The South Saskatchewan River runs through Saskatoon, the most populous city in Saskatchewan. Because of the riverbanks, it’s called “The Paris of the Prairies,” but aside from the river, it’s flat and isolated enough to be the Wichita of the North. Its name is derived from the Saskatoon berry, a tree fruit that resembles a giant blueberry, and is often baked into pies or drunk as Saskatoon berry liqueur. Drop a shot into glass of beer like a Jägerbomb, and you’re getting “Saskatoon’d.”
It’s a quirky place with a lot of pride, but until now, museum-less for more than two years.
“I have said on many other occasions, ‘A great city deserves great art,’” Ellen Remai concluded at the end of her remarks at the invite-only preview of the Remai Modern, Saskatoon’s juicy new art museum housed in a handsome, cantilevered Jenga game of a building cresting the west bank of the river, currently lined with cranes developing the riverfront with luxury condos.
Remai, whose husband Frank Remai is one of a trio of construction tycoon brothers who have built condos, banks, and hotels across Saskatchewan and Alberta, was met with warm applause. But how her namesake museum came to be would reveal itself to be a unique, and ultimately problematic, one.
The Remai Modern has replaced the Mendel Art Gallery (and absorbed its collection, a beloved institution erected in 1964 at the behest of Fred “The Ham Man” Mendel, a Jewish-German refugee of Nazism, who has built a canned ham empire in the area. The Mendel building was damaged by a fire in 2006, and deemed insufficiently sizeable in 2009. That’s when local art doyenne Remai (pronounced ray-mee) stepped in, putting up an initial $16 million, the first in a series of philanthropic gifts that has ballooned to $103 million as of the museum’s opening.
In addition to the monetary gifts, Remai bestowed the 405-piece Picasso linocuts collection she purchased from renowned Picasso dealer Dr. Frederick Mulder in 2012.
“With a can-do attitude and the spirit of Saskatchewan, we can rival any place in the world with this extraordinary gallery,” the notoriously reclusive Remai declared at a private opening party the night before the gallery opened to the public. “Tonight we will preview for the first time a castle on the prairies. ”
Remai noted that she hopes the Picasso linocuts, as well as 22 ceramics donated by Dr. Mulder, would awaken the art world to Saskatoon’s status as a Canadian art hub.
“An artist with the international profile of Picasso would have the ability to generate many opportunities for the gallery, including exhibitions, partnerships and education, tourism, merchandising,” Remai said. “I had hoped these works would also inspire local artists and the public in general.”
A number of the Picasso linocuts hung in their own gallery, a selection of portraits curated by London artist Ryan Gander, when the museum officially opened to a bustling crowd on Saturday, October 21 with “Field Guide.” Co-curated by Gregory Burke, the museum’s director, and Sandra Guimarães, Remai Modern’s chief curator, “Field Guide” is a multi-gallery, jumbled view of the museum’s mission featuring a range of work from blue-chip artists like John Baldessari and Gabriel Orozco; a room of more challenging work from the likes of Luke Willis Thompson, Ahlam Shibli and Abraham Cruzvillegas; and a heaping of Canadian artists like Ian Wallace, Geoffrey Farmer and Kara Uzelman. Historic Canadians like Emily Carr and Lawren Harris hung in a de facto “Canadian landscapes” room, a vestige of the Mendel’s collection, which has been absorbed by the Remai.
Uzelman’s work was of particular note: a recreation of Aldous Huxley’s studio where he allegedly took the LSD given to him by a University of Saskatchewan professor, supposedly leading in part to the writing of his book The Doors of Perception. Apparently the word “psychedelic” was coined right here in Saskatoon.
Though the public flocked to the opening, the museum’s journey has been far from calm.
The announcement of the shuttering of the Mendel and the building of the Remai was a surprise for nearly everyone in the community, who had only heard plans to expand the Mendel.
Challenges, criticisms, and even protests quickly followed. The original cost—shared by Remai and the city of Saskatoon—was $58 million. Overruns and planning revisions contributed to an estimated extra $26 million in added building costs ($84 million is the reported total tally), and a two-year delay in opening. While Mrs. Remai has put up much of the funding, the museum is ultimately a civic endeavor, and the city has funded the building to the tune of $30.2 million in the face of a budget shortfall and skyrocketing property taxes. Two of the board members are on city council.
CBC and The Saskatoon StarPhoenix detailed the museum’s plight in great detail: from the controversy surrounding the ballooning costs of what some saw to be a boondoggle, to the Mendel family protesting the name change, to the resignation of board member John Gormley for conflicts of interest (though many point to an Islamophobic tweet he sent prior to his departure).
Most recently, Maxwell Anderson, the former director of the Dallas Art Museum criticized the Remai Modern’s decision to charge people $12 a pop at the door. At a chaotic press preview the day before the museum’s opening, Burke quipped, “The DMA has a $500 million endowment. If Mr. Anderson could raise me $500 million, I would drop the admission charges.”
