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The Picasso gift, ‘really puts us on the global map of culture,’ said Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison.
The Picasso gift, ‘really puts us on the global map of culture,’ said Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison.

VISUAL ART

Saskatoon’s Remai Art Gallery gets a pile of Picassos Add to ...

When you’re a city that likes to call itself the Paris of the Prairies, it helps to have some Picassos in your midst – not to mention a brand-new art gallery, on a riverbank. In Saskatoon, the yet-to-be-built Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan has marked two important milestones this month: unanimous city council support for the project, and the donation of an extraordinary collection of works by Picasso (who lived and worked in that other, original Paris, of course).

The donation of 405 Picasso prints – valued at $20-million – was announced this week, the latest in a series of rapid-fire good news announcements for the gallery, which is scheduled to break ground in early 2013 and open in 2015.

“The largest collection [of Picasso linocuts] in one place in the world is a real cultural game-changer, for not only Saskatoon but for Saskatchewan and Canada,” Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison told The Globe and Mail this week. “It really puts us on the global map of culture.”

The Remai Gallery will replace the Mendel Art Gallery, which has a fine reputation, but has been in need of a retrofit, with inadequate exhibition and storage areas. Unsuccessful in a fundraising campaign to renovate the now almost 50-year-old building, the Mendel was presented with a new opportunity from the city. Developing an area downtown that has since been branded River Landing, the city was looking for an anchor tenant. A new art gallery seemed a good fit for a new commercial and cultural district.

In 2009, the Mendel officially announced its intention to build a new gallery.

Between the three levels of government, the gallery raised $51-million, but needed another $20-million to reach its goal.

Then in June, 2011, philanthropist Ellen Remai, through her Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation, pledged $30-million: half of that to help fund the building, the other half to go to programming – $500,000 a year for the next 30 years.

“Anyone in the free world who cares about the arts knows that that is unheard of,” says Jason Aebig, president and chair of the gallery’s Board of Trustees. “You don’t get donors who cover both sides of the equation: the bricks and mortar needs and your programming needs.”

This month, after the gallery raised the final $5-million to meet its $71-million goal, city council gave the project unanimous approval. Tenders are expected to be issued for construction October 10.

“This has gone forward really with relative rapidity. There are institutions that would be incredibly envious, I think, to know how things have unfolded here, and this is just one more layer with the gift,” says Lisa Baldissera, chief curator of the Remai Art Gallery.

(Indeed, there is no doubt some envy in Vancouver – which has been talking about a new art gallery for over a decade.)

In the meantime, Remai was working on the Picasso donation. Earlier this year, she met with Frederick Mulder, an art dealer based in London, England, but who was born in Chatham, Ont. and grew up in tiny Eston, Sask. (whose tag line these days is “Home of the World Gopher Derby”). Mulder had assembled a remarkable collection: 193 of the 197 linocut subjects Picasso created, along with 212 working proofs.

“I knew that I wanted to keep it intact and have it end up in a public institution. I’m Canadian and I thought wouldn’t this be wonderful if this could end up in Canada,” Mulder, 69, said from London on Thursday. “I love the idea of it going to Saskatchewan, where I grew up.”

Growing up on his stepfather’s farm in Eston (his father was killed in the Second World War), Mulder knew farming wasn’t for him, but certainly did not contemplate a career as an art dealer. In fact, he had never been to an art gallery before leaving the province; the Mendel didn’t exist yet. It was at Oxford, where he was studying philosophy, that Mulder fell hard for art, visiting auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and using the surplus from his Canada Council doctoral fellowship to buy the odd print. After completing his dissertation – on the concept of miracles – Mulder abandoned his plans for an academic career. He’s done well: He is considered one of the world’s experts in 19th- and 20th-century prints, and this year, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, chatting briefly with the Queen during the Buckingham Palace ceremony about Canada, and Saskatchewan.

He amassed the Picasso collection over a decade: The first group of 90 works came from the Spanish artist’s printer. After the printer’s death, Mulder bought more from the estate, and supplemented that with purchases from Picasso’s heirs and from auctions in New York and around Europe.

“This collection gives us the chance to see the development of many of the images in terms of the various states,” Mulder says. “It shows us the working method, which is a wonderful thing that you don’t get with any other kind of medium an artist uses except his printmaking.”

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