THE REMAI MODERN opened on October 21 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. A city of 250,000 founded as a dry temperance colony, supported by stores of potash and oil, and frequented by hobby hunters dispersing into the great Canadian prairies, Saskatoon would seem an unlikely place for a 130,000-square-foot beacon to modern and contemporary art. While a precirculated press release notes that its “launch aligns with the international trend of world-class museums opening in unexpected destinations”boilerplate become gospel in the first weekend’s official ceremoniesthere is much that such an appeal to art world universalism occludes, assumedly by design. Executive director and CEO, Gregory Burke (most recently at Toronto’s Power Plant), and director of programs and chief curator, Sandra Guimarães (by way of Portugal’s Serralves Museum), took pains to insist upon the “world-class”–ness of the building and its programs. The former is impressive, to be sure: Cantilevered over a bend in the South Saskatchewan River, architect Bruce Kuwabara’s homage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is gorgeously sensitive to geography and shifting light (not for nothing do the province’s license plates read “Land of Living Skies”); it is also willfully ambitious, with high and well-proportioned exhibition spaces scaled for art without being disproportionate to the body. Outside, its facade is assertive, even as it shares a wall with a neighboring performance venue. The nascent arts complex is flanked by the construction of a hotel and luxury residential development. Farm-to-table restaurants and the like have already sidled up to this burgeoning “River Landing,” even as a forsaken Sears was liquidating its stock just a few blocks away.
I was told by a travel bureau representative that the parcel was considered first for a sports hall of fame or for a Space Needle–like spire, and the Remai Modern’s bid for tourism is no doubt commensurate with this larger civic mandate, one which includes projected economic impact in jobs beyond the anticipated revenue from visitors. Indeed, there is an unmistakable pragmatism underpinning its rhetoric: philanthropist and namesake Ellen Remai, who contributed an astounding $16 million for the building and $15 million for international programming, as well as pledging $1 million a year for art purchases for the next twenty-five years, described her further gift of a comprehensive suite of some four hundred Picasso linocut prints, currently installed by Ryan Gander, as a “merchandising” prospect. This unapologetic, even strategic commercial opportunism, which she proffered in the context of a public opening, seemingly responds to criticism of profligacy and hubris mounted in the course of building of Remai Modern. (See, for example, this.) In short, Remai Modern surpasses and effectively entombs the collection of it precursor, the Mendel Art Gallery (this passage is acknowledged on wall labels that distinguish the core works as “Mendel Collection at Remai Modern”). The Mendel Art Gallery was founded in 1964 and shuttered in 2015, with plans for the new museum already well underway. The Remai Modern and its 8,000 pieces exist because the Mendel does not, though it is legally a separate organization with its own board, and about twenty of the previous staff made the institutional transition intact.
The conversion of one to the other is a story involving multiple plot lines: of sentimentality for a lost past and the person of Frederick Mendel, a heroic cultural proponent of a free, public venue, who also happened to be a refugee from Nazi Europe and the founder of the meat-processing giant Intercontinental Packers; shifting values in an agrarian culture; and mostly, community activism and skepticism of what so much money, including a sizable amount committed by the Saskatoon City Council to erect the structure and now to keep it operational, will give back. The issue then is perhaps less a justification of the Remai Modern’s right to exist, and in this location, as it is one of its obligations now that it is there. Of course, there are requisite educational programs and a well-appointed studio outfitted with artisanal cubbies and elegant, diminutive stools. Community events are forthcoming, on and offsite. And thanks to another donor, admission is waived six days a year for five years (hardly a windfall), though the lobby gallerythe “Connect Gallery” as it is appropriately calledis always accessible without a ticket. Then there is the matter of programming and how it will communicate solidarity in practice. That the outward-facing projects thus far enlist nonstaff facilitators might be read somewhat skeptically. On the face of it, artists serving as guest curators also shoulder the responsibility of facilitating engagement. Currently an excellent collaborative installation and discursive program by Tanya Lukin Linklater and Duane Linklater, Determined by the river, 2017, brings together histories and objects relating to Indigenous ideas about the waterway, and also foregrounds the displacement of materials from communities and their installation as artifacts in museumsin general and rather more specifically; an upcoming project by Thomas Hirschhorn entitled What I can learn from you. What you can learn from me. will foster a non-hierarchical theatre of mutual recognition. Or such is the hope.
In the meantime, “Field Guide,” curated by Burke and Guimarães, serves as the official inaugural group show. It comprises selections from the permanent collection alongside recent projects and installations, including Lawrence Weiner’s apt MANY THINGS LEFT ON THE BANKS OF RIVER INEVITABLY TO BE SWEPT INTO THE FLOW, 2013. Equally resonant: Pae White’s neon installation of graphic glyphs dotting the central stairwell is a form of light therapy conceived to offset Seasonal Affective Disorder (she designed and coded the software for the occasion). The galleries elsewhere harbor a capacious range of work, from Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Tristan Bera to Walid Raad, Rosemarie Trockel to Anton Vidokletogether with Canadian exemplars from the Mendel (Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, and David Milne) and contemporary artists from the region (Bob Boyer, Eli Bornstein, and Kara Uzelman). The lion’s share of work is “world class” and omnipresentbut many pieces are being shown in Canada for the first time. In this, the title suggests a process of discovery of the art world’s flora and fauna, and at best this experience is reciprocal. Uzelman’s installation dealing with the locality's involvement in the psychedelic movement was one such find for me, to say nothing of reconsidering the legacy of Clement Greenberg’s role in the development of abstraction through his association with the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops (that is likewise signaled in the title’s additional reference to Color Field painting).
What was downplayed to a surprising extent (the Linklaters’ intervention stands as the conspicuous exception) is not only Indigenous art from the period under consideration, but an acknowledgement of the periodization as such registered in this organization, for it admits the positionality as long since determined. The museum characterizes its purview as the “art of our time, from Saskatchewan’s birth in 1905 onwards.” One might well quibble with the “our” here, or at least ask from whom this inheritance came and to whom it now belongs. On my visit, I also spent time at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a former cattle ranch that’s now an archaeological fantasia: its vast reserve shows off a boon of historical artifacts evidencing human occupation across some 6,400 years. Located near downtown Saskatoon, the park is a sobering reminder of a different kind of time, and a different model of stewardship. Saskatchewan remains Treaty 6 Plains Cree territory and the homeland of the Métis. The galleries at Wanuskewin, the only ones devoted to contemporary Indigenous artists on the prairies, honor this. In some ways, the Remai Modern does, too, with the word for “Saskatchewan” written in Cree syllabics at the front entrance and that for “welcome” issued in six Indigenous and Métis languages displayed just inside, over a communal hearth. One can take Remai Modern at its word and imagine as more than eventuality the Indigenous programming to come. In fact, the Jimmie Durham show begun at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and now on view at the Whitney Museum in New York, arrives in Saskatoon for its final stop. A more equivocal celebration of Native culture I cannot envisage, if not in the work then certainly in the conversation it has generated. It may well be that unexpected destinations remind us where we already are. Remai Modern has an opportunity in this, too.