Major New Native American Education Facility to Open

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Published September 29, 2015

VICTOR, NEW YORK – In late-October, the Seneca Art & Culture Center will open its new facility, designed by FdM:Arch, on the Ganondagan State Historic Site, just southeast of Rochester, New York. The Seneca Art & Culture Center will explore the histories, traditions, and cultures of the Seneca and Iroquois people, and highlight the significance of the site as a major 17th-century Seneca town. The new building, which takes design inspiration from important symbols of unity within the Iroquois Confederacy, will for the first time make it possible for the non-profit Friends of Ganondagan, in partnership with New York State, to present year-round exhibitions, programs, and events that tell the story of Seneca and Iroquois contributions to North American art, culture, and society over the last 2,000 years.

The 17,000-square-foot, one-story building will feature interior and exterior exhibition spaces, an auditorium, orientation theater, classrooms, retail, and administrative offices. Design architect Francois de Menil was particularly attuned to the topography of the site and its existing structures, including the iconic recreation of the Bark Longhouse—an essential element to understanding the life and culture of the Iroquois Confederacy. As such, the new building is set partially into a hill and features a series of skylights of varying scale, creating a natural relationship with the landscape and incorporating the building elegantly into the scenic views from the Longhouse, located directly behind the new structure at a slight elevation. The building, which has a wood frame and paneling, appears as a single, continuous volume, done in gray tonalities, further complementing its surrounding environment.

The architecture is grounded in two important symbols of peace in the Iroquois Confederacy: the Hiawatha belt, which visually captures the coming together of five original, native nations into one Confederacy, and the Longhouse, which facilitated communal living and reinforced a sense of social unity. Taking cues from the Hiawatha belt, the new building features a strong, horizontal axis with a series of spaces on either side of an aisle, which serves both as a physical and metaphoric central spine to connect the Seneca Art & Culture Center’s diverse activities. FdM:Arch collaborated with DeWolff Partnership Architects (Rochester), the architect of record, on the overall building scheme, design plans, and construction.

The building and exterior site planning also reflect traditional Iroquois and Seneca greeting traditions, with visitors walking a forested pathway from the parking area to emerge at the entrance. Fire and water elements invite audiences to experience the warmth of the hearth and the cleansing of water prior to entering the building. The entry hall dissects the building vertically and through a rear entrance connects to an exterior walkway to the Longhouse, creating a link between the landscape, the experiential components of the Art & Culture Center, and the immersive environment of the Longhouse.

The new building nearly triples the space of Ganondagan’s existing education facility, and will make it possible to increase its programming schedule from a six-month to a nearly12-month cycle—ceasing programming only for the Mid-Winter Ceremonies. The Seneca Art & Culture Center will house a permanent installation that explores the history of the Ganondagan site, and changing exhibitions about the Seneca and Iroquois people through five centuries of artifacts, emphasizing the cultures’ rich histories as well as the work of contemporary Native artists.

The inaugural program will feature important presentations on pivotal historic moments and symbols central to the spiritual, social, and political activity of the Confederacy, including the story of peace, the matriarchal structure, and the invasion of the French armies. A special exhibition on the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team; its history and efforts to maintain sovereignty; and the team’s success at the International level, playing against teams from the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Czech Republic, and Japan, among others, will be also be presented. The galleries will additionally be home to elements of the Bark Longhouse, which will still close in the winter months.

The auditorium, which includes flexible, retractable seating and a springboard floor to accommodate a range of performances, will host a wide array of events, including lectures, concerts, and dance performances. The new classrooms will allow for more immersive education experiences, and include technology to support distance learning to maintain engagement throughout the school year.

“The Seneca (Onondowa’ga’), meaning People of the Great Hill, are American Indian people with a sovereign government, language, customs and traditions, who live within the contemporary world. The contributions of the Seneca are scarcely understood,” said G. Peter Jemison (Heron Clan, Seneca)
 Historic Site Manager, Ganondagan State Historic Site. “With the Seneca Art & Culture Center completed and situated on a 17th-century Seneca Town site all people will have the opportunity to learn and experience our art and culture.”

The new Seneca Art & Center is the culmination of a many years’ commitment from New York State and Friends of Ganondagan to expand opportunities for public engagement with the cultural heritage of the site and the Iroquois Confederacy. New York State contributed more than $5.5 million to the $15 million project to help bring it to fruition, including $3 million from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s NY Parks 2020 program—a multi-year commitment to leverage $900 million in private and public funding for State Parks from 2011 to 2020—and $2.5 million from New York State Works. Additional funds have come from the Seneca Nation, the Rock Foundation, and the Thaw Charitable Trust, and private donations, with capital efforts led by Friends of Ganondagan.

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