The criticisms streamed so consistently that Burke was presented with a jacket printed with the negative headlines as a gag gift at a private cocktail.
But as “Field Guide” opened on Saturday, a majority of the patter was about inclusion of the Indigenous art community, and how the museum has an apparent lack of it. None of the curators on staff at the museum are Indigenous (th), despite an Indigenous population of nearly 15 percent mostly First Nations and Métis residents.
It’s not as if the museum isn’t trying. There’s the fact that the museum’s name is written in Cree on the façade. And there is a not-to-be-missed concurrent exhibition called “Determined by the river” curated by Indigenous artists Tanya Lukin Linklater and Duane Linklater in the museum’s project space on the first floor (the first floor of the museum is free). The Linklaters built a raft, painted it gallery white, and placed a selection of work by Indigenous artists atop it—a blanket painting by late artist Robert Boyer as the raft’s sail; a photograph of a fur-bikini clad “Lonely Surfer Squaw” (1997) by Lori Blondeau on the port side; works by Jessie Oonark, Daphne Odjig, and Ruth Cuthand on the deck.
Despite this remarkable show, the inclusion issue remains a cloud that hangs over the museum; starting the museum with an entirely white curatorial staff is a squandered opportunity to begin to correct Saskatoon’s extremely troubled history in the treatment of the Indigenous community.
Colonialists from Toronto came in 1883, displacing Indigenous people who had been residing in the area for 6,000 years, and defeating the Louis Riel-led Northwest Resistance in 1885. As recently as the early-2000s, the Saskatoon Police Service was accused of conducting at least seven “starlight tours”—arresting Indigenous men, driving them out to remote locations, and abandoning them to die of hypothermia. And currently, the historically Indigenous community of Riversdale is facing gentrification that has already led to the displacement of residents.
It’s a flash point in an already heated debate surrounding Canada’s 150th anniversary this year in 2018—the erasure of thousands of years of Indigenous people. That Indigenous people weren’t hired as curators has led critics to question the museum’s dedication to progressive institutional practices. Because what is a public museum for than to enrich communities with positive ideas that reach out to and touch even its most disenfranchised citizens?
Felicia Gay is the curator at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a nearby archeological site with a gallery that exclusively shows contemporary Indigenous artists like Jason Baerg, whose brilliant painting and video art show “Oskâyi Askîy” (Cree for “The New World”), is on display until January 2018.
“I have to be diplomatic,” said Gay, who pointed out that while group shows like “Determined by the River” are great, the challenge lies in getting local Indigenous artists solo shows. “True reconciliation can only happen when you hire Indigenous people in positions of power. Otherwise, nothing’s going to really change. That’s all I can really say.”
When I spoke to Burke about the issue, he argued that the museum was doing proper outreach, pointing to his experience at his previous position as director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand.
“I studied Maori, and from the very first year I was a curator, I worked with contemporary Maori arts,” he said. “As a result of work I did [running] the visual arts and film funding program at the National Arts Council in New Zealand, we got New Zealand for the first time into the Venice Biennale. For that first national presence in Venice, I selected two contemporary Maori artists.”
“We had a small gala for the major donors last night, and there were many speakers, but in many ways, the two that were the strongest [and] the most articulate were Indigenous,” he said. “I have an Indigenous relations adviser on contract. He’s helped me to convene a meeting here with the elders. Every single room in this building has been smudged (a cleansing prayer conducted by elders). Last weekend I was involved in a pipe ceremony here.”
When pressed about the fact that the only announced solo show by an Indigenous artist at the museum is the upcoming presentation of the Jimmie Durham retrospective—a controversial move even before a letter by Cherokee artists disputing his identity (particularly as a Cherokee representative) caused uproar during the retrospective’s stop at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—Burke pointed to “Determined by the River” as an example of the museum’s outreach.
“There’s a lot of complexity around his decision not to be known as a Cherokee artist, but I think what drove some of the Indigenous artists who raised this issue when the exhibition was at the Hammer Museum, is not so much about Jimmie, but about what they see is as Jimmie being a stand-in or a box-ticking for Indigenous art, and they would argue that those institutions don’t have a good history of showing Indigenous work,” says Burke. “And I hope that this issue is raised when we bring Jimmie’s show here. We can say, ‘Well, we don’t have that history of non-inclusion, because we’re a new museum, and look, we’re showing Indigenous work, as you can see downstairs.’ It’s a clean slate for us to move forward.”
One could argue, however, that the slate has a history of 6,000 years written on it. Whether or not the Indigenous question is addressed properly up is a big one that may determine the future of the museum. Though the numbers are often bandied about—Ellen Remai has promised $1 million per year, and another $1 million in matching donations, for the museum’s collections for the next 25 years—it means nothing if the museum turns its back on a citizenry that could benefit the most.
That will determine if Saskatoon becomes a destination for art tourists, like some kind of Canadian Cluj. Because if the Remai Modern is presenting itself to a larger international art community, it should know that the world is watching.