Perhaps you’ve been following the situation at Remai Modern in Saskatoon. It is a messy story – yet a cautionary tale. I mention it here solely for the point made by former CEO / Director Gregory Burke, regarding how repeated and somewhat ignorant interference from the city (whether city council members or the mayor is only alluded to, in his writing) is a road to destroying the credibility and the health of that – really, any – organization.
I can remember when concerns about the gallery being over-budget didn’t report that NOT having a director in place for over a year led to decisions regarding environment control, storage and protection of the collection being ignored that HAD to be modified (even reversed) as art galleries require knowledge and expertise that is specific to that area. Too many – whether of an administrative or political ‘class’ – suffer from being so ignorant regarding that issue that they are don’t even consider what they don’t know (Dunning – Kruger Effect). My recent visit to Welland and seeing the sad state of the murals and other public artworks, that were misdirected or ignored by similar aforementioned groups, has shown that many of those works are now lost, or irretrievably degrading….
Since the Martin Van Zon ‘consultations‘ and the Rodman Hall Community movement, there’s been some small steps forward regarding treating RHAC as an asset, not a commodity to be exploited, but more steps backwards. I’ve enumerated a number of these, in numerous pieces; some focused on the larger issue, some showing how this indifference has negative implications. These include not hiring a new director, but increasing the workload on the chief curator; not hiring a permanent installation person when the previous left for a better position; most recently, the position regarding public programs went through the interview process and now has not been filled, as part of the hiring freeze across the board at Brock University.
Yesterday I received information from an anonymous source. I share it here. I’ve injected some points for clarification, but have preserved the integrity of the ‘leak’, if you will:
“…Brian Hutchings [Vice President, Finance] has once again hired John Armstrong to find a developer to buy Rodman Hall. (He last did so in 2014-15 [this was part of the ignorant and incompetent Martin Van Zon ‘consultations’ that I covered extensively here]. Brock’s agreement to operate it isn’t up until 2023 but I guess they need money and Brian is planning to move the collection to a vault at the MIWSFPA.” [But note: laws – as set by Federal and Provincial governments regarding cultural property will likely restrain this, as there are several pieces in this collection, in terms of Group of Seven works alone, that would be assessed at very large sum…and I must ask whether we’d know what happens to them, or if they’d be de accessioned and sold at an administrative whim, to finance something / someone else. Its worth noting that some responses to coverage of the Van Zon ‘plan’ of a ‘concerned group receiving the collection’ angered one person enough to threaten legal action: he indicated that his parents donated a work to Rodman, not to Brock, and regarded this as a breach of trust. Cultural property is – as some of you may have seen with the National Gallery and the recent proposed sale of a Chagall to finance a David – a sticky business. Many laws are in place to ensure ethics, not short term profit or other institutional abuses, are the primary concern, as well as privileging a sense of community, not commerce…].
“There is no consideration that Rodman Hall is an historic, botanical and artistic asset saved by the people of St. Catharines and nationally recognized as a pioneering art museum [again, the many Ontario Art Gallery Association Awards attest to this fact] in Canada that was entrusted to the University of Brock at the request of a former President in 2003….Hutchinson saw the museum as a burden rather than a community service and soon started investigating ways to unload it.”
This spurred a variety of conversations online, and a few other sources (whom – for now, or perhaps forever – shall remain anonymous) have also offered that in seeking a developer to purchase Rodman that it is planned to have all staff and artwork removed / relocated from RHAC by the end of December 2019.
A move of cultural materials that are both valuable in terms of financial and cultural consideration is intensely difficult at any time, and one wonders how, with a staff that is barely skeleton, that’s to be managed. Again, the issue of the management and due care of significant cultural properties has to be considered, and would seem to be a significant prohibition to such a rash, and rushed (both in conception and proposed execution) ‘plan.’
In one of the frenetic and frantic conversations yesterday, I described the decision as ignorant and ill informed. This seems to be a pattern, as regards Brock and Rodman Hall, with a certain sense of ‘ownership’ as pertains to exploitation and misuse. The many OAAG Awards Rodman has garnered are the result of the fine staff at RHAC, though one can be forgiven for thinking that Brock had some hand in them (other than putting up roadblocks, as though setting up RHAC to fail…).
This latest move to unload RHAC for quick cash is, frankly, unsurprising: this is the same cabal that seemed to empower Van Zon to wilfully mislead re: accessibility at Rodman, regarding financial opportunities to partner with other groups, and whom, when I even asked Van Zon whom he had spoken to at the Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council regarding Rodman’s financial status (deathly, in his forceful if false claims), offered “no one” and kept using the phrase “that is my assumption” without shame or guile.
So, some questions need to be asked here, and more importantly, some individuals need to be held to account: who is making these decisions? My understanding, again from several sources, is that the interim Rodman Hall board was informed of this decision as a fait accompli.
