The security guard, with her back to the entrance of the brand-new Remai Modern, was enjoying the view inside – in between disappointing would-be visitors with the news that the Saskatoon art museum was not quite open yet. "Wow," said Sandy Netmaker, gazing up at the enormous installation suspended over the lobby. "That's a real artist."
She was admiring Haegue Yang's Four Times Sol LeWitt UpsideDown, Version Point to Point (2016-17) – dozens of white venetian blinds installed in cubes on four large aluminum hanging structures, the slats in the horizontal position letting in natural light from outside and artificial light from above.
The eye-popping installation will be the first thing visitors see as Remai Modern opens its doors this weekend, flush with another multimillion-dollar gift from philanthropist and museum namesake Ellen Remai. Designed by Toronto-based architecture firm KPMB, the 130,000-square-foot building is an architectural homage to Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style (especially his iconic house, Fallingwater); its cantilevered stacks reaching out toward the South Saskatchewan River and the community; its glass and copper-coloured mesh exterior announcing big cultural ambitions.
Inside, an atrium reaches from the lobby up to the fourth floor – the gallery's sense of space and air heightened by walls of glass looking out onto the river and interior walls painted white with some black sections – the better to make the art pop. A ribbon of perforated oak runs from the entrance area, under the grand staircase and up to the fourth floor, bringing a note of warmth
While the building, which was being scrubbed and power-washed right down to the wire this week, is dazzling, it's the art inside that brings it to life.
The museum replaces Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery and has inherited the Mendel's nearly 8,000-work collection. Executive director and chief executive Gregory Burke is very clear: This is not the Mendel in a new location. This is a continuation of its legacy, but reborn as a modern-art museum – and also showing contemporary work – for the country, and beyond.
"Our goal is to be a direction-setting museum. We want to be right at the arrowhead of the development, discussions and discourse around art itself. We spent a lot of time thinking and rethinking the question of, 'What can a museum do?' A new museum of this scale in this part of the world," Burke says. "To be constantly asking these questions is part of our vision."
Burke, who is from New Zealand, joined the gallery in 2013, following several years as director of the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto. He came to Saskatoon at the in-between time – hired by the Mendel with the mandate to open the Remai. He inherited a list of troubles; the transition from the Mendel to the Remai was hardly smooth – beginning with an often contentious debate over whether to expand the Mendel or build a new facility, and then changes, delays and budget increases to the new gallery. Still, this represented a huge opportunity.
"The Mendel Gallery was such a great legacy to build on," he said during a private tour this week. "But as well as building on that legacy, I also had the opportunity to start a new museum from the ground up, to really put the DNA into its programmatic philosophy. And that's one thing that captured me to come here and do this."
Yang's white blinds – reconfigured for this space and on loan until next year – swan over the lobby as if they were meant to be there, always; it's hard to imagine a better fit aesthetically. But this is more than window-dressing; they are very much on theme as the Remai opens its doors, finally. The work – suggesting light and transparency with some opacity – echoes the intentions of this building, in contrast to the somewhat "bunker-like" feel of the Mendel before it, as Burke described it amid the bang and clatter of last-minute preparations this week.
The other major work in the lobby is a new iteration of Los Angeles artist Pae White's Lucky Charms – dozens of colourful neon figures that are meant as a playful response to one of Saskatoon's less charming features: its winters. The work was conceived as a form of light therapy for seasonal affective disorder.
These two installations are in deliberate dialogue with each other, at the same time as they maintain a conversation with what has come before – in art (LeWitt); and in the environment (those winters).
That dialogue is a central theme of the opening show, Field Guide, co-curated by Burke and Sandra Guimaraes, director of programs and chief curator. Another major theme guiding the show is the province itself – its progressive political history, its pioneering 1950s Emma Lake Artists' Workshops and even Saskatchewan's role in developing LSD.
The museum-wide exhibition, reaching into every gallery space, was envisioned as a sort of road map. It might feel like a mishmash of artists – Cornelius Krieghoff, Pablo Picasso and Jeff Wall in the same show? Yet it works. It is a triumph of imagination.
The Remai is showing off some high-profile recent acquisitions, including 142 of its 406 Picasso linocut prints and Stan Douglas's major video installation The Secret Agent (2015), which makes its Canadian debut this weekend. (Another major acquisition, Jimmie Durham's Black bear, 2017, was not expected to make it for the opening; it has been stuck in customs in Germany because of its use of a real bear skull.)
Field Guide also includes work by Saskatchewan artists, with some nods to the province's history with hallucinogens; LSD tests were conducted in Saskatchewan in the 1950s and the term "psychedelic" was apparently invented here. Kara Uzelman's multimedia installation speaks to this. Look for the copy of Aldous Huxley's mescaline-inspired The Doors of Perception stuffed in a boot.
