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Architecture of Fear: Spin and Silence

Last year at the St. Catharines Arts Awards, my favourite moment was when Rebecca Caan won the Making A Difference Award. This was not solely because I have great respect for Rebecca, but also because, in her acceptance speech, she praised all her fellow nominees (including The Sound, unlike some at Brock whom dismissed us as an ‘organ of misinformation’ this past month), from Shauna MacLeod with Willow Arts to Natasha Pedros with the NAC. To hear such fine words from someone with so much knowledge and experience in the St. Catharines and Niagara community was as good as winning, in my opinion.

That’s why her comments regarding Brock University’s ‘spin’ about their plans for Rodman Hall Arts Centre are so important. Her words, from the Rodman Hall Alliance press release, issued this week in response to the narrative proffered by Brock (and cut and pasted for any and all questions directed at them, whether faculty, staff or student) are a warning. “Brock University’s proposed strategy is disastrous for St. Catharines’ nationally renowned public art museum. We believe Brock has underestimated the complexities, costs and risks of moving the public art museum function and collection to the MIWSFPA. The end result will be the loss of the only professional art museum in St. Catharines, one of only two in Niagara.”

You can read the rest of RH Alliance’s statement here at their site.

This is unsurprising, based not only on Caan’s experience, but also when considering that Brock has omitted facts and misrepresented their relationship to RHAC. In their propaganda – sorry, statement – they repeatedly emphasize the money they’ve ‘spent’ on Rodman. No mention is made of the one hundred (yes, 100) classes reliant on the site and staff, nor on the revenue that brings in through numerous students.

Architecture of Fear (detail), Sarah Martin, from Oh, that’s nice, BFA Honours Exhibition, Rodman Hall, 2019

Perhaps you saw the statement – and the protest – made by students at Brock regarding not just the administration’s plans but the rote and somewhat disrespectful responses to emails of concern. These are plans, I must add, that many individuals, from tenured faculty to those commissioned to offer plans on Brock and Rodman’s potential interactions over the next few years, were blindsided with, and several significant members of Brock’s faculty have indicated to me that they were not only not consulted, but have been given the same rehearsed ‘answers’….

One high placed faculty member was so blunt as to describe the BFA Exhibition class – a rare aspect, compared to other art schools across Canada, of the Visual Arts program here, at Brock, that has benefited Brock both in terms of enrolment and in student fees – as being ‘fucked.’

Gianna Aceto, Jigsaw and Glob Series,
from Oh, that’s nice, BFA Honours Exhibition, Rodman Hall, 2019

As mentioned above, a group of Brock Students released a statement of concern in response to Brock’s spin: you can read it here, but I offer an excerpt:

While taking competing space within the MIWSFPA into consideration, we must also consider the ramifications that this plan will have on the VISA 4F06 course. Currently this highly sought after, year long course, gives a small group of accepted students the opportunity to work in individual studios at Rodman Hall. The students work alongside curators, guest artists, and learn viable skills to furthering their art practice. The course concludes with a major exhibition at Rodman Hall, which is often students first major exhibition of their work, kick starting their career. Many of us, when thinking of choosing Brock, were under the impression that in our final year of study, if we were successful in our acceptance to the VISA 4F06 course, that we would conclude our undergraduate degree with a guaranteed major exhibition. If, according to the proposed plan, all activities are moved to the MIWSFPA, students will lose the chance to work individually with gallery personnel and as well be competing for exhibition space within the 2,000 sq. ft. VISA Gallery.

My favourite line, however, is the following: This neatly presented plan within the media release is far more complex than surface value, and we will not be taken at surface value. For the integrity of the visual arts program, and the arts within St. Catharines, we demand that Rodman Hall, its exhibitions, and the VISA 4F06 course be preserved for generations to come.

Brock has stated that they’ve contracted a group to ‘consult’ regarding Rodman Hall’s future. Several sources have indicated that this is the John Armstrong that has been hired by VP Admin. Brian Hutchings. Please note past cited employments at the previous link, such as with Jim Flaherty, from the Mike Harris Provincial Government, and Armstrong’s past experience in Media Relations with Preston Manning during Manning’s leadership of the Reform Party. This information is readily available in his profile, and does, of course, raise certain questions for those of us familiar, and having lived under and through the ‘cultural policies’ of said individuals when they held power. Armstrong seems to lack collections management experience (as, for example, I have with past employment with the Art Gallery of Windsor, Video Verite or Kenderdine / College Art Galleries at the University of Saskatchewan, where I worked for several years as a team engaged in the first ever full inventory of that expansive collection. I proffer this to indicate that there is a plethora of relevant experience in this community for supportive solutions to Brock’s ‘situation.’ As well, I know what a ‘Class A Facility’ means and entails, unlike, perhaps Hutchings – sorry, I mean Brock.)

