Year-End Wrap Up!

December 1, 2009

For this month’s column, I am touching briefly on a few topics that I have wanted to mention for awhile.

First, a bittersweet initiative in Saskatoon: Many art lovers in Saskatoon are upset that their City is going to close their beloved Mendel Art Gallery (casting off its name and legacy and its historic modernist building in a stunning location on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River) in order to open a new facility. The change in direction happened without public consultation and appears to have been “engineered” by the Mayor and city councillors.

Yes, there is going to be a new and larger facility. But there may also be trouble ahead if Mendel family members seek to withdraw the heart of the Mendel collection – a large body of work that includes thirteen works by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries – as a result of the decisions at City Hall. Worse, the new gallery will, in all likelihood, lose the ongoing financial support that the Mendel/Mitchell family has been providing.

Fred Mendel was a successful entrepreneur and art collector who, in the early 1960s, launched the development of the gallery that now bears his name by donating a large sum of money to the City to build the gallery. The city matched the funds, and in October of 1964, the Mendel Art Gallery opened its doors in a building that remains one of the province’s finest examples of modernist architecture. The following year, Mr. Mendel donated the Canadian heritage artworks that formed the heart of the institution’s permanent collection.

That collection has grown to 5000 items, and in the 45 years since its opening, the gallery has earned its place in the hearts of Saskatoon’s citizens – not only for its collection and exhibitions, but also because of its form and stunning location.

In April of this year, however, the directors of the Mendel Gallery voted unanimously to move from their current site into a new building in a development called River Landing, taking many citizens and its director by surprise. The Mayor and Council, according to Mendel granddaughter Camille Mitchell, stacked the deck by appointing fourteen out of sixteen Mendel directors and by ensuring that Art Knight (who was also on the mayor’s special volunteer steering committee charged with finding an attraction to anchor the new development at River Landing) became its board chair. It was the revised board’s decision to abandon the site and building beloved by so many, and this is upsetting for many art lovers across Canada.

This past July, the Mayor and the city’s councillors incorporated The Art Gallery of Saskatchewan Inc. as a not-for-profit charitableinstitution with themselves as its board of trustees. And then, in September, the city announced that it had secured national funding to add to its own financial commitment to create a $58 million fund to build the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan to house the Mendel staff and collection.

Whereas the City and its council had initially been supportive of a move to considerably expand and renovate the Mendel gallery at its riverside site, they changed direction to inaugurate the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan and it was how the move was socially engineered that has so many people angry.

What bothers me about this development is the disrespect to the Mendel/Mitchell family and name. At a time when individual philanthropy is more important than ever due to the challenges facing corporations and governments during these harsh economic times, this move discourages individual generosity and public service.

Many institutions the world over began as private collections. From the Medici family to Bill and Melinda Gates, it is individuals who have earned and/or inherited massive fortunes that have collected, protected and donated to society, much of our international cultural artifacts. When governments disrespect these legacies they send bad signals to those who serve us so well.

If you wish to protest the decision to abandon the Mendel name and/or the building, please go to www.savethemendel.org and sign the petition.

A short rant on a pet peeve: I do not like music on visual art websites. Although I love music, and I love visual art and visiting artists’ websites, I hate it when a site includes a sound track. Music on an artist’s website says to me that the artist lacks confidence that her or his work will engage us and so music is added to “seduce” the visitor’s soul. Music on an artist’s website feels like a cheat.

Can you imagine an artist getting an appointment with a gallery director or curator and presenting their work with a sound track? I cannot (unless, of course, it is an integral part of an installation and has curatorial merit). Yet, music is increasingly used as a part of websites. I say, don’t use it – let your art stand for itself and engage our emotions, not the music that is usually the work of someone else.

Regarding 3-D pricing: I have written here many times about pricing and every time it has been about two-dimensional artwork. In response to many emails drawing my attention to the fact that many artists work in three dimensions, I wanted to briefly address why I have not written about this in the past.

The reason for this is because there is already a plethora of information on the pricing of 3-D arts and crafts available on the web. I have not bothered to, therefore, summarize the existing work of the many craft associations, ceramic cooperatives and jewelers’ associations who have posted pricing information on their websites – just Google “pricing crafts,” “pricing jewelry” or “pricing ceramics” to see the extent of existing pricing information for artists and crafts persons working in three dimensions.