An Autopsy for Rodman Hall

It can be one of those perfect storms, too, where you have people in administration who, with all due respect, don’t get it. Don’t get the gallery, how it operates within the college as adding reputation and providing a real resource for student-learning opportunities; faculty research, and community outreach. If your bottom line is only in front of your face, and you can’t qualitatively see the component parts – those of value or potential value – then you’re going to make short-term, shortsighted cuts like this. (Wayne Baerwaldt, 2015, from MOMUS)

A memory came up in my social media feed this week. It was a wonderful image, taken by former Rodman Hall Ars Centre (RHAC) employee Danny Custodio, a bit surreptitiously, of myself and another great – and former – RHAC staff member, Lauren Regier. We were sitting in the side ‘reading room’, looking up at a drawing of the late RHAC Director / Curator Peter Harris that is in the RHAC collection. WIthout him, Rodman Hall would not be what it was, during its glory days. In many ways, his vision and dedication are another loss, to be mourned, with the announcement made by Brock University earlier this month about Rodman Hall Art Centre.

But let’s cut to the chase: Rodman Hall Art Centre is dead.

Really, everything else I’m offering here in this article is moot. Brock has moved from ‘demolition through neglect’ to ‘profit over promises.’ Nothing I pass on to you here, to paraphrase George Tecumseh Sherman, ‘matters a jot or a tittle, and this conversation is idle.’

But it’s necessary to highlight the history of lies, prevarications and the self congratulatory dishonesty that fairly oozed from the announcement made by Brock on November 18th, 2020. You can read that here. Perhaps out of this, a way forward can be charted, so no more is lost than what has been, already.

The buildings and the grounds have been sold by Brock University, breaking the original agreement of 2003. This is also a contradiction of their lies of the past few years (specifically Dean Carol Merriam, who dismissed my prediction of this over a year ago as ‘misinformation’). RHAC is in the hands of a developer with the express goal of creating “additional residential uses.” Those are the words of Nino Donatelli, who’s the head of the local group that now owns the building and grounds: “His previous projects include the commercial core in Old Port Dalhousie, and the former Domtar/CN rail lands in Merritton that include the Keg Restaurant and the Stone Mill Inn Plaza.” (from the Brock PSA, here)

Mark Elliot, a fervent and frequent critic of Brock’s ‘demolition through neglect’ of RHAC, and a real estate agent (thus having some knowledge of property issues others lack, and the winner of last year’s St. Catharines Arts Award in the Making A Difference Category), has offered some scathing commentery on past projects of Donatelli’s work with heritage sites. Others (notably Dr. Derek Knight, one of the faculty directly responsible for shepherding the Marilyn I. Walker to completion) have been more optimistic. But it’s clear that access to the grounds (which have been well used by many, even during COVID), and any community or public use of the space (such as Willow Arts Community), is at an end. Willow, in fact, was – at the time of my writing this – urged to vacate all supplies, materials and other property a week after the announcement. This is a disrespectful and harsh dismissal of a four year partnership, that has garnered awards, and that Brock has had no reserve to highlight when it served them.

Rodman Hall, this fall, now shuttered.

This ‘development’ is perhaps more poetically – and tragically – symbolized by a nearby site. old St. Catharines hospital on Queenston Street, nearly fully demolished save the fine architectural arches which are standing alone and desolate. They’re waiting to be ‘developed’ into a condominium or other such site, that alludes to the value of consumers over community……

No official disclosure is offered on what Brock profited from this broken promise, but it’s undoubtedly a significant return on their original two dollar purchase and betrayed promise of stewardship and community ‘consultation.’

Parallel to this, another decision was announced ‘at’ the community. Brock was ‘overjoyed’ to share with us that the ‘approximately 1,000 objects, including paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by Canadian, American and European artists from the past three centuries‘, with the ‘likes of Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, and Painters Eleven‘ are in the process of being transfered to the Rodman Hall Art Centre, Inc group.

These works – no small financial concern in itself, with several Group of Seven works that would easily fetch several millions on the art market – will ‘soon’ be in the stewardship of a local community non profit, with the intent to create a new gallery. A press release in response to Brock’s announcement was sent out by Rodman Hall Art Centre, Inc: you can see that below.