Major international artists in the show include John Baldessari and Christopher Williams. On Wednesday, after Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie's death, Williams's photograph, ∆d = df – dn (Harvest Season) Studio Rhein Verlag, Dusseldorf, December 17, 2016, evoked the Hip's Wheat Kings, here in the Paris of the Prairies, among all these pretty things.
An exhibition by Tanya Lukin Linklater and Duane Linklater, called Determined by the River, occupies the free, main-floor gallery. It's a collection of work by Indigenous and Métis artists including Robert Houle, Daphne Odjig and two by unknown Inuit artists. Robert Boyer's colourful blanket, Imagio Pietatis – A New Wave for Ozone (1990) is visible through the glass entrance, beckoning visitors inside.
This goal of collaboration with Indigenous peoples is crucial to the institution. "A new museum that doesn't have a history of discrimination … such as Remai Modern, has a chance to set a new course, a new direction, in terms of how we engage with contemporary Indigenous art practice," Burke says.
At the front entrance, underneath the "rRemai mModern" sign (this lower-then-upper-case business is the museum's branding), the word for Saskatchewan is written in Cree syllabics. In the lobby, the words for "welcome" in six Indigenous and Métis languages are installed over the fireplace, where it's warm.
The path to this place was nowhere near a straight line. Years were spent planning an expansion for the Mendel, before the surprise 2009 announcement that a new gallery would be built instead. This sparked some strong opposition – including from Mendel family descendants – and the launch of a Save the Mendel campaign. (The modernist Mendel building will become a children's museum.)
Originally announced as a $55-million facility, the new museum project, slated for Saskatoon's River Landing development, morphed significantly over the years, with opening dates pushed back several times. The building, much larger than the initial plan, now has a price tag of $84.6-million – up from $76-million – which does not include the cost of the underground parkade (city-built and owned).
Remai Modern is a civic institution and the city has provided a little more than $30.2-million in funding for the building project – 36 per cent of the cost. The museum opens with much fanfare (and free admission all weekend) just as the city's budget shortfall and proposed property-tax increase have been making front-page news here.
Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark, a former museum board member, has supported the new gallery project going way back; in the reception area outside his City Hall office you'll find a stack of Remai Modern brochures. But he is well aware of its detractors.
"Ultimately, we need to make sure that the community experiences value out of it," he said. "It's been a conversation and sometimes quite a polarized conversation in the community. … Lots of people are excited, but I think there's lots of people that are skeptical. So the best way for it to prove itself is for people to be able to see it and experience it."
Remai Modern and the Mendel Art Gallery before it are stunning testaments to the power of philanthropy. Late Thursday night, the museum announced that Ellen Remai had pledged more money: $1-million annually for art purchases for the next 25 years, and up to another $1-million a year in matching funds for eligible donations, also for 25 years. This is in addition to earlier major gifts from the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation (their fortune comes from real estate development), beginning with the lead gift of $31-million in 2011, and other donations, including those Picasso linocuts. It brings the foundation's total pledged contributions to $103-million.
But it all began with the Mendels. Frederick and Clare Mendel arrived in Saskatoon in 1940 with their two daughters, having fled Nazi Germany. Fred, 52, had been a successful businessman. Within a few months in Saskatoon, he opened a new venture, a meat-packing plant.
The Mendels had means, a deep love of art – and vision; they amassed an impressive collection. In the early 1960s, Fred Mendel approached the city about building a public art gallery – a thank you to the community that had provided him refuge. The gallery opened in October, 1964. The following year, the Mendels donated 13 significant works, which are included in Field Guide. The paintings – by Krieghoff, Emily Carr, Lawren Harris and others – are perhaps incongruous with the rest of the show, but meaningful.
Around the corner, meanwhile, there's another bit of history. In 1953, Fred Mendel commissioned Saskatoon-born artist William Perehudoff to paint a mural on the walls of the reception room outside his office at the meat-packing plant. Perehudoff created large figures and musical instruments. In 1977, he overpainted the original fresco in acrylic. In 2010, ahead of the plant's demolition, the murals were salvaged and carefully restored. In this exhibition, just next to a 1951 Picasso ceramic and across from a 1962 Picasso linocut print referencing Manet, the murals live again in a meticulous reconstruction, right down to outlines of electrical outlets – but minus the meat-packing stench.
This room feels in many ways like the heart of this exhibition and this building, and what they represent: an appreciation for Canada and its artists, for art, for cutting-edge modernism – and history. Also the grit of money-making – a necessity – offset by the beauty of visual art – another necessity.
Remai Modern opens Oct. 21 in Saskatoon (remaimodern.org).