Part 8. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

While interviewing members of the new Rodman Hall Coalition these past few weeks, hoping to offer an update of what’s happening as 2023 nears, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that a positive sense informed most conversations. In talking to representatives of the coalition, with members from both the Rodman Hall Alliance, the previously mentioned Art Gallery of Niagara ad hoc group, under the aegis of Tom Goldspinks (asked to shepherd the group as chairman, both for his experience running the TAG Art Gallery but also his significant governance experience), there seemed to be faith that Brock University was (finally) cognisant of the larger picture. Granted, concerns regarding sustainability, and that the community here no longer has the option to be spectators, but need to be actors, and that there’s serious work to be done, were recurring themes. Even debates around the term “divestment” suggested that many at Brock wanted to support Rodman more effectively, rather than rush towards a divorce.

Then, on April 18, Brock responded to an applicant for the Director position at Rodman (which has stood vacant, in one sense, since Stuart Reid resigned nearly a year ago, but has really meant more responsibility without appropriate reward for acting Director / Chief Curator Marcie Bronson) with the following: “Due to recent internal movement and reorganization at Brock University, we will no longer be pursuing a search for this position.”

Realistically, any steps required towards redefining Rodman Hall, post (or in a new relationship with) Brock, will require strong, informed and community – engaged leadership. This suggests further tone deafness, bordering on the benign negligence and incompetence that was rife in the Interkom “consultations”, and that can be seen as a pattern, since 2003.

The Mendel Art Gallery / later Remai Modern in Saskatoon went without a proper director for an extended period as the former became the latter, and this caused major issues with finance, planning, priority and employment that were harder to fix and were preventable. But I’ll quote the source again: “Unbelievable that the university believes internal admin shifts will meet the requirements of the situation to transition the art museum from it to the community. Unbelievable that when so many of us are contributing our volunteer efforts towards a successful transition, the University cannot support our [efforts] by a full staff complement. Unbelievable that the Acting Director/Curator continues to be unsupported by the university’s decisions.”

However, to cite one of the members of the RH Coalition, it’s good to remember that Brock (the “unaccountable 13th Floor”) reconsidered before, with the Interkom debacle. So, let’s focus on the more positive aspects of what the new group is trying to do, and what it means – and what it demands – of the larger community, the cultural and civic stakeholders. At the time of writing this, Tom Goldspinks was meeting with Tom Arkell regarding this decision (Arkell is a coalition member, as well, but appointed by Brock). Updates (as always) are forthcoming.
Its regrettable, however, as at least one coalition member has spoken of resigning, if no director is hired….

The coalition has three committees, and these are essentially concerned with establishing both the status of Rodman Hall at this time, and potential models for what it will become. Elizabeth Chitty is heading the legal / governance committee, and has already begun research of alternate models for community run galleries, as well as exploring models of governance for RH, post 2023. Giulia Forsythe and Liz Hayden (whom began the Save Rodman Hall petition last Fall) are responsible for community outreach, to restore and strengthen what Goldspink refers to as the fabric between RH and the larger community. David Vivian, Director of the MIWSFPA is heading the financial committee: Brock and RH have been intertwined for some time, and working out actual costs, genuine expenditures, etc., without the inflation or confabulation that was a hallmark of the Interkom evenings is in the hands of Vivian, here.

This coalition’s goal is that by early 2018, a board of directors will be in place, with a governance model that offers a stepping stone to what Rodman will be, and these can be presented to a community that needs to step up if this asset is to be preserved and grow.  Issues of membership, accountability – and the major question of sustainability – are being resolved, and input is not only desired, but required (rodmanhallalliance.ca is still the best place to sign up for updates).

Perhaps another question is whether the diligent efforts of a community are again being waylaid by a lack of transparency at Brock University. Perhaps this is a further challenge, with fires continuing to be lit under spectators whom must be actors, and this is the latest opportunity to be players, and not on the sidelines. Perhaps – as came up in several conversations – if the community values Rodman, this is the latest challenge, to be met.


