Ganondagan’s Seneca Art and Culture Center

Rendering by Francois de Menil and Encore Design

Driving past the construction site on Route 41 in Victor, few people would imagine that the new building’s steady rise is actually more than 15 years in the making. Nestled into the hillside, a short walk from Ganondagan State Historic Site’s Bark Longhouse, the new Seneca Art and Culture Center will be the culmination of a long journey of planning, fundraising, negotiating and action turning dreams into reality. The expansive facility is scheduled to open in early fall of this year.

Many deserve credit for this ambitious $11-million initiative, including Ganondagan’s site manager Peter Jemison, who spearheaded the project; the entire staff of Ganondagan State Historic Site; staff, volunteers and the Friends of Ganondagan Board of Trustees; the Seneca and Haudenosaunee people; New York State; and both individual donors and corporate funders.

In April, Peter Jemison escorted me on a hard-hat tour of the construction site. Although the building was far from finished, I was struck by the magnificence of its design, with vaulted ceilings, enormous banks of windows, numerous skylights and spacious rooms. While many buildings are designed as a barrier to the outdoors, this one invites nature in, to become one with the building. Every element is mindfully designed to respect Haudenosaunee principles.

The Seneca Nation is part of the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, Confederacy.  One of the Haudenosaunee values is called “Seventh Generation,” which considers how actions taken today will affect people and the environment seven generations in the future. Adhering to this forward-focused principle, DeWolff Partnership Architects was hired as the architect of record to design the 17,300-square-foot, LEED-certified building, which will be energy efficient and environmentally conscientious. The design, by Francois de Menil Architect PC and Encore Design, was inspired by the Hiawatha wampum belt, symbolizing the unity of the nations under one confederacy. Rochester-based Pike Company is constructing the facility, in collaboration with the Seneca Construction Management Corporation of Irving.

Referring to the Iroquois value of “community” that is central to the design of the building, Ganondagan’s program manager Jeanette Miller, commented, “We didn’t want to have the cold, impersonal feeling of many museums. We want to continue offering friendly, family-oriented hospitality.”

She went on to explain that a contemporary aspect was purposely incorporated, so visitors could see the community as it is today. “The Seneca Art and Culture Center will have a living, breathing character that welcomes people and gives a sense of community, engagement and connection,” she said.

The State Historic Site was once, primarily, a three-season outdoor venue. It will now be able to extend year-round hospitality to student groups, community members and organizations, as well as domestic and international tourists that visit Ganondagan annually to learn about the history, culture, traditions and art of the Seneca and Iroquois people.

Core to that sense of community is the Seneca Art and Culture Center’s ample auditorium. Dance troupes, including Ganondagan’s Spirit Dancers, the Buffalo Creek Dancers and other Native American performers, will be delighted to discover that the auditorium has been fitted out with a professional sprung wooden dance floor, a green room and dressing rooms. To accommodate all types of events, the auditorium has also been equipped with state-of-the-art audio/visual technology. Stadium seating recesses into a case to offer greater space flexibility. Activities such as a storytelling event, a Material Culture Symposium, a Food Sovereignty seminar, a gathering of basket makers, and other workshops are already in planning and scheduled to take place throughout the year, following the Center’s opening.

Additionally, the new facility will have several classrooms, a gift shop run by Friends of Ganondagan, an archive and research facility, office space for Ganondagan State Historic Site staff, and a much-needed catering kitchen. The facility’s Orientation Theater will screen “The Iroquois Creation Story”, currently under development through a collaboration among Peter Jemison, choreographer Garth Fagan, RIT filmmaker Cathleen Ashworth, and graduate students in RIT’s School of Film and Animation. Outside the entrance to the building, water and fire features will symbolize the traditional Haudenosaunee welcome ceremony offered to visitors. Future plans for the Center include distance learning capabilities.

Equal in size and importance to the auditorium will be the center’s gallery space. One wall will present the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address, which greets and gives thanks for all elements in the natural world. Another section will be devoted to sharing Ganondagan’s history, and the culture, art and traditions of the Seneca people. The third area will feature changing exhibits that focus on contemporary life, and offer a sense of who the Haudenosaunee people are today. The first of these contemporary exhibits will highlight the sport of lacrosse, known as “The Creator’s Game.”

Meg Joseph, executive director of Friends of Ganondagan since 2013, spoke about the importance of the Seneca Art and Culture Center, and how Ganondagan’s relationship with New York State has evolved throughout the process of building the facility.

“The Haudenosaunee people have always had a sophisticated culture with a strong value system centered in democracy, women’s rights, peace and seventh generation ideals,” she stated, noting that the new building will offer enhanced opportunities to share the many contributions of the Seneca and Haudenosaunee people.

She went on to say, “New York State has been extremely supportive, positive and flexible, working to ensure the success of this project. I think a deeper respect has evolved between New York State and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.”

Joseph observed that both parties are unified in their commitment to the success of this project, which will have deep historic, cultural and spiritual significance. “There’s mutual respect and gratitude among all parties that have contributed,” she said.

As a final question, I asked, “If Ganondagan’s original inhabitants could return and see this building, what do you think their reactions would be?”

Without hesitation, Jeanette Miller answered, “I think they’d be proud, and happy to see the breakdown of barriers. They’d be pleased that we’re sharing their contributions, and that their values are still alive today.”


story and photos by Carol White Llewellyn
Carol is a writer, digital media specialist, and producer of the cable program “Conversations with Creatives,” in which she interviews artists and explores their careers, their work and their philosophies about art.