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The new Remai Modern Art Gallery in Saskatoon around the time of its reopening in October, 2017.Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

Strolling or, in less fair weather, striding briskly south then west along the river from Saskatoon’s stately Bessborough Hotel, one arrives, after a few minutes, at a gleaming new landmark for the city: a sleek art gallery with huge windows, copper-coloured metal screens and cantilevered design. This, on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River is what its founders aspired to be “Canada’s modern art museum” – and also “the living room of our city,” the Mayor, Charlie Clark, once stated.

This is Remai Modern, dreamed up by a former Saskatoon mayor and those running the museum it replaced, the beloved Mendel Art Gallery, which had a home a couple of kilometres north along the riverbank.

The Remai, with its modern design and its collection of big-name contemporary art, seems to ask the city to live up to its nickname of “The Paris of the Prairies.” Judging from the controversies and dramas surrounding the gallery, it’s still not clear whether Saskatoon is ready for that.

Remai Modern opened with a splash in October, 2017, a 130,000-square-foot $85-million ode to the Prairies designed by Toronto’s KPMB. The building’s striking cladding pays tribute to the red-brick Bessborough. Inside, an airy design features austere grey furniture and pops of yellow, as well as a large fireplace. Pastel neon-light glyphs line the wall of the atrium’s stairwell, a stylish installation by California artist Pae White to combat seasonal affective disorder. In the galleries upstairs, Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Jeff Koons’s Dogpool Ladder are among the artworks that have come to Saskatoon for a while.

When it opened, the gallery offered something to celebrate in a province dealing with economic challenges in the natural resources market. In its opening weekend and the months that followed, it vastly exceeded admission projections – and attracted international coverage and visitors.

Ellen Remai, the philanthropist who saw her vision realized with the new space, spoke glowingly at the grand opening. “The Remai Modern simply takes my breath away,” she said. “It is beyond my expectations.”

But even as the accolades flew, there was trouble behind (mostly) closed doors. Vast differences in vision for what the Remai should be. An uncommon governance model. Political infighting. Cost overruns and delays. Workplace grievances, including a gender-based complaint about the chief executive and executive director, Geoffrey Burke, to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.

At the time of his hire, Burke, a native New Zealander, was an outsider, more at home in the international art world than in Saskatoon. “I don’t think he fit in,” former Remai board member Alison Norlen says. “… And he didn’t comply. He was too much of a visionary.”

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Remai Modern chief executive and executive director, Geoffrey Burke, speaks to the media during a gallery tour in 2017.Liam Richards/For The Globe and Mail

But communications with people on and off the record reveal more: a personality described as “quirky” and awkward; a management style which could be perceived as harsh. His drive to succeed didn’t help; nor did the pressure he was said to be under.

Still, a number of people close to the situation blame much of the turmoil on opposing agendas for the gallery: Should the Remai be a museum that brings international art to Saskatoon, or a centre for showing off Saskatchewan art to the world? Burke, with Ellen Remai’s support, was driving toward the former.

But Burke, supporters say, was thwarted and ultimately forced out by some members of the visual art community, some former Mendel employees – and by the city, which owns and operates the gallery.

“I think it’s absolutely abysmal what that city has done to him,” says Norlen, Remai Modern’s former board secretary, citing political interference and bullying.

As Burke put it in an opinion piece he wrote last March: “I had a target on my back.”

Today, Burke, as the Canadian art world is well aware, is no longer leading the Remai.

Feeling beaten up and defeated – descriptions used by people who spoke to The Globe and Mail for this story – he gave his notice in December, 2018. His exit was followed quickly by the departures of the former chair and other directors, including Norlen and the entire executive.

Shortly after the messy board situation made headlines, a Human Rights complaint that had been levelled against Burke years previously was revealed in a media report. Nearly five years after the complaint was made – a process that is supposed to be confidential – the case is continuing and unresolved. A court ruling related to the case has questioned the neutrality of the investigation.

In his written piece, Burke – who declined to provide comment for this story because of the continuing SHRC investigation – attributed the upheaval at the gallery to the “political and philosophical debate over Mendel versus Remai.”