After the Rodman Hall Alliance consultations in late 2017, I put down my notes and thoughts in a playful map, with the assistance of Chris Illich (Publisher, Managing Editor of The SOUNDSTC) and Brittany Brooks, an artist who works in music as well as visuals, known as Creature Speak. That can be seen here.

As well, an overview page that links out to all the chapters of What About Rodman Hall? can be seen here, and it also has other content, such as a conversation I had with Martin Van Zon when I was News Director at CFBU for Niagara Voices and Views.

 

Part 4. Can we have faith in this process?

Rodman Hall has also been an effective classroom setting. I have taken curatorial courses there, where we would walk down into the gallery and critically assess the space and the exhibitions. This first hand experience of curation far surpassed what could have been achieved in a standard classroom setting. One of my most valuable experiences [was] VISA 4F06 Honours Studio…This class allowed us to work closely with Rodman’s curator and director for their professional opinions and also to have one on one meetings with the exhibiting artists at the time such as, Althea Thauberger, Joy Walker and Melanie Authier. This class transcends beyond classroom experiences and allows you to move from student to professional working artist with guidance in an established art gallery. This class was an unbelievable experience with Rodman Hall’s setting being critical to the class and cannot be substituted.

After graduating from Visual Arts and moving into Teacher Education I began to see another side of Rodman Hall, one not only critical in an arts community but also in education. An experience I appreciate most was when I was hired as a Summer Studio Assistant for the summer art camps. This is an experience provided to Brock students and one that was especially valuable for my growth as an educator. Rodman Hall provides multiple student jobs, jobs that us students really rely on to move forward in our careers.

– Julia Chamberlain (Brock Alumni)

I am concerned that if we pre-empt what I understood to be a contractual or stated obligation to support Rodman Hall until 2023 that this would have undesirable consequences, especially given the aspirations of our students, staff and faculty as well as the community that it has been tasked to serve. Arts organizations need stability and to its credit Brock University stepped up in 2003 to support Rodman Hall, when others would not. The current consultation process asks, what will follow and what form will this take? While financial exigency is an overarching concern, Rodman Hall has already lost a Director and half of its internal funding for 2016-17. To reduce its budget any further is to risk the integrity of its existence and mission to serve the broader community at a desired professional level of activity. I am proud of what we have achieved and, in particular, of the tremendous benefits this has afforded our students who deserve no less than our utmost commitment. I strongly favour retaining our highly dedicated staff and committing to our excellent programming for the foreseeable future at the same time as we manage an orderly transition plan beyond 2023. To do otherwise is to undermine an important cultural and educational entity that historically has fulfilled an essential function in the Region. The national recognition that Rodman Hall has garnered over the last number of years for its programming speaks to its curatorial vision, commitment to both emerging and established artists and an enviable publishing record –impressive by any measure and testimony to the vital role Rodman Hall has played and continues to play. In my judgment this is an achievement that should be duly celebrated and as we examine the options for Rodman Hall’s future, managed with sensitivity, prudence, and appropriate support.

– Derek Knight (Associate Professor / Past Director, MIWSFPA, Brock University)

In many ways, the most interesting and informative aspect of attending all four of the “consultation” sessions presented by Van Zon was to see how some mistruths and assumptions were repeated each evening, despite being invalidated by attendees, repeatedly and sometimes irrefutably.

It was also interesting to gage how Van Zon responded to these disagreements. It can’t, in good conscience, be called it a report, as many facts were wrong, and to paraphrase a person from the third evening, Van Zon seemed eager to present – arguably inflate – costs for the second of his two options, yet was willing to omit and undersell costs for his third option, a new building, new gallery space and the abandonment of Rodman.

That last word may be a bit dramatic, as Van Zon didn’t address what would happen to Rodman, though “developers” came up quite often in the first two evenings, and a question raised at the third, about whether this is an attempt by Brock to capitalize upon rising land values in that area was – unsurprisingly – unanswered by Zon. That third evening again saw a plethora of questions, but few answers – though, amusingly, at one point Van Zon offered to answer a question after the session, away from the public scrutiny and transparency that Brock V.P. Brian Hutchings had assured us was Brock’s watchword in all….

