Will Anybody Visit Saskatoon’s New $85 Million Museum?

Inside the prairie city’s gamble to build a world-class art gallery

Pae White's Lucky Charms (2014/2017) is installed between levels two and three of the Remai Modern.
David Stobbe, Courtesy of the Remai Modern

The picasso, like most Picassos, is difficult to unpack at first glance. A few things are immediately obvious: two ears, a mouth, shoulder-length hair. But it’s hard to know what to make of the most prominent feature—the eyes. One is wide, as if surprised. The other, higher up on the face, looks sad. A harsh nose separates the two, creating a trick of perspective: it could be seen as a portrait of a single woman, and then, after a blink, it changes into two women in profile gazing at each other.

The work, Portrait de Jacqueline aux cheveux lisses, is one of 406 Pablo Picasso linocut prints owned by the Remai Modern, Saskatoon’s new art museum. The collection of linocuts, the Remai is quick to point out on its website and in its press releases, is the most comprehensive in the world. And so it’s no wonder that at the museum’s opening in October 2017, the Picasso room was packed. Families, couples, and visitors from abroad paraded along the walls of prints, staring at wonky face after wonky face. Everyone seemed terribly impressed. And that, of course, was the whole point.

Saskatoon is not where most people expect to find a stockpile of work by one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century. For that matter, Saskatoon is not where one expects to come across an institution like the Remai Modern. The museum is huge—130,000 square feet of open galleries, soaring windows, and broad foyers wrapped up in an ultra-modern glass-and-copper-mesh exterior. The four-storey building feels as though it’s been plucked from a cultural capital like Toronto or Chicago or London and dropped on the west bank of the South Saskatchewan River.

It’s easy to think of more promising places to build an $84.6 million city-owned art gallery that was estimated to need 220,000 visitors each year in order to stay afloat. Saskatoon may be nicknamed the “Paris of the Prairies,” but it’s currently noteworthy for a more mundane detail: it’s a small city in a large province in a very big country and therefore is very far away if you don’t happen to be one of the 270,000 people living there. Saskatoon’s closest big neighbours are Edmonton (a five-hour drive) and Calgary (six). There are no direct flights from New York City, Paris, or Los Angeles.

But Gregory Burke, the Remai’s executive director and CEO, sees opportunity in this isolation. “There’s this notion that to be exotic as a location requires a journey, a significant journey,” he says. Burke, who came to Saskatoon in 2013 after leading the Power Plant gallery in Toronto and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, offers examples: Marfa, an outpost of 2,000 in the Texas desert, has captured the imagination of art lovers around the world with its outdoor sculptures and installations; Fogo Island, a hunk of rock off of Newfoundland, attracts wealthy tourists and artists with its vaunted studio spaces and renowned architecture. “People make a pilgrimage to get to these places,” Burke says. “And that’s the way we see ourselves functioning. We want to get onto people’s bucket lists.”

Ever since the project was announced, however, it has been mired in controversy. The criticisms from those living in Saskatoon mostly fall into similar categories: the Remai is too costly; the Remai is just for the rich; the Remai is going to be a white elephant. One main point of tension is that to create the Remai, the city closed down Saskatoon’s original art museum—the free, and much loved, Mendel Art Gallery. The Mendel acted as a community centre and an important venue for local artists. Many now fear that these features will be lost amid the Remai’s global ambitions.

Pat Lorje, the former city councillor who cast the initial vote in opposition to building the Remai, describes the museum as a project that snowballed into a facility too big for a city the size of Saskatoon to maintain. “I’m married to an artist. I love going to the Guggenheim and the MOMA,” she says. “I’m hoping that this will be a world-class facility and that the accidents of geography called the Prairies will be overlooked.” But she and many others are not convinced. Saskatoon, they say, has gambled away a gallery that was serving its residents and has bet millions on a project aimed at promoting international artists for a legion of tourists who may never actually show up.