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Hanegue Yang's Four Times Sol LeWitt UpsideDown, Version Point to Point, 2016-2017, hangs in the main entrance.Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

Frederick Salomon Mendel fled Nazi Germany and wound up in Saskatoon in 1940, with his wife Clare and their two daughters. There he opened a meat-packing plant, Intercontinental Packers. It was a success.

In 1960, to mark his 20th anniversary in the city that saved him, he announced he would donate funds to establish a public art museum. The modernist building known as the Mendel opened In October, 1964. The following year, Mendel donated what came to be known as the founding gift: 13 paintings by the likes of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and Cornelius Krieghoff.

The place was beloved, a key gathering place for artists and residents.

But after 40-some years, the Mendel required upgrades – and was also feeling its small size. Vincent Varga, who was hired as CEO and executive director of the Mendel in 2008, urged the board to reconsider an idea proposed by the city before his arrival – a new facility.

This was championed by then-Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison, who envisioned the new establishment as an anchor institution for a new development called River Landing.

The Mendel got the approval of city council to build the facility, to be named the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, in 2009.

When Varga stepped down suddenly in 2012, the board hired Gregory Burke, a figure known on the global stage. He began his career in New Zealand, including curating the country’s inaugural pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001. He had already cemented an excellent international reputation when he was named director of Toronto’s Power Plant in 2005. Perhaps foreshadowing his troubles in Saskatoon, there was some skepticism about his knowledge of and commitment to Canadian art upon landing the coveted Power Plant job.

But during his tenure, he brought the institution out of debt, increased admissions and oversaw a renovation, furthering the Power Plant’s international reputation. His 2011 resignation felt abrupt – he left without another job, and no reason was given, prompting speculation about what precipitated his departure.

In 2012, Burke was tasked with closing down the Mendel, building the new facility, then shifting operations there.

“Almost immediately, Gregory’s deep insight and experience as a gallery director, curator and writer brought focus and direction to the project and our programming going forward,” then-board president and chair Jason Aebig wrote in the Mendel’s 2013 Annual Report. “His strong connections and credibility in the sector will help us take our place among Canada’s most culturally important and creative cities.”

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Mary Longman's Hills Never Lie – Lebret Graveyard, 2009.Carey Shaw

The museum’s lead patron and namesake is Ellen Remai, a wealthy Saskatoon developer and philanthropist who has pledged more than $100-million to the gallery since 2011. The Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation donated 405 Picasso linocuts to the museum in 2012, the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. “A great city deserves great art,” she said at the time.

Her vision was a gallery that would bring world-class art to Saskatoon. (Remai declined an interview request, made through the museum.)

Burke shared that vision, and it was believed he was well positioned, with his experience, to pull it off.

Kerry Harris, a former Power Plant board member who was a consultant for Remai Modern between 2013 and 2018, says the Remai board was “100-per-cent” behind Burke and his vision. She adds that local art, including Indigenous art, was an integral part of the vision as well. “It wasn’t an exclusive club; it was an inclusive club.”

But there was a “small but vocal group” of local artists and Mendel employees who weren’t happy. There were concerns that local artists – and the Mendel family’s legacy – could get left behind. A group calling itself Save the Mendel, which included Fred Mendel’s grandchildren, launched a petition. There was also concern that the Mendel, which had been free, would be replaced by a gallery with an admission cost (it was).

“The thing that Gregory brought is this sense of: Can you be both intensely local and relevant and also globally impactful? And I think a lot of people had a hard time with the global part of it,” lead architect Bruce Kuwabara says.

Among those who advocated for local artists at the Remai were Saskatchewan sculptor Clint Neufeld, who had exhibited at the Mendel, and Jen Budney, who was a curator at the Mendel (and left a few months before Burke was hired). Another artist who was vocal about these concerns was Grant McConnell (who now sits on the board of the Remai).

McConnell referred The Globe’s interview request to the Remai’s administration, while interview requests for Neufeld did not receive a response. Budney told The Globe she has already said everything she has to say about the gallery’s challenges.

