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In the fight to save the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, here is my innovative idea.
Update: We lost the fight. Why did no one listen to me?
The great Mendel Controversy
The Mendel Art Gallery is a classic and much-loved example of Modernist architecture in Canada, so how can I leave my hometown of Saskatoon without mentioning the Great Mendel Controversy? The last time I was here it was the Great Mural Controversy, with a campaign to save my father’s – artist William Perehudoff’s – murals from the about-to-be-demolished former meatpacking plant. (This controversy ended when campaigners raised enough cash and interest to save the murals, now stored and awaiting a new home. Yay!)
The fate of the Mendel Art Gallery is uncertain
Crazily enough, the Mendel controversy is not making major headlines outside Saskatchewan, so if you live elsewhere, as most people do, let me fill you in.
Fred Mendel was a huge supporter of the arts in Saskatoon and the Mendel Gallery & Civic Conservatory is named for him. These days, a battle is raging over whether the Mendel should be renamed the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan and moved to the new Riverside Landing Project that the city is keen on promoting, or kept where it is, in the glorious yet problematic Modernist building just north of the 25th Street Bridge.
The hard truth about public funding
There is more public funding available, apparently, to build new buildings than to restore old ones. The new gallery would be attached to the new Persephone Theatre and everything would be shiny and new. There are many problems with the old building, like crap storage and crap office conditions for staff. Still, it’s historical, a legacy to the most important supporter of the arts the city has ever known. After escaping Germany during the war, Fred Mendel came to Saskatoon and set up Intercontinental Packers (ironically, the same meatpacking plant that just hosted the Great Mural Controversy).
Most importantly, at least to my young art-loving parents, he brought world-class art to the city. If they couldn’t afford to travel to the most artistic cities in the world, it was a way of bringing international art to Saskatoon. Suddenly, this little prairie town had Blue Rider paintings, Braques, Picabias, Renoirs, Vlaminks, Group of Seven, Emily Carr’s … you get the idea.
The Mendel Art Gallery is an eye-catching building in a spectacular location and it’s the most well-used public gallery I’ve ever seen. At the recent opening for artists Marie Lannoo and Ed Pien some 700 people showed up. It’s got a popular coffee shop, a plant-filled conservatory … and there’s free parking, too. The good thing is that even if the art is moved, the city has no plans to demolish the building like they did the old Capital Theatre (I’m still shocked at that! Shocked!) but it wouldn’t be filled with art.
The proponents, the PRO-CHANGE side, who will likely win, keep stressing that the new building will be FUNCTIONAL. What kind of sell job is that? It seems obvious to me that the only way to win the PRO- PRESERVE-OUR-HERITAGE side over is to make a building that’s even more sexy than the Mendel, one with more caché, glam and star appeal, and that’s why I have come up with a solution. You can thank me later, when Saskatoon is the centre of the world art map. My solution is … insert drumroll here … Guggenheim Saskatchewan!
Why we need a Guggenheim Saskatoon
Think about it. Where was Bilbao before it got a Guggenheim? Today, every self-respecting art snob in the world has made at least one pilgrimage to this northern Spanish city. Why shouldn’t they come here? Why should Bilbao get the Jennie Holzers in the lobby and the big Jeff Koons flower puppies? Saskatoon wants a flower puppy, too.
We could also get a big giant spider by Louise Bourgeois to spice up the riverside view. (Ottawa just got one, why shouldn’t we have one?)
The Benefits to Saskatoon tourism
Everyone would come here. We could boost tourism, fill city coffers and up our reputation as the art centre of the world. Think big, people! Think world domination! And keep the free parking, too!
Want to learn more?
Read about Mourning in Saskatchewan