There are agreements (MOUs, or memorandums of understanding) to this effect, and ‘seed money’ offered by Brock. However, it was a written ‘agreement’ with Brock that led us here (broken, as it’s not yet 2023). Other past proposals, with far more expertise and experience behind them, such as the Barlow Report and the feasibility study proffered by Alf Bogusky and Ann Pappert have been ignored and discarded nearly upon their moment of completion. So the community can be forgiven for being skeptical on this front. Frankly, I would add that having been fooled once, many of us here in Niagara – and beyond – have little eagerness to be fooled again.

But I ‘spoke’ (that isn’t sarcasm, but during COVID, this meant via email) with Jean Bridge, who is the Chair of RHAC, Inc, about this situation.This is an encapsulation of her answers, with some editing for clarification. There are emotions running high in response to this announcement, so I proffer this as ‘directly’ as possible.

RHAC, Inc. was involved in the Request for Expressions of Interest that was made public in December 2019 [which] sought a third party to operate and potentially develop Rodman Hall. It was anticipated that a third party could be found who could lease and/or develop the property in such a way as to enable the art gallery to remain at Rodman Hall [and several] proponents emerged out of this process. Unfortunately the RHAC, Inc. Board came to the conclusion that the gallery would ultimately face considerable downsizing and compromise to its core mission. Therefore we Informed Brock University in May 2020 that RHAC, Inc. would going forward focus on the process of developing a new public art gallery for Niagara. We asked for transfer of the Rodman Hall art collection and relevant endowments to RHAC, Inc. and for material assistance in a new ’start-up’. RHAC, Inc. was not involved [my emphasis] in matters pertaining to the sale of Rodman Hall.

RHAC, Inc. and Brock University have struck an agreement wherein RHAC, Inc. will take responsibility for management of the art collection. Brock University will continue to insure and house the collection at Rodman Hall until October 2021 while RHAC, Inc. undertakes a process of updating and consolidating the collection database, documentation, records while monitoring conditions of the collection. RHAC, Inc. is in the process of hiring a Registrar for that purpose. At the same time, Brock and RHAC, Inc. are carrying out consultations with CCPERB [The Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board (CCPERB) whose mandate is to ensure Canada’s cultural property is protected, preserved, and accessible to the public] and planning for transfer of ownership for the collection. There will come a time when we must store the collection in professional museum storage while the new public art gallery is being developed.

Brock University is responsible for the operation of Rodman Hall Art Centre and its commitments to funders, agencies and partners such as The Willow Community. RHAC, Inc. has not had any oversight relationship for RHAC.

RHAC, Inc. is current formulating plans adapted from the Rodman Hall Feasibility Report and Work Plan created by Bogusky Creative Services and community consultations that were undertaken in 2017 (Community Conversations) and 2018 (consultations with more than 40 members of the community in the process of creating the Feasibility Report) as well as ongoing discussions with the Rodman Hall Alliance, potential sustaining partners (e.g. City of St. Catharines Rodman Hall Task Force, Civic leaders and City staff) as well as arts agencies and sister public art galleries. Much of this work was consolidated in the creation of a RHAC Preliminary Business Plan produced for RHAC, Inc. by Janis Barlow and Associates in 2019. Taken as whole, these efforts provide key learnings that will inform all our future work toward establishing a new public art gallery. Principles that arise from these efforts include: authentic connection, responsiveness, and commitment to communities; excellence in arts and creativity; accessible and diverse programs; sustainability, effectiveness, and efficiency; and transparency and openness. As for action plans, RHAC, Inc. is undertaking the following: creation of a phased multi-year budget; securing CRA charitable registration; establishment of communication and community engagement plan; evaluation of board and staff requirements; defining and reviewing options and opportunities with partners; securing a suitable location for the collection/gallery; and consideration of gallery name. Unique decisions will be required as we undertake these actions. These include: short- and long-term security for the art collection; defining organizational scope, level of community support; and identity. Out of this will come a more formalized strategic plan.

We are currently working with Brock University to establish an agreement for transfer of endowments pertaining to Rodman Hall Art Centre and for cash and in-kind contributions to what we are calling a ’start-up fund’.