The mendel Art Gallery received its name and ethos from Fred Mendel, a German Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis and came to Saskatoon with his family in 1940. Upon arrival, he started a successful meat-packing plant, and twenty years later, he proposed the creation of a civic art gallery—his way of giving back to the city that had taken him in. Mendel donated a third of the building costs, and in October 1964, Saskatoon’s first permanent art gallery opened its doors.

Mendel was a proud collector of Canadian modernist art, and his family donated thirteen paintings to the new gallery, the majority of which were by leading artists such as Emily Carr and Group of Seven members A. Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris. Mendel and his daughter Eva, herself an artist, became champions of the local art scene; the former went on to show his support by commissioning works by celebrated abstract painter William Perehudoff. “They were sophisticated, they were wealthy. But they made Saskatoon their home,” says Jen Budney, a curator at the Mendel from 2008 until 2013, about the family. “They valued Saskatoon artists as much as they valued artists from anywhere. They took pride in the culture of their new home here in Saskatchewan and they were full participants in it.”

Over the following decades, the Mendel Art Gallery became the centre of the city’s cultural life. By the 2000s, it was seeing more than 160,000 visitors annually, most from the Saskatoon area. Kids were a common sight thanks to the gallery’s outreach and educational initiatives—half a million students took part in the Mendel’s youth programming over the gallery’s life. Artists would regularly pop in to chat with curators and ask for career advice. Joggers would even use the Mendel as a pit stop during long runs. The Mendel played host to concerts and clubs and film screenings. It was a common space in the truest sense of the word. “I’ve never seen a gallery like the Mendel that had such an allegiance from the wide public,” says Marcus Miller, director of the Gordon Snelgrove Gallery at the University of Saskatchewan. “When there was a reception there, it was packed, packed, packed. People loved that place.”

As time passed, the Mendel building, worn down through use, started showing its age. Its small size was also becoming an issue as the gallery’s collection grew to nearly 8,000 works, many of which were by local and regional artists. The city decided a change was needed, and in December 2001, it announced plans for a $13 million expansion. Fundraising difficulties stalled the project, though, until a new plan was floated: the city would leave the Mendel behind and build a new facility closer to the downtown core. The building would inherit the Mendel’s collection but not the Mendel name. A “Save the Mendel” campaign was started to petition councillors to reverse the decision, but with no success.

Blaine Campbell, Courtesy of the Remai Modern
William Perehudoff’s Intercontinental Packers Limited (1953-1977).
In 2011, as the plans were still being drawn up, a local entrepreneur named Ellen Remai approached the fundraising team to discuss a possible donation. “She said she was prepared to make a big gift, but she wanted this gallery to be ‘world class,’” Burke says. To show her commitment to the concept, Remai amassed and donated the Picasso collection, valued at $20 million, and earmarked another $15 million for exhibitions of international significance. (In October 2017, Remai announced she would be giving an additional $50 million for acquisitions and donor matching, bringing her total to $103 million, one of the largest philanthropic gifts to the arts in Canada’s history.)

The design for the new gallery, subsequently named the Remai Modern, was finalized and the scale of the project became clear. The museum was going to be five times the size of the Mendel, and its projected price had ballooned the initial $51 million estimate. But some city councillors still saw it as a deal: Saskatoon was paying a third of the cost, with the federal government, the province, and private donations covering the rest. And while Saskatoon is responsible for providing more than $5 million annually in operating costs—almost double the cost of the old Mendel—a new argument was put forth that the Remai would become an economic engine for the city. The Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority noted that the Remai would contribute $17 million in annual GDP to the city from 2017 to 2019 and support 292 full-time equivalent jobs. The project was no longer about creating a mere art gallery. In its latest business plan, the Remai stated that it will be the face of “Saskatoon 2.0,” “a catalyst for economic growth in the city,” and predicted that it would be the largest tourism product to launch in the entire country the year it opened.

