A Eulogy for Rodman Hall

I had visited Rodman Hall Art Centre often, since my arrival in Niagara five years ago, before that late Summer evening in 2015 when Sarindar Dhaliwal was giving a talk about her exhibition The Radcliffe Line. But that visit was one where I was very charmed by the site, whether the building itself, the grounds, or the community that gathered to hear Dhaliwal speak about her various works. Perhaps this is due to the wonderful installation on the front lawn: Dhaliwal had created – as she had in past iterations of The Radcliffe Line – a ‘map’ of India on the lawn, in seductive flora of various hues. Standing outside, as dusk began to fall, and smelling both the wonderful fragrances of the grounds and gardens that were ‘regularly’ on display, and the contrasting, almost striking, earth work by Dhaliwal, is one of my favourite ‘moments’ at Rodman Hall Art Centre. This seems far more than five years ago, and yet also seems like yesterday.

That seems a good place to stand, to begin this piece – which may be my last regarding the ongoing charade of Brock University’s ‘demolition by neglect’ of Rodman Hall (to again quote Rebecca Cann’s excellent summary of their intentional ignorance and incompetence). I cite Dhaliwal’s work not just for the quality of the experience, but also as the title, The Radcliffe Line, refers to the incompetence of Radcliffe in his dismissive ‘partition’ of India and Pakistan in 1947, which has led to more than a half century of bloodshed and suffering that might have been avoided, if experienced and knowledgeable voices were heard….an apt metaphor for the wilful incomprehension of people like past V.P. Administration Brian Hutchings, or Martin Van Zon, or others – many among faculty in the ‘arts’ at Brock, or those in local politics – who chose not to know, or do, better by Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Sarindar Dhaliwal: the cartographer’s mistake: marigold map, 2015 (installed on Rodman Hall’s lawn, photo by Danny Custodio)
Sarindar Dhaliwal: the cartographer’s mistake: marigold map, 2015 (installed on Rodman Hall’s lawn, photo by Danny Custodio)

When I visited Rodman that evening, they had a skeleton staff, significantly less than a gallery of equitable size in other cities requires to function and serve their diverse communities. In the five years since, multiple positions have either been eliminated (either by not renewing contracts, as with Emma German or Lauren Regier) or not been replaced by Brock Administration (Stuart Reid, Michelle Nichols, Danny Custodio). In some cases interviews were done, but in the end, the positions were left vacant, simply putting more duties on already overworked staff, who then sought escape or employment elsewhere, as these situations take a toll physically and mentally. The relief expressed by many who held Rodman Hall together, upon finding employment elsewhere, has been palpable. It’s also bluntly understandable, as it wasn’t on any of those cultural workers to ‘save’ Rodman Hall, but the ‘stakeholders’ in the Brock administration, tenured faculty with power and influence, or City Hall (as, with their financial ‘powers’, they are the only ones that can pause Brock, or demand answers), or in the larger cultural community. At a past student show at Rodman, I was told that the Mayor asserted ‘we would not lose Rodman Hall.’ I’ll be sure to mention when I see him next about how now Grimsby, with the GPAG, has a better public art gallery than St. Catharines…..

Money for ‘consultants’ however, has flown like a hemorrhage: the Armstrong Strategy Group, which I mentioned in a previous article (specifically highlighting their dubious history with Manning, Harris and other neo conservatives whose approach to culture has been ill informed ‘austerity’) are apparently still ‘involved’ and one imagines drawing a pay cheque. This is unsurprising, as the aforementioned Hutchings, now fled to a city job elsewhere (after sharing his glee in shuttering Rodman Hall), was on the Ontario Sunshine List for his ‘efforts.’ But to quote one of the departed – or alienated and now exiled – staff, most ‘conversations’ with Brock administration either had the literal comment, or the tone, that ‘Rodman Hall is NOT a priority.’ This was manifest in both apathy and financial neglect….