I offer this information to help inform stakeholders outside the Brock Administrative class. Many students, faculty and staff have used the word ‘blindsided’ in conversations with me (and Canadian Art Magazine), and indicate a culture of deafness and disrespect to their concerns. This is similar to how some administrators at Brock have dismissed The Sound as “misinformation” while declining to name the publication or specifically address questions and concerned raised. In this light, it is edifying to see so many students protesting regarding this, when their questions are not answered. In the responses received, a ‘cut and paste’ approach has been employed, of simply repeating erroneous or misleading ‘talking points’ before retreating to silence. If you’re following the Alberta Provincial Election, this is a ‘strategic plan’ employed by Jason Kenney, as many of us saw under the Harper Government™ and that we see now under the Fordian iteration of top down, often wilfully ignorant, declarations.

VISA Students protesting at the recent Open House at Brock University.

When I published regarding Brock’s plans to translate Rodman Hall into cash, Brock spoke out of one side of their mouth that they’d not sell, but then mentioned developers in the next breath. Perhaps Hutchings – I mean Brock, sorry – could pass on the name of these wondrous developers whom will work on a property for free (since its, ahem, not for sale) out of the goodness of their hearts. When Martin Van Zon raved about ‘developers’ at the first of his series of follies the last time this happened, an enjoyable moment was his subsequent refusal to mention any by name. In some ways, a pattern of silence and misleading assertions is recurring, or (as I joke about smoking) there’s no such thing as quitting such a nasty habit, just periods between relapses…

In a recent radio interview (I offer a link below), Caan indicated that Brock hasn’t said what they’d do post 2023, when they had originally agreed to return RHAC to the community, and would most likely feel that they are within their purview to profit from their proposed ‘development.’

The Rodman Hall Alliance asks some very pointed questions regarding Brock’s shrill denial regarding a sale. I offer them here, as well, as they are genuine and not ‘(mis)information’:

● How much income will Brock generate from their new use of Rodman Hall?

Rodman Hall is a charitable cultural property that was transferred to Brock as a charitable institution. How does Brock reconcile the commercial use of a charitable asset?

Is Brock planning to sell Rodman Hall in 2023 to this undisclosed private company?

Brock has spent funds on studies by expert museum and cultural consultants whose recommendations – the Lundholm Report (2010), the Barlow Report (2015) and the Bogusky/Pappert Report (2018) – have not been implemented. Why?

In these reports, partnerships have been identified as essential to the future of Rodman Hall. What efforts has Brock made to identify and approach possible community partners?

Read Rodman Hall Alliance’s response to Hutchings and Brock: the questions I’ve cited here are but one of many that are considered, knowledgeable and that help to illustrate that Hutchings’ plan – sorry, I mean, Brock’s plan – resembles a scribble on a napkin, hasty and sloppy. In reaching out to one of the many past erudite and informed consultants (as listed above in the Alliance’s questions), it was averred that they “were not consulted or informed of the current decisions and hadn’t had further communication with Brock since February.”

As many have learned over the last few weeks, Brock refuses to answer these questions (as they decline to speak of how much they have benefited, financially, from courses dependant upon RHAC, nor how they’ve gained so much on their original ‘investment’). Thus I suggest any concerned individuals contact the mayor, city councillors and other local political leaders who (as we saw with Jim Bradley‘s recent State of the Region address in his role as Regional Chair) are as aware of the Fordian financial disdain for this region and universities yet are not spinning and are realistic and concerned for something other than a bottom line….

Sandy Middleton, a member of the Rodman Hall Alliance, puts it best: the future of Rodman Hall “was never supposed to be all in Brock’s hands.” The unwillingness to engage or respect students, communities both educational and cultural, and the disdain for those expressing concern (appropriately, regarding Brock’s track record on this issue) exhibits quite clearly that they are unworthy of such blind obedience, as well.

The title of this article (Architecture of Fear) is indebted to Sarah Martin’s installation currently on display in what may be the last ever BFA Honours exhibition at Rodman Hall. The header image is by Teresa Badgely (a cropped detail of two works, Self-dependant and Dependant-self, both 2019), who, along with Gianna Aceto, are the trio of student artists in Oh, that’s nice, at RHAC until the end of April 2019.

Follow Rodman Hall Community on FB and online, and make your concerns known regarding Brock University and VP Admin. Brian Hutchings’ intentions regarding RHAC. Then, when you’re rebuffed, reach out to your local politicians. Emails and other contact information is linked in this article.

If you’re unfamiliar with Brock’s PREVIOUS attempts to offload RHAC, you can read about it, beginning here. The article that Brock University Dean of Humanities Carol Merriman has described as ‘(mis)information’, while unwilling to name, link to, or actively refute any of the facts presented, can be found here. You can also listen to Rebecca Caan speaking to this issue here.Canadian Art Magazine also has a piece on this story.

Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.

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  1. I don’t begin to say I understand all the ramifications but I do know that I am dismayed at the possibility of losing the ability to roam the grounds and enjoy the displays at Rodman Hall. It is one of the few places in St Catharines to take out-of-town visitors. It is so peaceful and restoring to spend time in its rooms and paths. The Marilyn I. Walker would not have the same ambience.

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