, a new regional art museum to replace Rodman Hall would cost $25 to $35 million.  However, it is the operating costs of a new art museum that would be beyond our city’s means at the present time.

Several of these factors have come to be true: the city of St. Catharines is quite clear that it is unwilling to further fund any initiatives at this time (Mark Elliott stated as much, the first evening, at NAC). That’s understandable, as funding for various groups has been increased this past year, and the incredible accomplishment of the Walker and the PAC merit a few years to rest and replenish both the financial well and the will to do more.

More history from Barlow: “Rodman Hall’s committee members [whom Barlow listed off by name when she spoke at one consultation, displaying a transparency that Brian Hutchings might emulate] were also concerned that Martin, as the PAC fundraiser, could not be objective and was in a conflict of interest in promoting a new gallery building. He does not appear to have arts management experience either [my emphasis, not Barlow’s]….I argued with him that Rodman Hall was an important heritage property in St. Catharines, an important art museum in Canada, a unique public garden and a source of pride and identity to many St. Catharines residents.  Suggesting the sale of Rodman Hall to help finance a new gallery…would spark division in this community [again, my emphasis, not Barlow’s].”

This suggests another point of great concern around the legitimacy of this process.

“No decision has been made” has been evoked, repeatedly, by Van Zon, by the moderators of all four evenings, and by Hutchings in The St. Catharines Standard.

Have we been lied to, here, then?

But the next part is just as disturbing, for any concerned not solely with Rodman Hall but also with what this process implies about governance and integrity at Brock University. More from Barlow:

After my report was approved by the Brock Board in August, I was contracted to implement my plan…[this] was suspended in the fall of 2015 because I was told that Peter Partridge and Martin wanted to investigate downtown gallery options…The next thing I heard in February, 2016 was that Brock University had posted a $50,000 RFP for a Rodman Hall transition plan.  They advertised for consultants through Arts Consultants Canada.  I contacted Rodman Hall management and asked if they wanted to cancel my contract and they said yes.  I felt reassured that they were advertising through Arts Consultants Canada, feeling that they would get a qualified and objective arts consultant to re-examine the situation.

I knew some of the consultants who applied. [Barlow is the  founding President of Arts Consultants Canada which is dedicated to excellence in arts consulting through peer juries].  When Brock informed them another consultant had been selected, [they] asked Brock senior management for a de-briefing (normal practice) and heard nothing back…  Some weeks later, we finally learned that Martin (not a member of Arts Consultant Canada) had been chosen and it seemed obvious to the other consultants who had applied that it was a fait accompli.

Perhaps the final point is the most depressing: “Although I praised Brock’s previous administration for assuming responsibility for Rodman Hall and the former President liked the “tone” of my report, I believe that Brock is breaking faith with this community, their faculty and their students.  It is a very sad situation.”

The Rodman Hall: Planning the Future A Preliminary Planning Process Report (or as it’s commonly referred to, by myself and others, The Barlow Report) provides a wealth of hard data, not solely assumptions from someone who seems not to realize that there are things he doesn’t know that he is unaware that he doesn’t know.

If Van Zon is looking for solutions, or seeking solutions from the community, the work has already been done, and one might ask why time and money is being wasted going over the same ground. Unless, of course, the agenda is not the one that is, in fact, being espoused.

In an excellent (and aforementioned) article, Doug Herod indicated that these “consultations” may have had an unintended consequence: public interest and energy to preserve and improve Rodman Hall may have began to gel in response to what appears to be a heavy handed cabal aiming to divest Brock of responsibility.

Along those lines, a motion was brought forth this week (November 21) to St. Catharines City Council – and passed unanimously – to “ask [the] heritage advisory committee to consider the potential designation of Rodman Hall under the Ontario Heritage Act.” This is a logical and respectful next step from some of the issues about Rodman’s building and grounds raised by Adrian Petry, the Public Historian at The St. Catharines Museum, at one of the evening consultations.

But other sources have suggested several distressing theories, such as how Brock would be unable to sell the building and grounds, but could “gift” them to the “art gallery of Niagara”, that then could do so. This comes from the same person who warned of a proposed new gallery back in the Winter, and it seemed unlikely then. Yet here we are now.

There was also a “colourful” article, to paraphrase current MIWSFPA Director David Vivian, in the Burlington Gazette, that suggests that further machinations are in play, or that more is happening behind the scenes. It’s been pointed out – quite correctly – that this “conversation” between Brock and the Art Gallery of Burlington might be irrelevant to the Rodman Hall situation.

However, the nature of the process so far, and the mistrust and cynicism that Interkom and Van Zon have inspired, can’t be ignored, either. Is it incomprehensible to consider that the AGB conversation might include whether they might “receive” the Rodman collection? And whom is having this conversation on Brock’s behalf, and what is being promised, or bargained?

Speaking of “informed sources”, as the Gazette puts it, two others have passed on that there is significant pushback, from faculty at Brock, regarding the “yet to be decided” art gallery of Niagara: last week some Rodman Staff and Faculty were (finally) given the opportunity to meet with Van Zon, and present “around specific questions and subject items.” Whether that will derail this illegitimate process, or whether some of them declined, feeling that the decision has been made and this is nothing more than a charade they’d rather not be sullied by, is debatable.