Now that Acting Director / Curator Marcie Bronson has left for a position in Cambridge at the the Cambridge Art Galleries | Idea Exchange, no one is left at Rodman Hall. All of the people who made it a vibrant site have either been let go or sought a healthier, more positive space, elsewhere, outside of Brock’s neglect and dismissal…..

In titling this article a ‘eulogy’ for Rodman Hall, I’m avoiding more carcereal if more accurate language. Euthanasia comes to mind, when you’ve neglected a space so that now there’s no one there, the grounds are not well kept, and in the standard neo liberal tactic, you ‘punish’ a space for being ineffective when decisions made rendered them incapable of being effective. I could also say ‘death’, as even the rumours I hear (that as the building is designated as a heritage site, it may become a more ‘historical’ space, akin to the St. Catharines Museum) suggest that Rodman’s tenure as an award winning and nationally recognized site for contemporary and historical art has ended.

Over a year ago, when I dared to expose some of Brock’s plans regarding a potential sale of Rodman Hall, I pilfered a title from a student work to say ‘this is not the answer.’ But Brock continues its silence, or their outright lies regarding ‘supporting’ the space while not replacing staff (even after having done interviews for essential jobs), and the St. Catharines Standard is an eager propagandist for this dishonesty. St. Catharines City Hall has done nothing, as well, as the only stakeholder who might scuttle any plans on the part of the administrative cabal, and I’m mildly disappointed in myself that I thought they might. Even prior to COVID, their actions were tepid and often prefaced by assertions of ‘austerity.’ Post pandemic, to paraphrase artist and activist Elizabeth Chitty, the refrain ‘COVID made us do it’ will soon become a mantra….

Rodman Hall Art Centre stands empty, now, of people and activities that once helped define the culture and history of St. Catharines, and the wider Niagara region. I’ve visited a few times with a friend, but there is a mournful quality to this. It looks like a haunted house, perhaps (there are stories of how their are members of the Merritt family that ‘walk’ there, and I’ve seen enough doors open and close on their own to not dismiss that idea).

It’s unclear what becomes of the collection: Brock has no other space to house it properly, and the issue of artworks that have value financially or culturally is a contested topic. This article speaks of that, and one might ask that if we couldn’t trust Brock University to support RH, but instead stood by while it strip mined it for assets to aggrandize themselves, whether we’ll see some of those works ‘sold off’ to support more Sunshine List parasites. That might be preferable to seeing works not well maintained and seeing them degrade (as happened with the building and flight of staff ) in another example of Brock’s ‘demolition through neglect’….

Rodman Hall has not been open since early 2020. The last two exhibitions there were, perhaps, harbingers.

Danny Custodio’s exhibition Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos was a beautiful manner to mark the end of his long tenure at RH, and could be seen as a ‘goodbye’ to the space, from someone who supported it greatly, despite the incompetence and idiocy of his ‘superiors’ in the Brock administrative cabal. But the other exhibition, more light than heat, which described itself as a gesture towards the history of Rodman, failed completely in a self serving and ignorant manner. That is, from a dark and depressive standpoint, the perfect ‘final’ show to have had in Rodman’s space, to act as a visual correlation to Brock’s dereliction and proud ‘know nothing’ stance. It saddens me greatly that that was the last show, in the large space that previously featured Bill Burns, Gunilla Josephson, Reinhardt Reitzenstein and many others, but in an uncomfortable way, one might consider ‘more light than heat’ to be akin to more ‘words than actions’, which encapsulates Brock’s ‘ending’ of Rodman Hall. But it also applies to the politicians on City Council, or many in the cultural community, who will wail and gnash their teeth at Rodman’s absence, but were silent when it could have been prevented. My tired skepticism is showing, I know: better that than my contempt for many who owed Rodman and the community more.