Does the community – should the community – CAN the community – trust an administrative cabal that has been shown to be willing to engage in past misleading campaigns? I must again cite how Van Zon, as one person described at the time, offered ‘rainbow shitting unicorns’ if we all fell in line with the plan to sell Rodman to developers then, with his fairy tale promise of the ‘Art Gallery of Niagara’, and bellowed (literally, at one evening, when he was asked about apparent conflict of interests) how dare we question him and his group’s attempt to railroad the conversation and ignore his shilling – sorry, his well paid ‘advice.’
Is this truly just a last ditch attempt by Brock to convert Rodman Hall into cash before they are unable to do so, in 2023 (“Let’s have a cultural fire sale!!! EVERYTHING MUST GO!! Hey, would you like an A.Y. Jackson or a Group of Seven with that?”)?
Forgive my crass cynicism, but considering the refusal to hire necessary staff even prior to the current freeze, and the looming date of the return of RHAC to the wider community, this smacks of a cash strapped administration visiting a pawn shop…..
There’s been some response in social media spaces that these are ‘just rumours’ but the source passing this on to me is reliable and knowledgeable. In fact, I had heard that a developer had approached Brock re: Rodman not that long ago (a different source) and was interested in maintaining the gallery and other spaces, but that this didn’t come to fruition. That story didn’t bear repeating, in my experience, but this is something else entirely.
There’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors since Van Zon, and arguably before this latest ‘development’ (I must cite NAC Director Steve Remus saying that the community should NEVER have trusted Brock in this). I repeat again that I’ve heard from multiple sources (whom are reliable, and have proven to be truthful in the past) once this proliferated online that this is, in fact, going to happen, as far as Brock University is concerned.
Another solid source has passed on that two staff have either chosen not to renew their position, as its useless in light of the Brock ‘plan’, or are taking early retirement in (what we can imagine to be) disgust.
Further questions: how does this affect the Willow Community? How does this affect the dwindling staff? Some might argue this is the logical conclusion of the contempt with which they have been treated for the majority of Brock’s ownership, which I once compared to an abusive domestic relationship…
One of the ways in which many value RHAC is through the large number of children’s classes (during the previous Van Zon ‘consultations’, one of the evenings was dominated by parents wanting to know what would happen to these community focused workshops and activities that so many of their children enjoy – a funny side note is that my mother, a former grade school teacher / teachers’ aide, is uninterested in ‘art’ but was aghast at the dismissive prospet of these being lost…).
Regarding this, one of the positions that was posted and on the verge of being filled, but was cancelled due to the larger hiring freeze, is the Art Educator / Manager of Programs. This university wide hiring freeze is clearly an aspect of the Provincial Government making decisions regarding universities that are engendering a ‘trickle down’ effect. In a fashion many of us remember from Harris, there is already a “Fordian” consequence of eliminating activities and prized services that many families and communities treasure here in Niagara.
Recently, Rodman Hall was awarded Heritage Status: how is it, then, permissible for Brock to attempt to translate a significant community focused, historically treasured, site into fast cash?
Unlike other information that has come my way, I chose to share this due to the quality of the source, and also because of confirmation from others. As well, this seems like it will be the last opportunity to prevent the loss of an organization and a cultural resource. Once these spaces are gone, they rarely return: and its equally distasteful that Brock has so often ‘used’ Rodman to sell programs, or to augment their own standing, and yet have no such interest in offering support to the people and space.
There was also some information passed on indicating that Brock will offer some ‘financial’ remuneration for a ‘future space’, but may I quote some other (less hypocritical) nonsense (Lewis Carroll): ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’
I’ll be offering updates as this progresses, and as more information comes my way: in the meantime, here’s some contact information for Brian Hutchings to make your concerns known. @BrockVPFA is where you’ll find him on Twitter, and firstname.lastname@example.org is the email of his Executive Assistant. The accompanying phone number on his Brock University page is (905) 688 5550 x3285.
As always, be polite but firm in your concerns. One of the reasons that the Van Zon fiasco failed – in that iteration before this renewed attempt – was the focused, respectful but unrelenting questions and interest of the many communities whom rely upon, and value implicitly, Rodman Hall and all that the staff there offer to the wider Niagara community.
Another concrete suggestion to scuttle this ill considered, somewhat less than transparent, action: we have new representatives at the Regional level of governance (in the last round of elections, I didn’t raise the issue of Rodman as there were more immediate concerns regarding good governance, due diligence and possible malfeasance and profiteering to deal with). Contact them, and let your concerns be known.
This story will be updated over the next weeks and months, and as always, The Sound welcomes feedback and any interested responses. The image in this article is by Emma Mary Sked, currently on display at RHAC, as part of the BFA Honours Exhibition (this is a recurring aspect of Brock’s Visual Arts Program, and like many courses and classes, relies heavily on the support of RHAC, to make Brock University ‘look’ better….).
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.