City & Politics Protecting the past or fighting the future?

When you think about art and culture in Saskatoon, one of the first names that should come to mind is the Mendel Art Gallery. It was established on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in 1964 thanks to a generous donation by Frederick S. Mendel, an art collector and owner of a successful meat packing business, and has since gone on to become a highly respected gallery, housing permanent collections of local, regional and national art.

But when you Google the Mendel, two things come up immediately in your search. Naturally, the first entry on the list is the Mendel’s website but the second is a one that art lovers from outside of Saskatoon might be surprised to come across;

The current municipal dynasty governing Saskatoon is headed up, for better or worse, by Mayor Don Atchison, fresh off his recent re-election campaign victory. One of the tent poles holding up his administration has always the revitalization and rejuvenation of a formerly beleaguered Downtown Saskatoon. He has certainly achieved some success in this mission. This redevelopment has included opening the Cineplex Galaxy Cinemas and the Remai Arts Centre which houses Persephone Theatre right on the South Saskatchewan River.

But a large parcel of land sits vacant beside the Remai Arts Centre and near the Galaxy Theatre in an area called River Landing. The Remai Family, Saskatoon’s real estate and development royalty, have set their sights on further developing the space near the arts centre that bears their name with the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. With one small hitch.

This new gallery would replace the Mendel.

Thusly, was born, a campaign to collect enough signatures via an online petition to force a referendum on the issue. To date, public consultation on the plan has been sparse at best. Numerous polls by all the factions involved and media outlets have been conducted, some showing public support firmly behind the project with others showing the public standing firmly against the project. Such is the bane of polling.

The Mendel has been in need of an upgrade of some kind for years, something the City was exploring but was shelved in 2009 in favour of the new development. The respective price tag for each project changes dramatically depending on who you’re talking to on either side of the issue. The new facility has been quoted at anywhere from $50 million to $135 million, again, depending on the source.

The Remai Family has contributed $30 million to the construction of the new gallery as well as donating $20 million in Picasso prints and linocuts to the permanent collection but that doesn’t go to the bottom line of development costs. Money will also come from both federal and provincial sources as well as other private donations.

The crux of the issue for groups like is the legacy of Fred Mendel and how the new Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan leaves it behind. In addition to developing a prominent meat packing business, Fred Mendel was an avid art collector and supporter of the arts scene in Saskatchewan. His donation of $175,000.00, almost $1.4 million when you adjust for inflation, seems small in comparison to the numbers we are talking about today but it was still a huge donation at the time. Additionally, he spearheaded the development of the complex that currently named for him.

Oddly enough, the donations of the Remai Family mirror that of Fred Mendel’s contributions in the 1960s when he provided money, art and leadership to the current gallery named for him.

In the 1940s and 50s, the Saskatoon Arts Centre was the core of the visual arts in Saskatoon and was replaced by the Mendel Art Gallery. Essentially, Fred Mendel, a successful local businessman, saw a chance to improve the arts in Saskatoon, donating money and his personal art collection to create a centre that would do just that. One cannot help but wonder if Fred Mendel experienced the same opposition from supporters of the Saskatoon Arts Centre in the 1960s to what those behind the development of the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan are experiencing today.

As for Fred Mendel’s legacy, the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan is scheduled to have a salon dedicated to Fred Mendel that will house the collection of art he donated. But is that enough in the face of losing an entire complex dedicated to his legacy? Would the Remai Family be happy with a wing in the Mendel Art Gallery dedicated to them after making such a sizable contribution to the Saskatoon arts scene?

For detractors of the new project, the complaints go beyond sentiment and nostalgia. They are concerned by the absolute lack of public consultation in the project’s development and its fluxuating costs as well as the overall corporatization of the arts. Answers to the question of why the renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery was abandoned have never been satisfactorily provided, leading many to wonder what kind of deals were cut behind the scenes to push the new development through. In 2009, plans were in full swing to renovate the Mendel only to be quickly abandoned without reason or public consultation.

There are also concerns that the Mendel’s current commitment to the local arts might be lost in the move.

Putting Saskatoon artists on the walls of a gallery featuring what is expected to be a world class and largely un-viewed collection of Picasso’s work can only raise their profile. Well, as long as those local artists make it on those walls and are not pushed out by travelling exhibits from out of province, brought in to bolster attendance numbers. Given the expense of the new facility, attendance will need to remain high to justify the cost and keeping admission free.

As long as admission is free when or, to be more precise, if the new gallery opens.

The ground-breaking has yet to take place. At one point, Mayor Atchison stated that the start date for construction was in 2009. It is now 2013 and not even a patch of soil has been turned, though the lot does house a lovely collection of weeds when it isn’t covered in snow. The current completion date is scheduled in 2014. This gives opposition to the project the chance to examine their options and gain momentum. Right now, the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan is nothing more than a piece of concept art and a promise with money being thrown at it.

Regardless of the climax of this fight, the Saskatoon arts scene will hopefully be left with a facility that is an upgrade from where we are now and positively received by the City as a whole.


Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at

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