Part 7. Experienced, and Expunged, Voices

It’s appropriate if this chapter on Rodman Hall and Brock University echoes the previous, by citing the voices of those present at the meeting at the Oddfellows Temple in downtown St. Catharines, facilitated by the Rodman Hall Community Group. Jean Bridge, Elizabeth Chitty, Elizabeth Hayden, Sharilyn J. Ingram and Sandy Middleton are an impressive “ad hoc” volunteer group. It would be a disservice to list their accomplishments here, but you can see it online at rodmanhallalliance.ca/about.

One woman, during the question period at the end of Janis Barlow’s presentation (augmented by Professor Sharilyn Ingram’s encyclopedic clarity on certain terms and history) encapsulated the evening best. After the dour (and periodically dishonest) negativity of the presentations of Martin Van Zon and Interkom that suggested that anything other than the “new” “Art Gallery of Niagara” would result in a horror almost Lovecraftian in its breadth — and vagueness, ahem — it is “good to see that there are many options for Rodman that are positive and viable, and that there’s major interest — and potential financial support — from a variety of community players and groups in Niagara”, and beyond.

The presentation by Barlow was succinct, and a variation of one given by this same group to the Capital Infrastructure Committee (CIC) at Brock. It was a little more than an hour, and yet contained more genuine information, as pertains to Rodman’s history, attendance, dependant classes from various educational institutions, provincial and national accolades and recognition – and financial options (perhaps most important in the current climate) than all four of the Van Zon evenings.

The evening promised — and delivered — the following:
“This event is an opportunity to learn about what has come to be known as The Barlow Report. At recent community consultations conducted on behalf of Brock University, it appears that this report — titled Rodman Hall: Planning the Future, a preliminary planning process — has been disregarded, despite it having been approved by Brock Board of Trustees in September 2015. The Barlow Report offers a clear alternative to the controversial notion put forth by Brock’s consultant that a new art gallery to replace Rodman Hall should now be considered.

The report proposed to cultivate partners for Rodman’s four core businesses (public art museum; learning centre; historic site; public gardens) to sustain future operations, develop an endowment, and safeguard Rodman’s assets and enable fundraising through establishment of a community property trust. This event is an opportunity to listen to consultant Janis Barlow review the report, ask questions and engage in a community discussion about its recommendations.”

Meanwhile, the ground has shifted.

Not long after Rodman Hall Community Group (RHA)’s forum last December, Brock University informed Martin Van Zon and Interkom they would no longer be requiring his / their services as a consultant. Perhaps “Brock” was displeased with the poverty of Interkom’s “research”; the abrasive, aggressive ignorance perpetuated in their “name”, so to speak; the revelations that there might be a conflict of interest and intent as regards the Art Gallery of Burlington; or that “nothing has been decided” has become a sarcastic rejoinder for many. All are believable cause for ending this embarrassing exercise in disrespect and delinquency. Perhaps it would be too ungracious to suggest a recouping of the consultation fee, as it’s arguable that work commissioned was not accomplished (and it could be put towards the cuts already made by Brock in Rodman’s budget…).

Further concerns that came to light from the RHA speaking to Brock’s CIC was that the CIC was unaware of the facts, and seemed to bend some (“Stuart [Reid, former Director] said he couldn’t implement the Barlow, and the board agreed”, which ignores that a three year plan cannot be implemented in three months… and there seemed to be a desire by some CIC members to “blame the media” for “rumour mongering” — are my ears burning? — but it was made clear to the CIC that this was another example of the disconnect — nefarious or simply ignorance — between themselves and what Van Zon spoke (for them?). Again, several RHA volunteers — notably Ingram — corrected these self serving misperception when they spoke to the CIC).

Its unclear at this time what this means for the Art Gallery of Niagara (agniagara.ca is still online, but without any listing of those involved, and as previously detailed here in The Sound, Interkom hosts and maintains the site… so it is unclear if the AGN is any more, or anything more, than a confused, problematic endeavour of one or two individuals… It’s worth noting that the RHA has expressed a willingness to work with any and all whom have Rodman’s best interests at heart, including the AGN).

But let’s put the expensive Interkom debacle behind us: if you go the RHA page you can watch several videos of the meeting, and hear what Chitty, Barlow and others whom are part of “the community of citizens, academics, artists and students that support the Rodman Hall Art Centre and its continued existence as a public asset” have to say. The videos are broken into sections, such as “Sharilyn Ingram, member of the Rodman Hall Alliance, provides context for the Barlow Report” or “Janis Barlow outlines and compares financial framework of Rodman Hall with other Ontario regional galleries.”

RHA also didn’t sugarcoat that Brock seems keen to divest itself of Rodman (I must be cynical and suggest that the outrage at what was proposed by Van Zon has served to galvanize a community that was a bit sleepy, and thus Brock’s acolytes of austerity have what they want, anyway). However, unlike the scolding rebukes made by one of the AGN cabal at the Niagara Artists Centre, RHA sees the six years to 2023 as an opportunity — and a challenge — to enact the partnerships and plans the Barlow report suggested (another video at their site is “Janis Barlow reviews opportunities and plans for community partnerships to sustain Rodman Hall”, which includes research and genuine guides for Rodman. This again highlights how Van Zon’s idea that a downtown gallery could be built for an almost criminally small amount, while ignoring issues of operating budgets for a new, were akin to — quoting a local entrepreneur — “rainbow shitting unicorns”).

RHA offers a challenge, to not solely keep but to improve Rodman Hall; and a plan that values heritage and the community players that are strongly invested in Rodman, and its variable history of grounds, local history, education and contemporary art. Email them to ask what’s next, and what needs to be done to make that happen, and make Rodman thrive.

Part 8: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, 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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