The third evening was more reason over passion: again, to be expected, as a number of self identifying “ordinary citizens” asked about educational services provided by Rodman, and also asked about numbers and options beyond the narrow spin presented. The previous two, with members of NAC and Brock Faculty, the anger was to be expected, as it’s a standard response to being misled, and when questions are ignored.

It was rather funny – or perhaps insulting – to read a quote from Van Zon in the Standard the next day, whining that “many people attending the meetings are pushing for a renewal of Rodman Hall, but come without solutions to tackle the building’s financial hardships.”

Perhaps a good offense (like angry yelling) is the best defense, as when asked at the second evening (addressing Brock Faculty) if Van Zon had spoken with the Mayor, he dithered and seemed to complain about how hard it is to arrange a meeting, and in the end had to admit – a repeated response to many inquiries at every meeting – that he had not consulted, and this “was my assumption.” The follow up question to Van Zon’s professed ignorance was to appropriately ask what exactly he had been doing, then, since February? And what reality there was for feedback, when his report would be presented, in camera, to the Board of Trustees in mid November?

It might seem intentionally insulting how often the word “assumption” is being used in this piece: but that’s an echo of Van Zon’s repeated usage, without, it seemed, acknowledging that this is neither edifying to any community nor a good factual basis from which to determine how to best evaluate a community resource like Rodman Hall. He was, to cite the old trope, making an ass of himself, and an ass of us who had shown up expecting answers or research upon which to offer feedback. No wonder so many are so angry.

The person moderating the third evening was equally confounding, blandly repeating that she “didn’t know if that answer was in the room.” This confusion was different then the arrogance displayed at NAC (where the “art gallery of niagara” option took up the majority of Van Zon’s lecture), and less petulant than the first night at Brock (where he responded to funding questions that impugned the current director in a manner many felt bordered on misogyny…).

More assumptions: on two different evenings, Van Zon was called out for his fear mongering regarding Rodman’s funding security with the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. Donna Scott, speaking at the PAC, cited her experience as board member with both, and stated they’re very “unlikely to cut” regarding building infrastructure, stating that the gallery “can’t move anywhere as interesting or beautiful as that [the current site].” This is – again – an example of repeated refusal to genuinely consult (Van Zon admitted to not speaking to anyone at the OAC or CC, a previous evening, but still attempted to push “lost funding” in later lectures).

If I may paraphrase Scott again: perhaps this is not about Rodman, but that the Board of Trustees needs to “solve the problems at Brock.”

But, as Van Zon admitted later in the evening, he answers to Brian Hutchings, and his reports are heading into the abyss of an “in camera” board that has a history of NOT being transparent, and making decisions (whether as bewildering as with Wendy Cukier not becoming Brock’s first female President or as insidious as some of the accounts around sexual assault policy) that leave the community feeling ignored and ill used.

And yet there is more, my readers. Part 5: Assumptions, Not Consultations can be read here.

Part 3. What About Rodman Hall?

Rodman Hall makes Brock look so good. It would be a very silly mistake to get rid of it…you don’t buy something great and then throw it out.
– Katie Mazi, (Brock Alumni, 2015)

I went to Brock for four years from 2012-2016. The majority of my final year was spent at Rodman Hall for the 4F06 Honours Class. The studio spaces, as well as the gallery not only helped the students get their foot into the realm of the contemporary art world outside the academic setting, it allowed us to spent some time with a place of utmost importance to the history of St Catharines. Being at Rodman Hall I took the time to look at its history, the history of its original owners, and ultimately the entirety of St Catharines. I fell in love with this city through Rodman Hall…
– Miranda Farrell (Brock Alumni, 2016)

The presentation at this “consultation” presented three “options” carrying no comparative data, based in the opinion and preferred option of the consultant. The methodology of this process appears to include largely “research” that has taken the form of in camera meetings and private chats. A not-for-profit corporation was formed PRIOR to public consultation.The word, “sustainability” is used with seemingly no understanding of standard professional financial structure for public art galleries. The preferred “option” is that a local heritage site and public green space, which thousands of volunteer and professional hours have been poured into for decades, be sold to the private sector and a white cube be built downtown with mysterious sources of revenue somehow unavailable for capital improvements of Rodman Hall.
– Elizabeth Chitty (artist, educator, activist)

It may be odd to begin an account of the four evenings of the Future of Rodman Hall / Future of A Regional Art Gallery “consultations” with an anecdote from the final of that quartet of frustrations, erroneous assumptions and shoddy methodology proffered by Martin Van Zon and Interkom Smart Marketing. But sometimes a small fragment reveals the whole.

