Monday, February 8, 2010


A Pan-Prairie Trip Down Memory Lane: From the Re-design of the AGA to the Impending Re-design of Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery

I was at the Art Gallery of Alberta’s swishy opening party, Refinery, for the young swish set of Edmonton last night. Perhaps what was noticeable right off the bat was the lack of strangers there, the lack of people unknown. All the people neatly clung to their identifiable groups. There were no strangers to flirt with, no one even alone, as though people don’t do that: go anywhere alone. All of them coupled off save for a few of the power lesbians in town who I am often left to flirt with by default. I had no idea art gallery openings were a date thing. I proceeded to look at this new miracle of Edmonton all by myself. Of course I did enjoy that all the ladies were in heels. The boys (even the normally gross ones) were in suit jackets from Zara, albeit some of them still wearing toques and or hoodies under their fancy suit jackets, still they were in suit jackets. Edmonton and its weather is demoralizing enough (or practicalizing) to the effect that it is hard to take off your sweats. So there we were the same old people in the same old Edmonton all dressed up to celebrate a building that is influenced by a piece of nautical Architecture from Spain?

Of course I am thrilled that Edmonton decided to sink money and invest in the art of culture, I mean our city needs this. This point was proved by this 50 something year old lady in the Degas exhibition who looked like one of my aunties from the farm. She was all decked out in a rayon pant suit and pair of gold lamé flats from Wal-Mart. Her hair looked like all your aunties hair when gussied for a wedding: puffy, hair sprayed and curled. Later she was perched on a chair with her flats off, her panty-hoed toes out in the open, smiling at me. It was 10 at night and she was enjoying herself in the Degas room, then she looks at me in her Avon made up face and giggles in an Alberta accent, “sore feet” and her husband who looks like one of my farmer uncles continues to look at the Degas sculptures. Clearly this is rewarding; this is the reason to spend the cash, to make the big fancy building that deserves a fancy event, so that people like my auntie and uncle from the farm get to come and enjoy this caliber of art. To encourage funds that support bringing Degas to Edmonton. But then the next day a sinking feeling sets in as I realize, "Oh god they are going to do the same thing to the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon."

I have a bad a really, really bad relationship with my father. Me and the man don’t speak, never have, never really connected except in the Mendel Art Gallery. At the Mendel somehow me and that old man could muster the strength to talk, just about art; nothing else, none of the complications of divorce or custody battles, or Down Syndrome or cancer or kidnapping or unspeakable events. This practice of going to the Mendel--which as a side note, I thought was called The Mental Art Gallery for people who were mentally retarded.

Image Credit: Arthur Price, "Girl With Cat"
Photograph by: Greg Pender, The StarPhoenix

When I think of the Mental Art Gallery I immediately think of coffee in a plastic cup and the sculpture Girl with Cat by Arthur Price. At the Mendel you could get a cup of coffee for 50 cents and sit in this large room that overlooked the North Saskatchewan River. A simple brown modernist room. It was not cluttered or busy, just some chairs, a few round tables and Girl with Cat. When I look at the Degas sculptures I only enjoy them because of how much it makes me think of Girl with Cat. Of course now that same room is a place where you can get lattes, but for a long time it was simple. If they tear down the Mendel where will Girl with Cat go? Will it no longer be fashionable?

My thoughts turn to the Mendel's great 60’s architecture as you enter, the great plant conservatory where you could see bananas growing on trees, real bananas which is a big deal when you are a kid in Sask and you are not even sure that banana’s could possibly grow anywhere because the place you live is so cold you are sure they make bananas from science experiments that involve a test tube. When I was eight years old I met Princess Anne at the Mendel Art Gallery, I had my first and last violin recital at the Mendel Art Gallery. I stared at the same Group of Seven paintings for my entire childhood. I thought they were boring, but they were mine. Of course I had no idea that I had spent my youth staring at the Group of Seven until just recently. This place was a perfect fit for art on the prairies. It was built by a successful meat packer in the 60’s. Fred Mendel not only donated the Group of Seven paintings, but also the cash for an art gallery as a way of saying thank you to the community where he found success. Fred fled Germany in 1940 and he wanted a building to be "one of such character and personality, even if a controversial one, that we could all take pride”. And I did take pride or at least pleasure in that building, I took pleasure in the quiet when the rest of the world stopped and all that mattered were the nicely lit rooms, the simple architecture that felt modern, unique and special. I felt special in this place. The building itself was not ostentatious; it felt like it belonged there in Saskatoon, like it belonged to the river bank on which it sat. It felt as though it had always been there. As a kid I had no understanding of art nor were my parent’s arty types. My mom was born of an uneducated Ukrainian insurance salesman and my Dads' people were from a small farm near Radisson. The Mendel was special, private and it did feel like ours, not someone else’s idea of what an art gallery is or should be. It belonged. Now they are geared to tear it down and build a new one. But that one is more than a part of my history, it is part of Saskatchewan’s history and what it stood for culturally at a particular moment in time. Why do we always tear down things that link us to our history?

