In a tucked-away corner of the Remai Modern, a major new art museum in Saskatoon, Canada, the walls of a small antechamber are frescoed with colorful geometric figures of musicians and artists. This is one of the earliest works of color-field painter William Perehudoff. Back in 1944, Perehudoff was a wannabe, a curious farmer tip-toeing into Saskatoon to check out the lively arts scene. He fit right in and stayed, and when his job ended at the meatpacking plant, the plant’s owner, Fred Mendel, agreed to sponsor his painting career, eventually commissioning these murals for the factory’s reception area, which doubled as an artist salon. Mendel was an outsider himself who had fled Nazi Germany and found a warm welcome in Saskatoon. In turn, he and his family nurtured regional artists for decades. In 1964, they helped found the Mendel Art Gallery, a much-beloved public art museum that flourished for the next half-century.
For the museum that now replaces the Mendel and takes over its collection, this story is more than an inspiring tale of origin; it is a reminder of the importance of the bond between an institution and its community. The Remai Modern, which opened last October, aspires to join the international art circuit and has acquired a comprehensive trove of Picasso linocuts and other blue-chip works to that end. But the museum’s strongest asset may in fact be its unique local roots.
The museum is named after its chief benefactor, arts champion and Saskatoon real estate royalty Ellen Remai. By 2012, she had already donated $30 million to the new arts center when she heard that 405 Picasso linocuts from the ’50s and ’60s were up for sale. It was kismet that the London seller was also a native of Saskatchewan Province. “I knew that [the Picassos] would put the Remai Modern on the world stage,” Remai told the crowd at the museum’s opening.
The museum’s other showstopper is the building itself (by Bruce Kuwabara of the firm KPMB), which is a triumph of form following function. Its cantilevered public spaces urge visitors to connect, via walls of glass, with the South Saskatchewan River; a massive fireplace turns the atrium into a cozy den; and hushed, boxy caves give the art room to breathe.
In their own spacious gallery hang a remarkable handful of modernist Canadian landscapes, Mendel’s original gift to Saskatoon. A wistful guide recalled the less-than-transparent decision in 2009 to shutter and replace the Mendel, rather than renovate and expand. “People were heartbroken. This room is for them.”
“Field Guide,” the inaugural exhibition (through February 25), is rich with high-profile artwork, including Haegue Yang’s venetian-blind cubes floating over the atrium and Gabriel Orozco’s Japanese-inspired measuring rods.
But the real treasure of the Remai Modern’s collection is found in its vi- brant, homegrown indigenous art, inherited from the Mendel, which cultivated First Nations artists. In a beautiful and provocative show, “Determined by the River” (through January 7), Ontario artist-curators Duane Linklater and Tanya Lukin Linklater have placed works from that collection onto a giant whitewashed raft, as artifacts recovered from the institution’s past. “Indigenous people have always had an uncomfortable relationship with museums,” says Lukin Linklater, whose show’s critique is aimed, in part, at the Remai Modern itself.
For several years, local artists have challenged the new museum to more assertively build on the Mendel’s legacy of support and inclusion: a fair expectation, given Saskatchewan’s large, fast-growing indigenous population and Canada’s efforts to reckon with its colonial history. Encouragingly, the new museum is listening. In November, it hosted a public conversation with the Linklaters and other indigenous artists and thinkers, who voiced their concerns directly to museum leadership. That dialogue will continue in 2018 as the Remai Modern develops local programming to accompany a controversial new show traveling from the Whitney Museum in New York, Jimmie Durham’s “At the Center of the World” (March 23–August 5), which has reignited debate over the artist’s Cherokee heritage.
Beyond its walls, the museum has a fertile spirit to draw on as it evolves. At the Saskatchewan Craft Council, smaller Saskatoon galleries PAVED Arts and AKA, and the cafés of the city’s Riversdale neighborhood, the communal arts scene that nurtured William Perehudoff still thrives. And just outside of town, on the blustery prairie, sits Wanuskewin Heritage Park, which includes an archaeological site and a bold, expanding gallery of contemporary indigenous art. Ruth Cuthand, the artist in residence through 2018, leads a lively community beading workshop that’s free and open to the public.
Cuthand’s own beadwork in the Mendel collection offers the perfect metaphor for the museum’s current moment, according to former Mendel curator Jen Budney. The works look like microscope slides of “first contact” viruses exchanged by Europeans and indigenous peoples, rendered in the colorful glass beads that were traded for furs. At once tragic and beautiful, the works inspire hope. Indigenous peoples and colonizers, “we are all in this together,” Budney insists. Cuthand’s art is “a call for us to move forward together ethically.”