On that evening, a student inquired about the conflict of interest of having two members currently on the board of the “proposed” “art gallery of Niagara” while still sitting on the advisory board of Rodman Hall (John Mann and Peter Partridge, respectively).

A relevant question: being on the board of Rodman Hall, whom are still, so far as is known, under the directive of the Board of Trustees at Brock whom approved the Rodman Hall: Planning the Future A Preliminary Planning Process Report (colloquially known as the Barlow Report, as it was assembled by Janis A. Barlow & Associates) last year (renovations, fundraising, partnerships all pursued to foster and enhance Rodman Hall) and yet also on the “board” of the “art gallery of Niagara” whose agenda is to “receive the collection of Rodman when it closes” and to try to begin a new space in the downtown is obviously conflicting. The latter depends on the failure of the former, and suggests an undermining of a publicly espoused, and Board approved, directive.

When asked about this (for the fourth time in as many evenings), Van Zon became angry, criticized the student (this final evening was aimed at answering students’ concerns and questions) as being an “embarrassment” to the “community” for daring to question the integrity of this cabal that has been less than “transparent” (to use Brock V.P. Hutchings’ lofty promise) than many expect.

No answer, just offended rage: Catherine Parayre, Humanities faculty at Brock, felt it necessary to remind Martin – acting as a representative of Interkom Smart Marketing, in the employ of Brock University – that Brock has a policy of respect and consideration that transcends his role, and that’s a mandate of the University itself (which “offers all the benefits of a young and modern university in a safe, community-minded city with beautiful natural surroundings”…).

More tellingly, Van Zon never answered the question.

That simply made that evening like the others, where, citing local entrepreneur Garrett Zimmer, there was confusion at the lack of data (“why are we here, with no information to respond to?”). The ignorance of the assumptions that Van Zon presented were weighted heavily towards an “option” that leads to the end of Rodman and a “new gallery” that is so naive in his projections that many asked if he had intentionally underestimated costs for this favoured “option” while scaremongering for the Barlow Report / “second” option. Essentially, three “options” were presented: an easily dismissed “status quo”, an option for renovations and fundraising in the current site, and the “art gallery of Niagara”, when Rodman closes.

The day after the last “consult”, I’d contacted the current Director of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts with a variety of questions regarding this process (we had spoken the evening before, with David Vivian expressing concern over Van Zon’s presentations so far). In formulating my questions to him, the main interrogation of this entire process coalesced.

Is this process, as enacted by Martin Van Zon on behalf of Interkom Smart Marketing, at the behest of Brock V.P. Hutchings, credible, trustworthy and one that inspires confidence in both its methodology and the facts and options presented?

The answer of many who spoke at these sessions (whom are significant stakeholders within the cultural, historical, heritage and – my favourite phrase from one evening – the “ordinary citizens” or parents whose children treasure Rodman’s staff and programs) is a clear and unequivocal “no.”

When Stephen Remus, Director of Niagara Artist Centre spoke at the first of the “consultations” regarding Brock University’s re evaluation (Interkom Smart Marketing’s term of choice. Others called it divestment or abandonment), he was blunt. He occupied the role of a Cassandra: he didn’t say “I told you so”, but stated he’d opposed the original arrangement between Brock and Rodman from 2003 as he didn’t trust Brock to do the “right thing” then, and is unsurprised now that machinations seem to be in play to break the spirit of the agreement, if not the letter.

It’s important to privilege the voices in this debate, as in this process defined by Van Zon and the Board of Trustees at Brock, words like “sustainability” and “stakeholders” are anything but transparent, and seem to be pre loaded with definitions that exclude more than explain.