There are rumours and some information has bled down to me. As I previously mentioned, since the building is now a designated heritage site, it may open again as a museum space (the St. Catharines Museum has often spoken of desiring a space more ‘central’ to the downtown core). Another source has said that Brock has ‘assured’ faculty at the MIWSFPA that Rodman will be ‘available’ to them, for teaching, until 2023. That may be a salving comment as the senior student studio spaces, and the BFA exhibitions that took place in the fine gallery space have been attractive lures for students to the Brock Visual Arts program. But how that will work, with no staff, and the value of the promises of administration being – to be polite – unreliable, remains to be seen.

In some ways, COVID has ‘accelerated’ some situations. That’s an odd assertion to make, on the surface, as many of us are ‘treading water’ and many things are ‘on hold’, perhaps permanently. COVID has allowed for an acceleration of Brock’s disdain for Rodman Hall, in a similar manner to how other cultural organizations have also found themselves dealing with situations that were surely impending, but might have been avoided, or delayed further. Niagara Artist Centre failed to mount their annual essential fund raising extravaganza Small Feats, and other ‘institutions’ of the Niagara cultural scenes – such as In The Soil – stuttered and then stopped. Rodman may be the first of many sites that we ‘lose’, not so much due to COVID as its unsuspected aftermath of exposing problems, and bringing to the fore agendas and issues (the financially tenuous nature of much arts and culture funding and support) that ‘we’ thought we could ‘ignore’, and prevent. Perhaps this is a warning; perhaps it will even be heeded.

But I may be mistaken, in eulogizing Rodman Hall Art Centre: in fact, let me offer some other scenarios.

The Hansen Gallery (the more historic ‘living room’) at Rodman could be filled with works from the permanent collection, like Stuart Reid’s exhibition A Painter’s Country: Canadian Landscape Paintings. Other works from the permanent collection, so expertly highlighted in Emma German’s year long exhibition Up Close and In Motion, could be installed in the larger back space: artworks could be rotated, every six months, and the gallery and its collection could still be available to all.

The image above the mantle is by Harvey Breverman, titled The Director, undated, pastel, conté, and wash on paper. Gift of Judith MacLachlan, 1995.

Perhaps, even, to avoid a potential post COVID ‘fire sale’, the Rodman Hall Group that was formed last year (and I offered some background regarding here) may be able to step in, and ‘recieve’ Rodman Hall and the collection (I am smiling, as I write that, as if you remember the effusive incompetence of Van Zon’s ‘Art Gallery of Niagara’ jabber, he kept talking about ‘interested parties recieving the collection’, which most of us heard as ‘steal’, ahem).

Either of these ‘off the cuff’ proposals would require a concerted community effort, and support both community based and financial from the many stakeholders (many of whom are fond of lip service, but nothing else). It would also require a focused and engaged critical oversight of Brock University’s actions – or inactions – regarding Rodman Hall. The larger community would have to make sure their desire, their insistance, to be informed and heard on these matters is impossible to ignore, and that accountability is not just a ‘word’ paired with ‘austerity’…..but what do I know? Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell, who has followed this story for nearly five years, was recently told I was ‘toxic’ to the process, by someone who, as a cultural ‘stakeholder’ in Niagara seems conspicuously absent from the larger narrative about Rodman, and its loss. But let us all tilt at that windmill, and allow me to lead, like demented synchronized swiming….

As I’ve said before, when writing on this travesty, I am hopeful about possibilities, but skeptical of probabilities. But I’m visiting Rodman Hall Art Centre during this time, saying my goodbyes, and considering what’s been lost, and considering who is to blame, as well. Perhaps that might show up, in a later article about arts and culture in Niagara….

The images accompanying this article are from several sources. Sarindar Dhaliwal’s work from The Radcliffe Line are both shots courtesy Rodman Hall, taken by the fine photographer Danny Custodio. All other images, of the interior of Rodman Hall, are taken from the Instagram feed of former Acting Director / Curator Marcie Bronson, which documented Rodman Hall over the past year.