Veteran art director Gregory Burke has scored a full-time position as the new executive director and CEO of Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery. The confirmation of his appointment Friday occurred two years to the day after it was announced that Burke was resigning as director of the Power Plant, the prominent Toronto-based not-for-profit contemporary art gallery he helmed for almost six years.
A New Zealand native, Burke, 55, said in an interview from his current home in Toronto that he hopes to start his new position, a five-year appointment with an option to renew, by the end of April.
Founded in 1964, the Mendel is in a period of major transition: Its collection is expected to be incorporated into the new $85-million Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, whose construction is scheduled to start this year, with a projected completion date of 2015.
Hired, in the words of the Mendel board, because “he is an institution builder,” Burke indicated that while he wants to “make sure the artists of Saskatchewan are well represented” under his auspices, the much-publicized donation last year of 405 Picasso linocuts to the Mendel by philanthropist Ellen Remai indicates that the new RAGS is primed to “take quite a big jump from where it was … and play its part on the world stage.”
Since leaving the Power Plant, Burke has worked as a consultant, curator and writer. Among his major activities in the last two years have been the co-curatorship of the Montreal Biennale, to open this fall; and the curatorship of a survey of work by the late Len Lye, the New Zealand experimental filmmaker and kinetic sculptor. The Lye exhibit opens next year at Manhattan’s Drawing Center.
Burke, who will be joining the Mendel almost a year after his predecessor, Vincent Varga, resigned, said that his new job’s “overall attraction is to be able to help build quite a major new building and gallery. And it’s not like it’s just a new building for the Mendel; it’s transforming into the Art Gallery of Saskat-chewan, and with that, there’s the process of developing a whole new brand.” Burke added that he’s pleased that the Remai’s principal architect is Bruce Kuwabara, of the Toronto firm KPMB, with whom Burke worked closely on renovations to the Power Plant in 2010-11.
Director of the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, for seven years before coming to Canada, Burke acknowledged that he had never been to Saskatoon until last November when, after responding to an online ad for the Mendel job on the website of the American Alliance of Museums, he travelled there for the first of two interviews. “When you have a career like mine, you contemplate the possibility of shifting countries. But I’m very pleased to be remaining in Canada. I feel more Canadian every day,” he said, laughing, “and I’ve lived almost a fifth of my life here now.”
Once in Saskatoon, Burke said, he intends to lead a “visioning process with the board and staff as we begin to define what the identity and what the future ambition will be, including in the area of collecting.” After being at the Power Plant, which did not have a permanent collection, he adds, “I’m attracted to be returning to a collecting institution.”