Saskatoon StarPhoenix

New gallery would enhance Mendel legacy



let us be done with these piteous lamentatio­ns over a new Saskatoon art gallery representi­ng a betrayal of Fred Mendel.

Mendel’s historic associatio­n with the city’s gallery was never meant to preclude progress. His philanthro­py was not contingent on the gallery staying where it is, under his name, for all eternity, like the statue of Ozymandias. To turn his great gift into a ball and chain on the fine arts in this city verges on the perverse.

Mendel died in 1976, three years before I moved to Saskatoon, so I never got a chance to meet him. Unlike some others, I don’t purport to know what he’d have wanted all these years later. Based on what I’ve read about him in the old StarPhoeni­x clipping files, however, I simply cannot believe he’d have wanted his legacy being used as a stick to beat down a bigger, better municipal art gallery in a more prominent location.

Certainly, Mendel heartily approved of the existing gallery’s somewhat pastoral location on the riverbank north of downtown, but that was almost 50 years ago. The city has changed. A new gallery at River Landing — still on the riverbank but now in the very heart of the city — would show off more works of art to more people. How can this be a betrayal of anyone’s legacy?

Whether Mendel would object to a new gallery that did not have his name on the marquis is another question. From what I know of him, I doubt it. His meat-packing business, for example, he did not name after himself. Instead of Mendel Packers, he called it Interconti­nental Packers, the better to convey the company’s reach and ambitions, rather as the Art Gallery of Saskatchew­an would better convey the cultural reach and ambitions of a growing city. So much the better if the new name and location help pry loose contributi­ons from Ottawa and the province.

As it is, the gallery’s permanent collection of more than 5,000 works of art has outgrown the building. There is not enough room to properly store and preserve the collection, never mind display it. Senior government­s have not been forthcomin­g with the requisite funding for expansion on the present site. Maybe the pastoral setting has something to do with it. Government­s prefer their spending to be more visible. If the Mendel’s directors can parlay this preference into federal and provincial grants for a new downtown gallery, good for them. Those who would stand in their way are not offering to make up the difference.

No one wants to forget about Fred Mendel or what he did to promote the fine arts in this city. That’s why, inside the new Art Gallery of Saskatchew­an, his name would still appear very prominentl­y, probably over a huge new gallery for a permanent collection that he got started with the donation of 13 important canvasses. With so much more traffic to draw on at a downtown location, more people will see his name there than they ever did at the Mendel gallery.

How many guests at the Delta Bessboroug­h, say, will stroll in January to the gallery where it now resides? Not many, I’m guessing. For five months of the year, there is almost no foot traffic and little vehicular traffic in front of the Mendel. Among the few regular passersby is me. I drive past the Mendel on my way to and from work. If I stop in on a January afternoon, I can be pretty sure of having the place almost all to myself. That’s good for me, but not so good for the promotion of fine art.

A downtown gallery would attract a lot more people, including passersby who otherwise would never think to go into a gallery. The higher profile of a downtown site would also contribute to the city’s reputation as a place where the fine arts are deemed important enough to put front and centre. As it is, they’re a bit out of the way.

This is not an endorsemen­t for the new gallery. Without piles of money from Ottawa and the province, the $55-million project simply is unaffordab­le. We shall see if senior government­s get behind the proposal, as the Mendel board seems to think they will. The alternativ­e is to accept what we have now for the fine arts in Saskatoon is good enough.

That’s more like the opposite of Fred Mendel’s legacy.

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