Other sources have communicated that Van Zon and the AGN faction have spoken of the soon-to-open Remai Modern, in Saskatoon, as a model to be emulated, for a first class, top tier gallery.

That’s interesting, as during the last decade of my tenure in that city, I wrote often about that process, and know that many of the facts of that situation – just like Sarnia or Ottawa, also cited by Van Zon – are not easily, or honestly, applicable, to creating a “new” regional gallery in Niagara. Not the least of these was the flush of oil money that suffused the Saskatchewan provincial government there, or that for several years prior to the decision to “create” a new gallery, funding options regarding renovations were explored thoroughly.

Van Zon’s report is now in the clutches of Brock’s Board of Trustees. At the time of this writing, at least one group is being organized to insist that Brock keep its word regarding the Rodman Hall: Planning the Future A Preliminary Planning Process Report, which it adopted as official policy, and has offered no explanation as to why it has not begun engaging and enabling the community and staff to enact it.

There is an online group, on FB, called Rodman Hall Community. I’ve been told several open forums for distribution and discussion of the Barlow Report have been planned, to ensure an important part of contemporary and historical Niagara is respected. This group is being facilitated by Elizabeth Hayden, whom also was the driving force behind a petition in support of Rodman Hall (signatories included internationally respected gallerist / collector Ydessa Hendeles, and many others whom illustrate the wide and deep respect for the space and its history) that was presented to the university concurrent to the Interkom “report.” Rodman Hall Community is acting as a locus for ensuring not just the survival of Rodman, but that it thrives. More directly, the stated mandate is to “share information about Rodman Hall and its future”, something that this consultation has not been particularly adept at doing…

This is the last in this monstrosity of a series we’ve titled “What About Rodman Hall?”, but this discussion is far from done. Some other facets of this controversy are in abeyance, as more information is gathered, and more sources come forward. But allow me to offer some teasers.

A lively debate with significant criticisms (levelled at Brock and the facilitators of this process) of blatant misogyny in the dismissal of expertise (whether the treatment of Acting Director / Chief Curator Bronson, or that Professor Sharilyn Ingram seems to have been boxed out of this process, despite her diverse knowledge and experience, or, continuing a pattern of stifled female voices, that Janis Barlow’s report seems to have been discarded as soon as submitted) has been happening online, on Facebook. (I’m reminded of how, the last evening of “consultations”, Professor Donna Szőke, with surgical and succinct humour, spoke from the front of the room, acknowledging some implicit power dynamics in walking up to speak from the same space as Van Zon…).

Simultaneously, concerns over Acting Brock President Brian Hutchings’ history with the City of St. Catharines, as it pertains to the debacle of the Burgoyne Bridge audits and mismanagement, have been insinuated (the correlations between how the Burgoyne was bigger, more complex and more difficult than the city assumed, and led to various problems that might have been foreseen, or avoided with proper…consultation…is why it’s mentioned here. But as of this writing, it’s nothing more than speculation, in the face of a process that is not particularly…transparent. Perhaps this is nothing but unhappy coincidence.)

There is – significantly – more information to be parsed, more voices to be heard from, and this current process, initiated last year, is more complicated and tangled than it appears. And perhaps is not what it seems, or purports to be.

On November 28th, at 7 PM, there’s a talk at Rodman Hall: Legacy of Splendor “is an illustrated talk on the history of the gardens of Rodman Hall, both the garden of Thomas Rodman Merritt who built Rodman Hall, and the Walker Botanical Garden opened to the public in 1988. The talk is given by Darren Schmahl, who in April of 1987, as a recent graduate of the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, was hired to supervise the initial planting phase of the project… This free talk is for community members interested in heritage, green space in St. Catharines, horticulture and the future of Rodman Hall Art Centre.” Many of the indignant voices raised to Interkom’s “assumptions” were / are people who know Rodman through this space and this aspect of its importance, to Niagara. They’ve been dismissed, it seems, as rudely as others.

In closing, some facts about Rodman, from the Barlow Report, to remind us what is at stake, and what we have in this region, right now.

Rodman Hall was the first and only art museum in Niagara to receive federal capital funding. It was designated a national exhibition centre for the Niagara region (in 1975) has maintained Class A status since 1975. Since 2010, the Gallery has received 7 OAAG (Ontario Art Association of Art Gallery) awards and two St. Catharines Standards Reader’s Choice awards. Growth in visitors has grown over four-fold in four years – from 6,000 to 25,000 per year. This “state-of-the-art school is a perfect complement to the distinguished historic art museum and collection. Together, they make Brock a Fine Art powerhouse in Canada.”

As I’ve cited it a number of times, in the last few instalments, here’s the Barlow Report, as it is colloquially named, and here is the original agreement between Brock University and Rodman Hall.

What About Rodman Hall? So Far, So What? can be read here.

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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