RHAC, Inc. is well aware that a) we will not be in a position to continue operating RHAC and b) that our plan to establish a new public art gallery will result in a break of several year during which we will not be in any way eligible for arts council funding. It is more than likely a new gallery will have to claw its way back into eligibility for such funding. This will be a very considerable challenge [again, my emphasis].

It is my belief that Brock University is as eager as we are to come to terms on the disposition of the collection and the winding up of RHAC. I also believe Brock University wants to be seen as a benefactor and perhaps even a beneficiary of a new public art gallery. Brock University and RHAC, Inc. have an MOU [memorandum of understanding] that confirms our intent to safeguard the collection while we determine how to transfer the collection and relevant endowments to RHAC, Inc. The MOU also confirms an intent for Brock to support RHAC, Inc’s efforts to establish a new public art gallery. There is still much work to do by way of finalizing all the details. This is the first time in five years that we have had a clear picture of Brock’s intentions and RHAC, Inc. sees considerable evidence that Brock University is motivated to settle this long ongoing saga and find a win for themselves and for the community.

A new public art gallery must meet museum standards. Category A status – a designation bestowed by Heritage Canada – pertains not just to the collection and physical attributes of the gallery and its storage but also to the institution’s ability to preserve, interpret and exhibit the collection. As for donors, every effort will be made to safeguard the collection and maintain the fullest capacity in a future public art gallery to meet its responsibility to the intentions of donors.” [This last comment was in response to my raising the point that with the Art Gallery of Niagara fiasco, several individuals publicly expressed intent to ‘take back’ works donated by their parents or families].

More: “It is hoped by RHAC, Inc the City of St. Catharines steps up to support a public art gallery as other comparable Ontario cities do [a comparison of this is available in the aforementioned Bogusky / Pappert Feasability study, of 2019. That can be seen here]. The situation in which we find ourselves requires that the City take up its responsibility to support such critical cultural infrastructure. The City’s reticence to partner on Rodman Hall over the years left Brock University as the only significant funder of RHAC. This was never sustainable and when Brock University felt it could no longer carry the ball alone, the City of St. Catharines sat on its hands. Going forward, I hope the City finally hires a director of cultural services – a position that is critical now more than ever.”

The reports and plans mentioned by Bridge are accessible online, and links can be found at the Rodman Hall Alliance site, and in some of the past articles I’ve written on this situation. Bridge echoes ideas that have come up in conversation with Alf Bogusky, one of the co authors of the 2018 Feasibility Study and Workplan. His words: “Any institution is vulnerable to the circumstances and priorities of its prime funder, and these priorities can change over time. University galleries are generally characterized by their heavy reliance for accommodation, staffing and financial support upon their host University which itself has many competing interior interests and which change with overall leaderships priorities.”

An image of Rodman Hall Art Centre, earlier in 2019, during a better time.

To return to the day of the announcement: it was hard to tell whether the aggrandizing cognitive dissonance of Brock President Gervan Fearon was worse than the incompetent arrogance of ‘our’ Mayor, Walter Sendzik. However, anyone who followed the demise of the Garden City Food Co Op would know that one need only mention ‘developers’ and our mayor loses sight of any obligations or ideas that don’t serve that beast. Sendzik blurts that “the new agreement represents a strategic and sustainable solution for ensuring the future of the artwork.” This is at best naivete; at worst it’s untrue. The city has shown no interest to support the gallery or the collection. It’s frankly a blatant lie to suggest that selling a Class A space out from under the collection (and community) with no space ready, nor soon to be ready, nor having immediate access to government support – and a pattern of dismissal and apathy from Sendzik’s civic governance – is ‘sustainable or strategic.’ Those words do not mean what Walter seems to think – or wants to convince us – they mean.

Further, what of the works installed outside the gallery? The idea that Mary Ann Barkhouse’s garden and sculptural installation Settlement will now become ‘decoration’ for a residential space, as opposed to the challenging artwork in the public sphere the artist intended is gross. Settlement stands here in Niagara thanks to The York Wilson Endowment Award. This is given to a Canadian art museum or public gallery to help it purchase work by a living Canadian artist that will significantly enhance its collection. Another work, by Sorel Etrog was purchased through funds from the Ontario Government, with money ear marked for community and culture.

