“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” (Red Cloud)
When I returned to Niagara over five years ago, I was barely off the bus before I began to orient myself to the cultural spaces I’d be (hopefully) engaging with, during my time in the region. That was both to familiarize myself with the city – as I was to find that I employ St. Catharines as a base, if you will, while visiting other spaces such as the Grimsby Public Art Gallery or the Welland Historical Museum – but also to gage how much the place had changed (or not) in the decades since I left. I mention the GPAG and Welland Museum specifically here, as three shows there were landmarks of the last few years (Shelley Niro at the former, Norval Morrisseau and We Were Taught Differently, both at the latter). Even the PAC (the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines) has some wonderfully ‘historic’, in a critical sphere, works by Carl Beam on relatively permanent display. All of those shows were clearly situated in the space of reconciliation, and all three offered different chapters in that unfolding – if often fractured and stuttering – narrative. They’re also important to mention, as in reminiscing about my first visit to the now shuttered Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines, the first impression of the site was Mary Ann Barkhouse’s sculptural installation Settlement.
Part of the Regency exhibition at RHAC, the “outdoor art installation has become a permanent part of Rodman Hall Art Centre’s collection thanks to a $30,000 funding award through Canadian Council of the Arts.” (from an article here, and you’ll forgive my simmering anger that ‘permanent’ might mean approximately 7 years, with the sale of RHAC to a developer and impending closure of the gallery and grounds). Barkhouse, from her site, offers the following about her work: “Settlement incorporates two life-size bronze sculptures of a coyote and a badger in an artist’s garden built in the shape of a frontier house (16×20 feet). [Director / curator Stuart] Reid said the two animals allude to the co-operative nature of the allies involved in the 1812 conflict. “In the wild, coyotes and badgers work together and both benefit from a partnership while they hunt,” he explained. “The animal partnership is an analogy for the allied co-operation between the settling people during the War of 1812.”“
Several years later, Elizabeth Chitty would facilitate a project that – like Barkhouse’s installation – attempted to manifest in visual and performative forms that sense of co operation, between settlers, Indigenous peoples and newcomers to the country and region. Titled The Grass Is Still Green, it was “an earthwork installation, by many hands, on Rodman’s front lawn, that the artist describes as “participation in place of co-creation,” citing the Two Belt Wampum Treaty of 1864, which hoped for parallel prosperity between the Haudenosaunee and settlers “as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill… as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.”” (from a piece I wrote about several intersecting projects at RHAC).
As I write this, we’re in the midst of another lockdown, due to COVID. I have visited Rodman Hall several times since the announcement of the sale of the building and grounds, and seeing Coyote and Badger, alone, feeling abandoned, is striking in a depressing and anxious manner. What will become of them, with the sale of building and grounds? Will they now be a ‘teaser’, to demand higher prices for the residential developments promised by Donatelli, for the property (if I may quote the article to which I just linked “[Donatelli is] excited by the opportunity to explore the potential for refashioning this iconic property for additional residential uses while preserving the historic home and gardens”? The emphasis there is mine, as there are currently NO residential ‘uses’ at RHAC. I specify this also for the benefit of a local cultural – perhaps self styled – majordomo, who tried to tell me I misread that article, and that ‘residential’ development was NOT a priority. They also were bluntly insistent that the gallery would still be there, as the developer wants to keep it. None of this is supported by any public statements, nor by any official statements made by Rodman Hall Art Centre Inc, either, as they begin by saying they are “dedicated to the creation of a new dynamic public art gallery for Niagara.” (Again, the bold is my emphasis).
Will they be shuttled somewhere else, forgotten, like many other works in the RHAC collection, unseen and ignored? Will they be ‘relocated’ to Brock University’s main campus? The ‘relocation’ of Settlement would embody an ironic sculptural metaphor for the hypocrisy of Brock University’s ‘demolition through neglect’ of Rodman Hall. Here, the intended meaning of supporting visual arts and reconciliation is actually shown to be false, as Settlement would be ‘resettled’ like a refugee forced from ‘home.’ There could even be a guerilla ‘pop up’ ‘didactic’ panel installed next to it, highlighting the hypocrisy of the usurious sale of the site for quick cash, or the even wider mendacity of Indigenous / Settler relations, which may never impede neo liberal ‘austerity’ which has seeped into university spaces.