This narrative about the Remai’s value was a drastic shift from how the city had thought about the Mendel. “The Mendel was always envisioned to add value to the lives of people in Saskatoon,” Budney explains. It was never intended to make the city money or to bring in tourists. Others in the community share the concern that the city has shifted priorities away from the people of Saskatoon. Many have pointed out the introduction of admission fees as evidence. The Mendel was free, but the Remai charges $12 for entry and annual memberships start at $45 per person. “We’re a very divided city, and so there are a lot of very poor people here and they’ve got $40 a week to spend on food—they’re not going to spend $12 to go to the Remai,” Budney says. While the median household income in Saskatoon was more than $94,000 in 2015, a study two years later found that child poverty rates in the province were at 24 percent, among the highest in Canada.

Burke and others with the city are quick to say that elements of the museum remain free—people can visit the gift shop, they can sit by the elaborate fireplace in the lobby, and they can enter the Remai’s restaurant (though an order of bread will cost them $6). There is also one gallery room on the main floor that is open to everyone. But to see the vast majority of the art, including much of the old Mendel collection, people now need to pay. “Art in this community became a great leveller,” Lorje says about the Mendel. “And now I’m worried that we’ve taken a totally accessible facility and built a new facility that may only be accessible to the cocktail circuit.”

Jeremy Morgan, former interim executive director of Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery and CEO of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, says that the new fees have become a flashpoint not simply because they exclude a significant amount of people but because they force citizens to pay to enter an institution funded through their municipal taxes. “To invest lots of money in an institution like a gallery cheek by jowl with some very, very poor neighbourhoods, we have to ask ourselves, What do we value here?” Morgan says. He explains that historically, public galleries were built as free educational institutions, which were more akin to libraries and schools than tourist attractions. “What are galleries about any more?” he asks. “If they are places of privilege for connoisseurs, then why is the public supporting them?”

In 1997, an art museum opened in Bilbao, a remote city near Spain’s northern coast. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao—a shimmering silver entity that looks as though it’s in the process of melting before your eyes—immediately became the premier art destination for vacationers. Its success led to a new urban concept dubbed the “Bilbao effect,” which posits that a small far-flung city can bring in tourists, money, and admiration by creating a beautiful and top-notch cultural institution—a rather expensive version of if you build it, they will come.

Burke is adamant that, under his direction, the Remai is not attempting to bring some kind of Bilbao effect to Saskatoon. He says that in recent years many new museums have promised revenue and economic growth that never materialized and left their cities with deficits. But when it comes to Saskatoon, the comparison to Spain appears to have stuck. The Wall Street Journal asked, “If Art Lovers Can Find Bilbao, Why Not Saskatoon?” The Guardian proclaimed Saskatoon “Bilbao on the Prairie,” and the New York Times picked the Remai as one of “52 Places to Go in 2017.” Burke’s team has also courted influential (albeit niche) arts publications around the world, with write-ups in magazines, including Surface and Wallpaper. “This is unprecedented in terms of the international attention for a new art gallery opening in Canada,” he says.

While he describes this media attention as a key indicator of the Remai’s remarkable launch, Burke says that it’s the gallery’s programming that will help it stand apart. He explains that when he served as a gallery director in New Plymouth, the town had a population of less than 75,000, but he still managed to keep the space busy. “By the time I left, over 50 percent of our audience was coming from outside of the province,” he says. What drew them in, he explains, was the quality of work that he and his staff selected. “The opening weekends would just be flooded with people from out of the province.”

At the Remai’s opening exhibition, Burke and his chief curator, Sandra Guimarães, displayed the works of many internationally renowned artists that grab eyeballs. The main attraction was a selection of 142 of Picasso’s linocut portraits, curated by acclaimed English artist Ryan Gander. Gander also created a new work for the Remai: hand-drawn reproductions of each of the Picasso prints owned by the museum, which were then impaled on a spike. As Burke explains, Gander’s new piece for the Remai, and the ongoing support of other international artists like him, will be paramount for the Remai’s success in the future. Burke points out the presence of one painting, The Swamp, by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, as an example of why the Remai is already succeeding. “There was competition for that painting coming from major museums in the United States,” Burke says. “It’s not easy to get a work by Luc Tuymans into an exhibition.”