Will these allow for higher rental or condominium ‘rate’s for the ‘development’?

Again, I’m reminded of the arch left standing at the old hospital site, awaiting its ‘future’ as a condo ‘decoration.’ In some ways, Barkhouse’s work is a fine analogy for what the true ramifications of Brock’s decision, and perhaps misplaced hopes from others, reallly entails…

What of works that go missing during transfer, without a proper registrar (to document and ensure artworks are protected – whether from the elements or ‘austerity’ minded administrators) on the scene? Again, we are being asked to ‘trust.’ Personally, I believe I speak for many when I say I have little, if any, of that to spend here.

This is – again – a tired pattern. Perhaps you’ve read Brock’s Downtown Arts Initiative ‘proposal’, which came out last year. Speaking to the collection at that time (specifically the much smaller ‘storage’ available at MIWSFPA, especially comparing RHAC’s environment control), Brock’s repeated answer was ‘we’re exploring options.’

Many have observed that this flippant obfuscation is, perhaps, a reason to be glad that Brock is done with Rodman Hal. But that cynicism has to be balanced with how there’s a promise of ‘seed money’ for a new space and exploration of options for the collection. But perhaps that’s just a future broken promise, like with ‘staff support’, in the past. More on that hypocrisy from Brock in a moment…

Brock is so deep in their echo chamber that they – in one section here – talk of supporting a collection of fine art and then selling the Class A space that such a collection requires in the next. Then they congratulate themselves for supporting the collection.

It’s also necessary to focus on the propaganda Brock sent out, to validate the sale of Rodman Hall. There’s some outright contradictions, and sloppy lies in this. This may seem bilious, on my part: but the way forward, with RHAC, Inc, is through several MOUs (memorandums of understanding) and promises with Brock, and this history is necessary to critically consider the current situation. Wariness is required, with such a negligent past partner. Many may be hopeful about possibilities, but the probabilities suggest something else.

One of the ‘justifications’ is the oft repeated ‘talking point’ regarding the money that Brock has spent on Rodman Hall. There’s been an implication that RHAC has been a ‘money pit’ for Brock University. This is a false idea proffered by many, from Martin Van Zon onwards, whose community consultations displayed a shameless ignorance, even prompting one person to ask what he had actually done for his significant fee. This intersects with how past V.P. Finance Brian Hutchings was ‘dedicated’ to the closure of RHAC, yet earned a salary worthy of the Ontario Sunshine list. That may seem petty, but did someone say ‘austerity’? Brock has averred that they spent more than 7 million, but consider some facts that deflate that balloon: break that down from year to year, and you’re seeing less financial support for the gallery than that offered by municipalities in other places. Rodman Hall Alliance has copies of the Bogusky / Pappert Feasibility Report, with an appendix that demonstrates this clearly.

Another point that must be repeated: in the past five years (which I use as I began researching and writing on this at that time), staff have left and never been replaced. Six different employees – and Rodman Hall was already significantly understaffed – either resigned for other jobs (Michelle Nichols, Danny Custodio, Matthew Tegel, Stuart Reid) or saw their positions ended (Emma German, Lauren Regier), with no plan other than to pile more responsibilities on remaining personnel. This led to an exhaustive burnout of staff. But this is, of course, a tenet of poor management designed to destroy an organization. Make cuts, insist that ‘Rodman Hall is not a priority’ (quoting a past staff member, saying they received numerous dismissals from Brock administration using those exact words) and then decry its failure. Then sell it, whether jabbering ‘austerity’, ‘cuts by Doug Ford’ (who came to power long after Brock’s demolition through neglect was well under way), or the current ‘excuse’, which is to ‘blame COVID.’ Elizabeth Chitty, a fine artist and activist, who also was employed by RHAC for a time, predicted some time ago that RHAC would be shuttered and sold, with the pandemic as the convenient – and false – reason.