But, Harris says, despite some naysaying, “You only have to look at the first year of results to see how much the community embraced it.”

During its admission-free grand opening weekend in October, 2017, more than 9,000 people checked out Remai Modern. And admission and membership numbers in its first year far surpassed projections.

“This is a historic moment for Saskatoon and signals the beginning of a new era of arts and culture in the city,” then-board chair Alain Gaucher wrote in the President’s message in the annual report.

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Edward Poitras, Optional Modification in Six Parts, 2002.Carey Shaw/Courtesy of Remai Modern

Another key point of conflict affecting Burke’s tenure was the role of the city in the gallery’s operations.

The City of Saskatoon owns and operates the Remai. The gallery’s board includes two city councillors, who act as a sort of bridge between the institution and city hall. The board makes its own decisions, but must have city approval to change bylaws governing the board. City council votes to approve the gallery’s annual budget and the city is responsible for the appointment of the board members.

Some find this governance model flawed, among them, former board member Veronica Gamracy.

“City council wants this governance model to be the same as every other city-owned facility in the city,” says Gamracy, a chartered financial analyst with CIBC Wood Gundy and one of the volunteer board members who resigned last year. “But we would say this facility is different; we’re different.” One significant difference she highlights is the level of philanthropy Remai Modern, like other galleries and museums, relies upon.

Norlen, who was on the board at the same time as Gamracy, says there was an inordinate amount of interference from the city councillors assigned to the board, and there would be frequent warnings that certain decisions would “not fly” at city hall.

“We kept getting compared to places like the library,” she says. “It was just bizarre.”

In 2016, the Remai’s mayoral champion, Don Atchison, lost the election to city councillor Charlie Clark.

Norlen, who joined the board in 2017, says that twice in her company, Clark – who had sat on the board of the Mendel – spoke about the Remai needing to appeal to “hockey moms.” (Clark declined interview requests for this story.)

In 2017, in a confidential meeting, the board discussed renewing Burke’s contract. However, days later, a couple of local artists contacted the board to ask for a meeting to stop the renewal. One of these artists was Neufeld, according to sources – Clark’s brother-in-law.

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The ongoing Sonnabend Collection exhibition at Remai Modern was initiated by Burke.Blaine Campbell/Photo: Blaine Campbell

While the gallery struggled to find a peaceably shared vision, Burke was facing a complaint that had been filed to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission in 2015, while he was working at the Mendel. A former employee alleged discrimination on the basis of gender during 2013 and 2014.

The complaint is not public and the complainant did not respond to a message from The Globe.

A 2019 court ruling on the case, Justice Brenda Hildebrandt wrote that “no statements containing sexual content nor any overt acts of gender or sex-based discrimination [were] alleged in the complaint.”

Due to its relationship with the gallery, the city was originally named as a respondent in the human-rights commission complaint, which would have given them access to the information contained therein. Norlen says she believes the complaint gave Clark’s administration an opportunity to question Burke’s leadership. “I think the city absolutely were piranhas with that allegation. They just jumped on that,” she says.

In a series of tweets in March, 2019, outgoing board chair Scott Verity indicated that, separate from the SHRC case, there were three formal complaints, which were investigated by independent third parties and not substantiated. (Verity did not respond to interview requests from The Globe.)

The mayor called the board together to discuss the workplace issues, and told them that gallery employees were coming to him personally and complaining about the workplace – and Burke specifically.

In December, 2018, Burke was offered a job as director of the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand. He accepted, resigning from the Remai in a gesture many feel reflected his need for respite from the challenges he faced there.

He gave three months notice. But in late February, 2019, when he learned news outlets would be reporting on his Human Rights complaint, he took a sick leave until the end of his term.

Although he had the Auckland job lined up, he bowed out. "I am concerned that the attention caused by this allegation has created a distraction for the gallery's board and staff and, out of respect for them and the institution, I believe that this is the right thing to do,” he wrote in a statement.

The Auckland Art Gallery declined to comment for this story.

Also in February, there was a huge shake-up at the board. Verity and Norlen were informed their appointments would not be renewed. Four other directors left the board in solidarity, including Gamracy.