Part 4: Can We Have Faith in the Process? can be read here.

Part 2. What About Rodman Hall?

This dying October saw Interkom Smart Marketing further the process begun — by fiat, arguably — last February, of “re-evaluating Brock’s relationship to Rodman Hall Arts Centre,” on two seperate occasions; the first at the Niagara Artists Centre on Oct. 26, the second at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts at Brock University on Oct. 27.

Martin Van Zon (of Interkom) answers solely to the Brock Board of Trustees, and his previous report was sequestered therein, and any “consultations” report will suffer a similar fate.
This “evaluation” process has essential flaws (some obvious, like a two-day notice for “public consultations”). I thank Professor Sharilyn Ingram for acerbically demolishing Interkom’s “methodology”, on the second evening. Her gallery / governance experience is significant –unlike Van Zon, who’s not accredited as an arts consultant. This was highlighted by Janis Barlow, whose Barlow Report (Strategic and Business Plan, 2015) regarding Rodman Hall demonstrated significant depth. As she’s a highly respected arts consultant, this terminally fractures many of Interkom’s suppositions.

Perhaps the most disturbing, among many illustrating an intentionally distorted methodology, is the most obvious. Maureen McRae, the “moderator” of the first two sessions claimed “no decisions have been made.” Then Van Zon surmised Rodman’s shuttering, “replaced” by the “Art Gallery of Niagara” [AGN], an unaccountable cabal of “volunteers” (a website’s already online at agniagara.ca). Appropriate anger ensued: no one likes being misled. This seemed less a “consultation” than an ambush to many.

Further: Van Zon claimed the Canada Council and OAC would be defunding Rodman, but when asked whom he’d consulted (that word again) — no one, he confessed — he baldly fell back on “assumptions.”

The presentation Van Zon offered also included the images of Brock educator/artist Shawn Serfas, from his exhibition at Rodman. Serfas expressed concern regarding this, as it implied a support, or that he was privy (consulted, you could say) to this process. Like many, he wasn’t.

Assumptions, again, both loaded and unaccountable… (perhaps unsurprising) for lectures that privileged “developers” for Rodman’s land more than community / heritage, or how the “AGN” seemed eager to “receive the collection,” including works that are significant assets.

This was pervasive: conjecture and a poverty of hard data (or dismissal of valid research, like the Barlow Report), especially where it might interfere with the implicit agenda of the evening left everyone struggling with the idea of the “Art Gallery of Niagara.” Example: Van Zon criticised Rodman for “not fundraising”; until he was corrected that Brock had requested no actions be taken that would dilute Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts funding…

More: John Mann, part of the AGN’s faction, “scolded” the crowd regarding the severity of Brock’s “austerity” regarding Rodman. Yet, he ignored why few with significant experience to offer have been “consulted” since February. Fear mongering is an ugly term: but apt, here.

At the time of writing this, two more “consultations” are upcoming: this is simply a taste of a longer article to follow online at thesound.rocks. Other valuable sources (the experiential wisdom of genuine stakeholders whose motives are more collaborative and less fiscal) will be explored. The Sound invites feedback, at any point. We favour transparency: unlike others, we’re happy to identify all we consult…The definition of “sustainability” will be explored, in ways that don’t just involve boutique hotels.

Elizabeth Chitty gave a significant — appropriately angry — response on the first evening at NAC.

Her words: “The presentation at this ‘consultation’ presented three ‘options’ carrying no comparative data, based in the opinion and preferred option of the consultant. The methodology of this process appears to include largely [of] ‘research’ that has taken the form of in-camera meetings and private chats. A not-for-profit corporation was formed PRIOR to public consultation. The word, ‘sustainability’ is used with seemingly no understanding of standard professional financial structure for public art galleries. The preferred ‘option’ is that a local heritage site and public green space, which thousands of volunteer and professional hours have been poured into for decades, be sold to the private sector and a white cube be built downtown with mysterious sources of revenue somehow unavailable for capital improvements of Rodman Hall.”

Onwards to Part 3 of What About Rodman Hall?