The Downtown Arts Initiative that Brock University put out last year demonstrates this dishonest spin. Set up in a question and answer format, it’s as disheartening as it is revealing. In one section, in response to the question “Will the University maintain appropriate staffing requirements for operation of a Class-A art museum?’ the glib rejoinder that ‘Brock is committed to maintaining support for a curator of the Rodman Hall collection until 2023’ ignores the many other positions necessary for a Class A space (as demonstrated with the mandate to not replace staff cited earlier). Since the curator / acting director left this year, for a more supportive space that values culture, why the sale and closure, and not ‘maintaining support’ for a new curator – not that they supported the old one, or many of the other staff?

I’m to be forgiven for experiencing a flashback to Martin Van Zon (again), and his failed Art Gallery of Niagara proposal, but there’s an anecdote to relate that’s relevant to the former point from the Downtown Arts Initiative report. At one of Van Zon’s ‘consultations’, he claimed that the costs of making RHAC fully accessible, for those with mobility issues, was extremely cost prohibitive and would be a factor in the ‘impending closure’ (a drum he beat often, hollowly). One of the RHAC staff responded that there is, in fact, significant available funds from the government for such upgrades, and that in conversation with the civil servant responsible, Matthew Tegel was also assured that heritage buildings, such as RHAC, were not on the same timeline for these changes, but that it was a responsive, considered process. Van Zon dismissed this, as it didn’t match his narrative, and ‘forgot’ it.

This is a charade Brock administration has staged, with different ‘non issues’ that deflate upon examination and appropriate inquiry, as opposed to assumptions….to quote an anonymous source, many are ‘sick of Brock’s rigamarole.’ To return to my exchange with Jean Bridge, she asserts the following: RHAC, Inc. is prepared to move on and work toward a positive future with a new public art gallery. We hope Brock University will be a good collaborator and contributor. But we are moving forward with or without them.

Let’s return to the current fiasco. Brock’s narrative about ‘financial support’ for RHAC spends more time blaming Doug Ford in tandem with offering monetary figures out of context. For that, the Feasibility Study and Workplan from Alf Bogusky Creative Consultants (September 2018) is more relevant – but it does not, of course, fit Brock’s agenda. The appendix to that document, with numbers and information regarding funding, expenses and staff numbers is a more ‘true’ document of how Brock has engaged in ‘demolition through neglect’, especially when compared to the McMaster Art Gallery or other similar institutions. That can be seen here (another resource from Rodman Hall Alliance).

But wait, I’ll temper my disdain. Since we can hope that (in other than a partnering – hopefully one of many other stakeholders – capacity) Brock’s oversight of RHAC is at an end, I’ll offer the following. Rodman Hall Art Centre was living on borrowed time. Paraphrasing another source, RHAC’s historical financial trajectory has always been tenuous: it has never had robust core civic investment, and by 1993 with the loss of its core federal funding with the dissolution of the National Exhibition Centres Programme and regrettably (a perfect storm) coincident with founder Peter Harris’s passing the gallery began a slow fiscal crash over a ten year period. It was essentially ‘gifted’ to Brock in the hope that it would gain the financial security it wasn’t able to build on it’s own after 60 years (despite quite wonderful and an inspiring program of activities in the community). And now, after 17 years under Brock, we see this current controversial and disappointing outcome.

But balancing the necessary criticism of Brock, it must be acknowledged that during their 17 year ownership Brock did keep the doors open, funded some great programming and maintained the building, sometimes well, sometimes adequately. There is no doubt that RHAC would have closed long ago if they hadn’t intervened – or been invited in, with all the potentially negative allusions that phrase evokes.

But let’s also step away from Brock and RHAC and into the wider public space, for a brief moment. Many of the online comments in response to the sale asserted an aggressive ignorant joy in that ‘my taxes would go down.’ Rodman Hall received no tax money from the city or region. It should have, and that is also one of the reasons we now find ourselves without a public gallery. But like many of the intersecting narratives that have led to the demise of RHAC, this one, about ‘city support’ and ‘my taxes’ is false. The only real difference to this lie is that Brock University is not responsible for festering it. That simply needed to be stated, in response to some of the online public discourse now in play.