Lynn McMaster was appointed interim CEO in April. “Many of the staff here have demonstrated a maturity about the situation that … I’m very grateful for,” McMaster says. “And mostly what we’ve been looking at is keeping our eye on the ball to ensure that the institution is delivering to the promise that we’ve made to the citizens of this city in 2017.”

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The Sonnabend Collection exhibition features the world-class art Burke and Ellen Remai dreamed of bringing to Saskatoon.Blaine Campbell/Photo: Blaine Campbell

More than 50 months after it was made, the Human Rights Commission complaint remains unresolved. On Dec. 31, a judge ordered a stay in the proceedings against Burke, citing an inordinate delay.

“The issues do not appear particularly complex, nor does an alleged need to be thorough explain the sluggish approach to arranging and conducting interviews,” the ruling said. It also stated that “Mr. Burke has suffered prejudice as a result.”

The court filing revealed a number of details about the investigation, stating that the complainant in the case was unco-operative and that the focus of the inquiry changed mid-investigation. “When the investigation is so protracted, and its focus changed some four years later, it begs the question of neutrality,” Judge Brenda Hildebrandt wrote.

“In the circumstances, I find that Mr. Burke has suffered significant prejudice as a result of the unreasonable delay in the SHRC Proceedings. He has languished under the cloud of uncertainty for too long.”

On Jan. 29, the SHRC indicated it would appeal the ruling.

Other women The Globe spoke to for this story expressed positive opinions of Burke as a colleague and manager.

“He was amazing,” says Harris, who was a consultant for Remai Modern from 2013 to 2018. “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with.”

“He has a quirky personal style, but he promoted lots of women,” says lawyer Paul Bain, who sat on the board of the Power Plant when Burke was director. Among them: Christy Thompson, who went from head of exhibitions, finance and operations at The Power Plant to assistant director under Burke, and is now chief, exhibitions and collections at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Thompson was one of a group of women who signed an open letter of support for Burke in January.

“Gregory has long supported Indigenous, female and LGBTQ artists and has worked diligently to ensure an equal voice for these communities. He has also fastidiously supported equality in the workplace. We know, because we have been there with him, worked closely with him and engaged with him on all fronts,” the letter, initiated by Harris, states.

“As women colleagues we stand publicly with this letter to confirm our own positive, personal experiences with him over the years.”

The board is in the midst of choosing the next CEO. Among the qualities they’re looking for are “a visionary leader, someone who understands the art world but can bring new ideas to us, can work in the community, has the ability to also to inspire the staff, gain their support … really prioritize trust, have respect for the staff underneath them,” says Doug Matheson, an RBC Dominion Securities Saskatoon branch manager who was appointed the new board chair in late February, after nearly a year with an interim chair in place.

“I just think that if, we get this right and trust me, we will … by this time next year, everyone’s going to have a big smile on their face.”

On a recent Friday night at Remai Modern, young couples were among those strolling through the galleries, recognizing with delight artists’ names on the wall plaques, and posting photos to Instagram. Filtering up the airy atrium from the second floor were the happy sounds of clinking glasses and thank-you speeches at a reception celebrating the opening of a new exhibition.

There was no sense of the turmoil that has been making headlines. As for the impact on admissions, memberships and fundraising, that will come to light with the release this spring of the annual report and financial statements for 2019.

Right now at Remai Modern, the Sonnabend Collection exhibition, initiated by Burke, features that world-class art he and Ellen Remai dreamed of bringing to Saskatoon. The concurrent exhibition, Next Year’s Country, includes work by a number of Saskatchewan artists including Edward Poitras, Joe Fafard, Wally Dion, Mary Longman and David Thauberger.

Beyond the gallery walls, even people who have been critical of what has happened at the Remai say they wish the best for it.

“I’m extremely proud to be part of the team that brought Remai Modern to life. It was a spectacular journey. And a lot of people put a lot of time and energy into that, especially Gregory. He led that vision singlehandedly … with the board’s support,” Harris says. “My wish is that the board and the new CEO is able to recognize the vision and to, in some form, carry that vision forward.”

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