The day after the historic election of “Yes-we-can” Barack Obama, his successful battle cry fuelled the imagination, spirit and dreams of Niagara’s arts community. Artist/teacher/philanthropist, Marilyn Walker demonstrated in spectacularly magnificent fashion how she lives the mantra “Art is life” to the full. Her gift of $15 million to Brock University will be invested in perpetuity and its annual net income will forevermore fund programs and initiatives of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.
“Art has intrinsic value and is big business,” remarked Brock President Jack N. Lightstone to the capacity crowd lured to the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre on trust (his invitation intriguingly promised a “significant transformational announcement”). Because the current physical plant cannot meet the demand of the burgeoning Faculty of Humanities (described as an “unbelievable need for space,” by Dean Rosemary Hale) a new facility is required. After decades of studies, organizational machinations and planning, downtown St. Catharines may well have found its catalyst for renewal if, as expected, a suitable location can be purchased, razed and built. The former Canada Hair Cloth building is currently under the consultants’ microscope whose next report is expected before Christmas.
With Rodman Hall already in the hands of the University, St. Catharines and Area Arts Council lodged on James Street and the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre playing host to all-manner of performances, it makes, well, artistic sense to build this incubator of creativity in the heart of the Garden City, which, in some ways, is currently on life support.
The event itself was a work of art. With piccolo trumpets, tympani and organ offering familiar bits of Bach and Handel as a prelude, a festive air was immediately established. Later, soprano Heather Thomas provided much more than Canadian content in her celebratory Mozart “Alleluia.” The recent Brock graduate filled the hall with a warm flexible tone that vividly demonstrated just what excellence is being nurtured on campus—albeit in cramped quarters. She also created the soundscape for Lyndesfarne Theatre Project’s currently running production of Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times.
A largely silent Greek chorus (a.k.a. The Flockers) dramatically ushered in the dignitaries, served as the program guide (“We are about to begin!”) and stylishly delivered the bounteous bouquets that colorfully adorned the modest donor after her remarks (“I am flattered to be here,” she began) in an array that almost topped the fabric artist’s brilliant quilts. Walker reminded everyone that “institutions, like people, need to be feed” and most especially that “young people [must be] afforded the opportunity to develop and grow [because] life is not complete without a vibrant cultural component.” She then backed up her thesis with 15 million Marilyn bits of financial sustenance that ought to be multiplied many times over by all levels of government, corporations and individuals.
With globalization affecting our lives more than ever, Brock’s conscious desire to bring the world to Niagara (whether as students, researchers, performers or teachers) is more visionary and timely than ever. The now cliché “think globally, act locally”—like all well-used catch phrases—has much truth. Walker’s gift is proof positive: the local arts advocate has provided the impetus to make the world stand up and take notice of a region most widely known for its natural beauty and vineyards. With the stroke of a pen, the needle wizard has most certainly thrown down the gauntlet; by allowing her name to be embroidered into the edifice she has courageously demonstrated her belief that all of the interested parties will now band together and repay this investment many times over.
“I have a hard hat and a shovel in my room,” said Hale soon after the shower of falling rose petals concluded the proceedings. “This has been my dream since I arrived here in 2000.” Let’s hope that the dedicated arts proponent’s dream comes true and those metaphorical implements aren’t allowed to gather dust. JWR