But I want to relate another story that intersects here, with Brock’s positioning of itself as the ‘long suffering savior of RHAC.’ Last year, I was approached by a person about their experience (and – as some of you know – I know more than I write, but like to know everything I can). They had written a public piece regarding Brock’s primarily tawdry treatment of RHAC, and how that’s a concern to both students and faculty. The person in question was faced with what can only be called administrative bullying and potential harassment over how this didn’t agree with the official narrative from Brock administration. It all came to nothing, due to appropriate peer support, but it’s good to mention here. Brock has not been a supportive partner, nor treated RHAC as anything other than something to be exploited, as opposed to a fortifying asset. This story, which may seem unrelated, speaks to a groupthink that has been in play at Brock, that should concern those of us in – and outside – cultural spheres.

Rodman Hall, as seen last week, while the grounds are still accessible to the community.

When considering what I would say about this latest development, I was toying with simply typing, over and over again, ‘Jack Torrance in The Shining’ style ‘I told you so I told you so I told you so.’

And this isn’t just because of the pattern here (that I’ve written about for the past five years) but also as this is happening in a wider sense. An excellent article in Momus, from five years ago, resonates from Alberta, where a situation played out similar to here in Niagara. Speaking to MOMUS, Wayne Baerwaldt, a fine curator and director, offered the observation I quote at the beginning of this article, and he could be speaking of Brock’s shortsightedness and lies regarding Rodman Hall.

A professor of architecture I studied under years ago spoke of how architecture is the most abstract of arts, as it’s a space that holds not just people – not just a collection – but ideas, history and memory. That’s now done. Rodman Hall’s history will now be lost to a development that will – at best – commodify this for a few consumers, not citizens, and will most likely be lost and forgotten.

As I was writing this piece, I was given a fine piece of advice: do not be subtle.

This past year, I was nominated for a St. Catharines Arts Award; in no small part, my advocacy for RHAC spurred this. I am not an uninvested observer. I am not a dilettante, and bluntly, have more collections and gallery experience than anyone in the RHAC, Inc group. Alternately, I’ve been accused of being ‘toxic to the process” – or considered such – by some ‘stakeholders’. Like many, I am tired. Rodman Hall Art Centre is dead. The necessary energy to create something new in its place will be hard, as Jean Bridge has admitted, though I am unsure that Rodman Hall Art Centre, Inc is equal to the task at hand, nor fully understands the waters they’re swimming in, with sharks both overt and covert.

We have lost a great deal, as a cultural community, as a community that values the arts, with the sale of Rodman Hall Art Centre. But the long suffering of Rodman Hall at the hands of Brock University’s negligence is done, a small mercy. Now, it’s in our hands. It’s up to us.

As someone who has lived elsewhere, and is from here, yet also feels ‘not from here’, the following caveat must be stated. St. Catharines has no public gallery now, unlike most other cities of equitable size, or even a city like Grimsby. There’s a smugness to St. Catharines (my time and affection for Welland may be showing), as to its ‘position’ among Niagara municipalities. I’ve commented since the sale of RHAC that some of the comments and assertions by people make me wonder if we / they deserved such a space. That responsibility rests on our shoulders now: we have hit a hard ground after a long free fall. If there is a new gallery, if the collection is to be something treasured and enjoyed, it’s on us, now.

Many thanks to the many individuals (especially over the past five years) who have assisted and spoken with me, either by name or anonymously. You know who you are, and this series – which has now come to the less than hoped end – would have been impossible without you.

ANYONE who wants to be sure their concerns are heard, and is wanting to be engaged with ensuring the preservation and nurturing of the collection should contact Jean Bridge of RHAC, Inc. That information is above, in the PSA I share. Further, the organization I mentioned earlier in this tome – CCPERB – is also a space that you should contact, to ensure they are following the situation, and that the community is being kept in mind, for future ‘developments.’

Lastly, I encourage everyone to hold Brock accountable for this: question all their future assertions about community, and when they seek our support, remember Rodman Hall Art Centre. This is the same advice I would give, in the next civic election, as regards current Mayor Sendzick, and others who confuse the goals of institutions and developers with their responsibilities to citizens, and communities.

Images in this article are all by the author, except for the header image, which is An Ode to Rodman Hall, by Jon Lepp, 2020. More of his work can be seen here.