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.

Part 5. Assumptions, Not Consultations.

This latest chapter of Brock and Rodman began on Monday, October 24th, with a flurry of emails and FB event announcements, inviting various groups and individuals to the long overdue, and long promised consultations regarding the future of Rodman Hall.

That was not, in fact, what was delivered.

These meetings were misrepresented as seeking opinions when the evidence suggests that they were intended to whitewash a decision already made (one does not seek volunteers, to make their interest known at volunteer@agniagara.ca, if you don’t plan to proceed with the “art gallery of Niagara”, and if “no decisions have been made.” Further: if you email that address, Interkom will respond to you, not any of the proposed gallery clique…).

A very managerial format the first evening attempted to establish that “this is what is going to be happening over the next hour and a half” (it’s worth noting the technical problems at the beginning led to a joke about “postponing.” That fell flat with a few of us who’d already felt that this consultation was too long in coming and nothing but a pretense…)

No agenda was distributed beforehand. Rodman’s Acting Director Marcie Bronson indicated she was seeing this no sooner than anyone else. The notices regarding these “consultations” went out on a Monday, for Wednesday and Thursday evening events, and then two more the next week.

More contradictions: John Mann, of the AGN faction, stated how “important” all this is, and how Brock won’t fund Rodman past 2023, attempting to shame us all into the “changes” that “must” be made, and tried to stem the wave of anger and indignation at NAC. He was the last person to speak, the first evening, perhaps hoping to have ‘the last word’ to quell the heat of the response.

And yet, while threatening how we “have to consider the future”, two days notice is erratically given for a consultation that is short on data with a slanted employment – perhaps abuse – of facts and exclusion of contradicting or contrary information.

Further examples of the same: Van Zon repeatedly painted a picture of renovations and modifications at Rodman, specifically around disability access that are intimidating. Then Matthew Tegel, the prepateur / installation employee at Rodman, pointed out that he and past Director Stuart Reid had met with CORETEC Engineering this past summer, whom have significant experience in this realm, and the engineers were optimistic that compliance and timeline were exceptionally manageable, for a heritage building of Rodman’s stature.

Again, these facts were dismissed as inconvenient (Van Zon repeated his dire warning the next night), and again, a person with experiential knowledge had apparently NOT been “consulted”, even though Tegel is among the first circle worthy of consultation.

If this is such a dread situation, why have so few have been “consulted” so little, if at all?

One might also ask, in light of this, why the Barlow Report, with figures and facts, has been ignored since it was approved by Brock, as a plan forward.

Perhaps it might be easier if rubber stamps had been issued as people arrived at NAC, the PAC or MIWSFPA: the anger that permeated the room at both the NAC evening, but especially at the next night at Brock where Faculty were the core group, was coalesced around the growing awareness that what Interkom was selling was not what many were interested to purchase.

Van Zon inundated the room with a powerpoint that insisted on only three options for the future of Rodman Hall: the status quo, some infrastructure changes that were couched in untenable expense, and the plan that was obviously the favourite of Van Zon and the self appointed cabal that see themselves (even if the community does not share that confidence) as the core of the proposed Art Gallery of Niagara.

I could relate more of Van Zon’s propaganda here, but it seems more worthwhile to continue to relate that many individuals in the room, and significant players in the arts / culture / historical / heritage communities, dismantled certain aspects of his presentation as biased, sloppily researched or absent (such as operational costs for any new gallery. A bit odd, as operating costs are often harder to raise than any capital, as Sharilyn Ingram highlighted).

Even more: Van Zon’s assertion that Rodman had a poor history of any external fundraising, implying that there was “no interest” in the larger moneyed community to support the space. This completely ignored that Rodman staff had been counseled to not compete with Brock’s ongoing fundraising regarding the Walker lest it dilute the support for that project.

Further: Van Zon and the agn coterie (John Mann, Ineke Brinkman, John Lehnen) were rather bald in their positioning that the other two options that weren’t the new gallery would result in losses regarding Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council funding. This completely ignores that Rodman has received national praise from peers who comprise these funding jurors. Mary Anne Barkhouses’ Settlement, for example,“was made possible through the financial support of the Government of Canada through Cultural Capitals of Canada, a program of the Department of Canadian Heritage. In 2015, Settlement was purchased with the support of the York Wilson Endowment Award, administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.”

There was fear mongering worthy of the recent American election, wishing to ensure you don’t think too much, or consider too deeply. Looking through my notes from the segment of Van Zon’s presentation at NAC, that term – fear mongering – appears again and again. As this was the first presentation, in some ways it was the least tempered by dissenting community feedback, and in some ways exposed most clearly Van Zon’s positioning.

Van Zon attempted to graft examples such as a gallery in Sarnia (which does not need to compete with three larger areas in its fundraising or financial plans, as Rodman does with Buffalo, Toronto and Hamilton – a succinct reality raised by Rodman’s Acting Director Bronson) or an arts centre in Ottawa, whose position in the national capital region also offers untranslatable options regarding funding and location (not to mention tourism).

More: damning Rodman for not having significant outreach in the community when previous evaluations have indicated that underfunding and under employment as regards marketing and outreach has been cited as a clear cause of this (Oh, the irony of Interkom criticizing Rodman’s lack of public profile, when the consultants have been less than present in a community they’re “assisting”….).

Catherine Parayre again raised a significant point, whom asked why the staff have not been consulted, why we don’t hear their genuine experience of these people being cited, while decisions seem to be made already (to echo many from the NAC “consultation”) by people whom use the word “developer” as interchangeable with “stakeholder”?