Burke acknowledges that not everyone in the community is happy with the Remai, but he says concerns are misguided. He notes that the gallery will have similar community programs as the Mendel had: reading groups, film showcases, and a free family arts program on Sundays. One of the gallery’s mandates is to get 60 percent of the city’s population to visit within the first two years. And people from Saskatoon are going: in the gallery’s first two months, 50,000 visitors came through its doors and 2,300 memberships were sold (the Remai had hoped to sell 500). Burke also points out that the gallery is drawing a global crowd. At the opening, a former director of the United Kingdom’s Tate Modern—the most popular modern-art museum in the world—showed up. There were artists from New York and representatives from institutions in Mexico City, Berlin, and London. The hotels were all booked solid, Burke tells me. He opened an art gallery in Saskatoon and the world actually came.

The Remai’s critics do not dispute these facts. Yes, the opening was grand, they say. But that doesn’t mean that the gallery will be sustainable in the long run. Jen Budney says that the discussion around the Remai has been fraught from the start because of the constant focus on attendance figures and revenues. She argues that if the city is lucky, the Remai may hit its target for 220,000 visitors in the first year, but she doubts the success will continue into the second and beyond. “We don’t have a million different things to cause tourists to want to come here to see the Remai. They can go see Picasso prints at the Met in New York and see a whole lot else that we don’t have,” she says. “And they can probably get there easier.”

Adrien Williams, Courtesy of the Remai Modern
The exterior of the Remai Modern in Saskatoon.

There is reason to be skeptical. In 1999, Sheffield in the UK created the National Centre for Popular Music. Millions were spent on the museum—which looks like four giant silver curling rocks clustered together—and 400,000 visitors were expected each year. One-quarter of that estimate actually showed up, and the museum shuttered fifteen months later. Closer to home, the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) needed an upgrade in the early 2000s, and so a new building was announced. The new Edmonton museum, which cost $88 million, even manages to resemble the Guggenheim Bilbao thanks to some conspicuous metal swoops on its exterior. When the gallery opened in 2010, it brought in more than 130,000 visitors in its first year; more than 74,000 paid the general admission rate of $12.50. But those numbers did not stay up. Located in a city four times the size of Saskatoon, the AGA saw its number of paying guests drop to 23,000 by 2016. The gallery was forced to cut spending on staff and exhibitions, and it required repeated cash injections from the city. Edmonton has, however, started to think differently about how to use the gallery. In December 2016, council approved spending half a million dollars to start offering two free nights at the AGA each week. The goals were to bring in more local visitors and spur community engagement. While the plan seems to be working—the CBC reported in November that attendance has risen 22 percent—the experience serves as a warning: the road to Bilbao is littered with failures.

Ultimately, the Remai’s future may depend not on how effectively it models itself after prestigious destinations around the world but on whether families, artists, and residents across the city are able to claim the gallery as their own. Budney points to examples of smaller galleries where community focus has worked: the regularly packed Anchorage Museum in Alaska features traditional and contemporary Indigenous art as well as modern art and an interactive children’s section; the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George, British Columbia, often reserves half of the gallery’s space for studios where locals teach each other arts and crafts. She also mentions the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, where directors created a new position of Indigenous story-keeper, who interact with visitors to discuss the history of the artworks.

