ISHMAEL N. DARO / RORY MACLEAN
It was a full house at the Mendel Art Gallery on Sept. 25 as three new exhibits were unveiled that will remain in the gallery for the next 15 weeks.
Â Â One of the exhibits is by Mary Longman, a University of Saskatchewan art history professor who presented her latest works as an effort to “fill in the gaps of colonial history with indigenous counter-history.” After her talk, visitors milled about happily devouring the museum’s latest offerings.
Â Â Â However, how long the Mendel will continue to enjoy such crowds is unclear. The City of Saskatoon had just a few days earlier announced it had secured money from federal and provincial coffers to construct a new $58 million art gallery at River Landing. If plans go ahead, the new art gallery will replace the Mendel but without retaining its name, instead being called the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.
In April, the Mendel board of trustees decided unanimously to pursue the new River Landing location.
Â Â Â “I think River Landing will be nice when they finish it all up but I think (the current building) is in an amazing location,” said Rachel Malena, a third-year political studies student.
Â Â Â “I can’t think of why they would move it, to be honest, besides commercial reasons. I think this place has a lot of heritage for this city and it’s a shame they want to change it, change its name and change the idea of it.”
Â Â Malena is not alone in her trepidation. Up until recently, the city wanted to renovate the existing gallery but that changed earlier this year when plans were unveiled for the AGS. Supporters of the Mendel Art Gallery are furious with the decision, which took place without public consultation. Even members of the Mendel family did not find out about the change before seeing it on the news.
Â Â Â “My understanding is they wanted this to not have any controversy or obstacles to it,” said Camille Mitchell, granddaughter of art gallery founder Fred Mendel. “By alerting citizens of Saskatoon or Mendel family members, there would have been lots of discussion.”
Â Â Â Mitchell, who has personally donated over $100,000 in cash and artwork to the Mendel, says plans for the AGS have not taken the community’s views on the matter into consideration. And even though the current board of trustees for the Mendel has backed the proposal, only two of the 16-person group is there without appointment by City Council.
Â Â Â Mitchell describes the board as “pawns of City Council and, ultimately, the mayor.”
Originally, the plan was for a much cheaper renovation and expansion of the current site. According to former Mendel curator Terry Graff, a $21 million concept plan to expand the current building was done by Kindrachuk Agrey Architecture and endorsed by the original architects. The project would have seen the building expanded to 45,000 square feet from 25,000, although no major federal funding had been secured. Graff has also come out publically against moving the gallery, calling it disrespectful to Fred Mendel’s cultural legacy.
Mitchell has threatened to withdraw art and future donations from the gallery if the gallery goes ahead with the move.
Fred Mendel donated his art collection to the gallery upon creation of the building. The art is held in trust, so Mitchell believes it may be possible to remove Mendel’s collection, worth millions, once the connection is severed.
A bit of the history
Â Â Â The Mendel Art Gallery was opened in 1964 after Fred Mendel donated the money and paintings for a new art gallery to be built along the river. Mendel was forced to flee Nazi Germany with his family and moved to Canada in the 1940s. A self-taught man, he started a meat-packing business that eventually made him wealthy.
“He took risks on unknown artists and he was one of the few people at the time to believe the production of art was a meaningful activity.”
Fred Mendel’s granddaughter
Â Â Â In order to show his gratitude to the city he now called home, Mendel built the art gallery and conservatory so citizens of Saskatoon could enjoy art. The artistic community of Saskatoon had no permanent home before the gallery was built. At the opening, Mendel said “this beautiful creation of an art gallery and conservatory combined in one unique building will be one of the most beautiful spots of the world; it cannot be created again. I assure you, for all time, this centre will be good.”
Â Â Â Mitchell’s concern is that moving the gallery goes against her grandfather’s words those 45 years ago. Losing Mendel’s name from the gallery ignores the cultural history of Saskatoon, she says.
“He took risks on unknown artists and he was one of the few people at the time to believe the production of art was a meaningful activity,” she said.
Mayor Don Atchison has indicated the Mendel name will be featured somewhere within the new building but the gallery would be called something different, perhaps even named after a corporate sponsor.
Â Â Â Mitchell says the Mendel and River Landing were competing for funds and that River Landing didn’t have a popular enough attraction of its own.
“By basically stealing the paintings of the Mendel Art Gallery… and stripping the Mendel name, they now have a great way to get more money in their pockets.”
Â Â Â For supporters of the Mendel, there is still time to change the course of events. Although federal and provincial funds have been provided and the current director of the Mendel said the gallery is committed to raising $8 million itself, the city still needs to find an additional $17 million to fund the capital project.
The Art Gallery of Saskatchewan will be constructed in 2011 and is scheduled for completion in 2014. The 100,000 square foot building will wrap around the Persephone Theatre.
Talk of the Mendel being vacated has caught the attention of the Meewasin Valley Authority. The MVA had been considering expanding their existing site at Third Avenue South and 19th Street but once word came that the Mendel may be vacated, they started looking into a move.
The provincial government had previously committed $4 million for the renovation and expansion of the Mendel Art Gallery. That money is not part of the $13 million River Landing commitment. It is not yet clear whether it will also be part of the funding package if the gallery move is officially approved.
If you wish to see the Mendel Art Gallery remain at its current location, visit savethemendel.org. The website will be operational by Oct. 5.
photos: Mendel Art Gallery & Sara Waldbillig