Since that previous comment focused upon money, it’s also necessary to ask what the Canada Council for the Arts, which through the York Wilson Endowment Fund financially supported the acquisition of Barkhouse’s Settlement, has to say on this? Based on the outright lies from a previous ‘consultant’ (Van Zon) regarding the Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council “attitude” towards RHAC, it’s not improper to suspect none of these groups are part of any decisions being made – or that have already been made.
There’s a wider, harsher analogy that intersects with this situation, that Settlement – despite the intentions of Barkhouse or Reid or other Rodman staff – is just empty, like a ‘promise’ that was never intended to be kept, but has ‘good optics.’ I am reminded of Trudeau’s talk of ‘our’ relationship with Indigenous communities being ‘our most important’, but clean water on many reserves, like white nationalist violence against the Mi’kmaq fishery and member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation this past year, is ‘too big an issue.’ Perhaps, equally offensive on my part, the uncertain fate of Settlement is also reflected in the ‘awarding’ of the Order of Ontario to Mike Harris: “Soon after he took office he gave instructions that he wanted “the fucking Indians out of the park” hours before Ontario Provincial Police moved in and shot Dudley George during an occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park. At the public inquiry that followed years later, he lied repeatedly about his role in the affair.” (from Now Toronto)
The only source for news on this front, that merits your trust is the Rodman Hall Alliance site (The Standard simply echoes Brock’s press releases, and although Niagara This Week produced a slightly better report, there was at least one outright lie from Brock administration that went unchallenged). This isn’t to suggest that I believe that there’s any possibility of steering decisions by Brock or the developer, or that any such partnership is being offered to any stakeholders (and arguably, not even to the Rodman Hall Inc Group, which is hopeful, if unrealistic, in their dependence on MOU (Memorandums of Understanding) with Brock). It may have also come to the attention of some interested readers that a petition has been ‘started’, like offering penicillin to a corpse, to ‘save Rodman Hall.’ This is an ignorant embrace of unrealistic ‘priorities’ (unsurprising, as the person responsible is ‘full of passionate intensity’ but little knowledge, and someone who has – to be polite – mixed relations with this community, verging on exploitative. Frankly, this ‘petition’ echoes Brock’s lip service regarding Rodman Hall, with a self congratulatory performance of community support that more so resembles patting oneself on the back for showing up many days late and many dollars short…. )
There’s no ‘concrete’ intention in my writing this piece other than a further grieving for what has been lost with Rodman Hall’s sale and closure.
In considering Barkhouse’s Settlement as an encapsulation of the larger issues and contested narratives, I’ll look backwards (again) so as to qualify my trepidation in looking forwards. When the work was gratefully and joyfully welcomed into the Rodman Hall Art Centre Permanent Collection, then Director / Curator Stuart Reid averred that Mary Anne Barkhouse “designed the work to talk about issues of territory…there’s a lot of resonance for Niagara and for this region…In the wild, coyotes and badgers work together and both benefit from a partnership while they hunt,” he explained. “The animal partnership is an analogy for the allied co-operation between the settling people during the War of 1812.
Settlement has already become an important landmark for visitors and a catalyst for community storytelling in Niagara,” he said. “It will also have a significant impact on local schools through our continued education programming activities. Our art educators continue to teach and discuss First Nations art while examining issues of sovereignty and confederacy from an Indigenous ecological point of view.”
None of what Reid states there, or what Barkhouse hoped for, or what Rodman Hall Art Centre made possible, to validate those statements, is true any longer. Soon – perhaps in the Spring, according to several sources – the building and grounds will officially be sold, and the plan for what becomes of Barkhouse’s Settlement may be shared with (or at) those of us who are citizens, if not ‘owners.’ But the ideals encapsulated in the work, and the space it claimed, are already (at best) fractured, and likely lost.
All images are courtesy Mary Ann Barkhouse’s site, or (with a certain black irony) from Brock University’s sundry pages celebrating the acquisition of the work.