For the Remai, tapping into Saskatoon means representing and working with its Indigenous communities, which make up 11 percent of the city’s residents. While the museum states that it aims to be “a leading centre for contemporary Indigenous art and discourse,” many complain it hasn’t followed through. Adrian Stimson, an artist and a member of the Siksika First Nation, says that, near the end of its life, the Mendel had started to recognize that the gallery wasn’t adequately representing the large Indigenous population in Saskatoon. In the mid-2000s, Stimson started working with the gallery in various capacities—he was an artist in residence, Aboriginal curator in residence, and associate curator—and played a role in helping the Mendel select programming that engaged with the Indigenous community and other cultural groups. After Stimson left the gallery to focus on his own art, those planning the Remai approached him, but he says the consultation was kept on a superficial level. “I don’t know if being asked out for drinks and then being grilled about what to include Indigenous-wise into a new gallery is the best situation, when at the same time they’re paying a New York firm tens of thousands of dollars to develop their brand,” he says.

Burke concedes that more needs to be done to include the region’s Indigenous communities but points out that a significant portion of the Remai’s opening ceremony included Indigenous participants. For the museum’s inaugural exhibition, the gallery room on the main floor was guest-curated by Indigenous artists Duane Linklater and Tanya Lukin Linklater, and all of the pieces shown there were by Indigenous artists. And by the Remai’s front entrance, the museum has included the syllabics for the Cree word for Saskatchewan.

But Stimson, Budney, and many others say that meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities means hiring Indigenous people to positions of significant authority, such as staff curator. Stimson describes being the head of an art gallery as being like holding a political office. “You also have to take genuine interest in the community you serve, and when that doesn’t appear, then you start losing your audience.” Burke says more will be done but that it takes time. At its launch, two members of the Remai’s board were Indigenous, at least four Indigenous staff were on payroll. The gallery has since hired an Indigenous-relations adviser, and on February 20, it brought on Gerald McMaster, member of the Siksika Nation, as adjunct curator.

This first full year of operation will be an important one for the Remai. In December, after the excitement around the opening had died down, some city councillors expressed concerns about the feasibility of the gallery’s revenue targets. Burke says the numbers he put forward are ambitious but still achievable. (After two months in operation, he adjusted his 2018 visitor expectations down by nearly 15 percent.) Even if the financial targets aren’t met, he says, the gallery will start cutting programs and exhibitions before going to the city for more money. This, however, is exactly what Budney fears: such cuts would be especially heartbreaking for those who remember the Mendel’s popular educational and community initiatives—and could lead to a downward spiral forcing Saskatoon to rethink the space. “Whether it’s a wedding hall or a really active cultural space is a question that remains unanswered,” says Budney.

One of the more famous Picassos held in the Remai, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, d’après Manet, I, lives on the second floor, next to a work by prominent Saskatoon artist William Perehudoff. The two form a striking example of the Remai’s goal to, as Burke describes it, put “artists from Saskatchewan, artists from Canada, on the same level as their international peers.”

The Perehudoff is a mural from 1953, painted on four walls that have been erected to create a small room within the gallery space. Visitors walk inside and are surrounded by seventeen figures appearing as pure swaths of colour, many of whom are themselves creating art: there’s a painter, a guitarist, a bassist, and someone blowing on what looks like a clarinet. Three figures stand together, taking in the show. The mural is an example of purist style, an offshoot of the cubism that Picasso was playing with when he made the linocut print just a few metres away.

In the middle of the mock room, a man stood with a girl who looked no older than four. He started to tell her the story behind the mural and the man who helped create it. Around the same time that Picasso began working on his linocuts, Fred Mendel commissioned Perehudoff to paint on the walls of his office reception area at the meat-packing plant. In the 2000s, the Mendel plant was slated for demolition. In a bid to save the artwork, some Saskatoon residents raised funds to hire an art restorer, who applied a special type of glue to the paint, which was then delicately peeled right off the walls.

The Mendel plant, like the Mendel gallery, is gone, but every detail of Perehudoff’s artwork has survived. The shape of the room’s windows and even the artist’s brush strokes have been preserved on four new panels. The mural has found a way to be both old and new at once.

Daniel Viola
Daniel Viola (@dannyviola) is a features editor at The Walrus.