This type of ignorance – and I use that strong word intentionally – is echoed in that the report that Interkom and Van Zon submitted to Brock this past Spring may or may not see the light of day – for any other “stakeholders” – if the Board of Directors at Brock deems us worthy. One suspects our “support” is wanted – by which means our compliance – but we are not to bother the “adults.”

The November report that Interkom will construct around “consultations” will have the same fate, Van Zon indicated, at the same time that he declined to name the “stakeholders” he’d spoken to, when directly asked. Its unclear if that would compromise relations with potential “developers” or some other corporate concern…

It was good to hear Marcie Bronson speak: her decade at Rodman, now as acting Director, and continuing her award winning curatorial endeavours simultaneously, gives her a breadth of experience and knowledge that has not been respected in this process.

There were comments (at NAC) about the money spent on this latest “consultation” while Bronson does two jobs for one salary. When I asked Bronson straightforward questions regarding when / how often she’d consulted with Van Zon, and what her overall impression was of this process, these questions were referred to Kevin Cavanagh, Director, Communications and Public Affairs. Again, it seems some are to be consulted, and others are not.

No response has been forthcoming from Cavanagh. None is expected. Bronson has been employed at Rodman for a decade, and that her voice is not being heard – or is being stifled, or ignored – by the consultant further invalidates this process for many here.

Further salient points also broke the bridge that Interkom, and perhaps the Board of Trustees at Brock, is attempting to sell. Amusingly, when asked why this meeting wasn’t happening at Rodman, Van Zon let the mask of “genuine consultation” slip in what seemed to be indicating that Rodman wasn’t a space for artists…but perhaps, for anonymous developers….

Sharilyn Ingram, past Director of the Walker School, was mentioned earlier. She has extensive experience with galleries and governance. She pointed out that Rodman’s Category A status had recently been reaffirmed (Van Zon had inferred it was soon to be surely lost), and that costs presented regarding infrastructure were inflated and not properly explained as being intended to happen in phases, to defray and stretch out the expense.

Ingram very ably destroyed the mythology of “sustainability” that Van Zon kept invoking, in fine austerity mode, that first evening. I paraphrase her brilliance: “If the for – profit world could run an art gallery they already would”, as she cited facts that no public art gallery is every 100% “self sustaining.”

Elizabeth Chitty also showed – literally, with a chart titled Statistical Profile of Art Galleries in Ontario: Based on the 2013 OAAG Data Exchange, Hills Strategies Research Group (below) listing off studies of sustainability and budgets with public art galleries, and in that moment offered more hard, researched data than Van Zon did that evening, or the next. Chitty’s ire at the bias and slipshod nature of Interkom’s presentation was evident in her voice.

This anger – this disdain – was evident at all four consultations: whether Ingram calling out Van Zon for being disrespectful to the Rodman staff the Thursday, or declarations that Brock “have mismanaged the mandate of Rodman” the following Wednesday or Clare Cameron asking about potential “real estate development capitalization by Brock” that same evening. Van Zon’s response to these? These are “my assumptions and mine alone.” It would seem that Interkom also offers no real solutions, to parse his own complaints…and it is questionable if he’s truly seeking any.

Reinhard Reitzenstein, from the University of Buffalo, an artist and educator who spoke to the international importance of Rodman, and who’s been involved with the Hamilton Art Gallery, and with the McMaster Art Gallery, gave shape to an elephant in the room on the second evening: the group that is self identifying as the art gallery of Niagara seems to lack the necessary experience to be making these decisions, or to be trusted with either the collection, or the fate of the building.

Bluntly, how they can be considered trustworthy when they support a consultant who is in error as often as he’s opaque is an insurmountable hurdle for many?

Example: the AGN site states “the AGN will assume responsibility for the Rodman Hall Art Collection, if and when it becomes available.” However, Non Profit rules, regarding maintenance or transfer of the collection, suggest otherwise: bluntly, while blathering about “keeping the collection accessible” and “protecting the collection”, none of the AGN cabal (and definitely not Martin) seemed aware that the collection will need to go to the next A level gallery nearby. That will likely be the Art Gallery of Hamilton, as an unknown, unaccountable group with no gallery storage, no building, no staff, no expertise and no accountability will not be permitted to abscond with such significant cultural capital.

This raises, again, the fact that Van Zon’s assumptions are not just sloppy, but potentially damaging to the community.

There are many other voices to cite: Susan Forsyth, at the faculty evening, commented that she’d hoped we’d be presented numbers, and when told she “could” do the research and forward it to Martin, responded that he apparently want us to do the work for him, and “the process seems to be as obfuscated as possible.”

The final two evenings, voices that regularly stated that they were not of the cultural community, but treasured the children’s’ programs, the outreach programs and the role that Rodman plays in an area of the city, for example, that recently has lost a park and other public spaces, were prominent. The history and legacy of the building, as a touchstone of St. Catharines and Niagara, and national history, was mentioned again and again. Some of these concerns and communities apparently never factored into Interkom’s report, as they only spoke of an “art gallery”; another way this region is not being heard by Interkom…

Catherine Parayre offered what could almost be a manifesto for many in the community, reading the following, on the second evening: “Dear Trustees, we do not trust you, with meetings all in camera, and with a “special definition of transparency” that too often happens at Brock, and it seems that the Board of Trustees wishes to jettison Rodman Hall.” Parayre went on to state that the trustees must be more accountable and that this “in camera” opaqueness is detrimental to all, and that Martin must do the actual job of a consultant and consult. This clearly evoked a point made in the Barlow Report: “Community members fear a valued property is not secure under Brock’s ownership.”

Part 6: Planning the Future / The Barlow Report is here.