Photo credit: Flickr

As I leave the new Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton late on a Saturday night, the ice that collects on the side of the building near the wheelchair ramp nearly wipes out my lady friends in their heels. Although I am in a fur coat, I am wearing sneakers and I too almost break my tail bone. The ice on the sidewalk is a permanent architectural flaw. The nautical building in the landlocked province did not account for ice and snow. And what about those windows? They are going to leak in a few years and we are going to be dumping money into the building not made for the sturdy stuff required on the prairies. What was wrong with our building before? Oh sure it wasn't as sexy and no one would have loaned a Degas to us before. I suppose it is good to regenerate interest in art and more importantly art in Edmonton, but as always a sense of nostalgia sets in when we tear down the things that are great about the prairies, and make room for things not made for us, like trying to squeeze ourselves into something we are not, like gold lamé Wal-Mart shoes, suit jackets, or galleries inspired by boats. Next time I will go to the art opening in my sweats just like I did in Bollywood, where being my prairie hick self, I was the belle of the lululemon ball.

Kristine Nutting is a prairie-based performer and playwright currently living in Edmonton, formerly of Winnipeg, and will always be a Saskatoonie at heart.


Global said...

This is really moving Kristine.

Megan said...


As a 30.5-year-old, I have similar romantic, warm&fuzzy memories of modernist architecture (which I guess is kind of ironic, eh?) Were you ever at the Winnipeg airport before they started redeveloping it?

I have to correct something, though, that's been flying around: noone has plans to tear the Mendel's current building down. There's not much seriously wrong with it -- it's just no longer appropriate for the growing gallery. The collections storage area is pitifully small (and actually had a fire a few years ago), environmental controls really difficult, and yeah, it's not a welcoming space for those giant touring shows that Edmonton was also after. And you've got to admit that it's kind of hidden away for something that's supposed to be attracting tourists. Creative cities, you know...

Anyway, the building isn't going anywhere: it will probably be repurposed into something riverbank/Meewasin related.

charlotte falk said...

I have similar memories of the Mendal Art Gallery. The sculpture, the Group of Seven, the banana trees, the clean, modernist building with warm wood and views of the South Saskatchewan...

I understand the need to move Saskatoon's primary art gallery to a new,larger location, but I hope this new structure will retains the essence of the Mendel Art Gallery, and in so doing, respect Fred Mendel's original goals for the space.

Beyond the architecture, I hope that the name 'Mendel' is not replaced with some corporation or other credit union moniker as Saskatoon seems so apt to do with it's cultural/infrastructure buildings. If it weren't for Fred Mendel's contribution to Saskatoon, who knows if we would even be in a position right now to expand our gallery?

Michael said...

I think it can be slippery to use childhood memories to validate an appeal to the past, but why shouldn't we demand that the future isn't at the expense of the past. Somehow this "finally we've arrived" prairie mindset is deja vu all over again.

In some ways the new gallery begs for this kind of response regarding the past, because of the way the old gallery is still present but repressed (did anybody get a weird sensation of the old building in the Degas/basement area?). None of the other architectural competition entries were perfect (all had merits/faults), but they did in some way deal with the old gallery as entity that they had to make peace with - as though its successes and failures had to be addressed in some way (responses treated it either as a preserved artifact, a heroic tableau, or a publicly-shamed ruin.) This built version simply hid it - cutting off the front, dressing up the back, and gussying-up the basement - doing a pretty effective job of masking it.

I think it's interesting that the reviewer uses clothes ("So there we were the same old people in the same old Edmonton all dressed up...") and makeovers ("it is hard to take off your sweats") to introduce it.With a makeover this extreme, are we moving forward or starting over?

Then again, maybe it's healthiest to just sit back and forget the old building and enjoy the present.

Daver said...

What an enjoyable and funny column. Refreshing style!

Can you get it published on paper?

Please keep contributing.

David Janzen

tish said...

this was most enjoyable, Kristine ::::

Andrew said...

I also wanted to comment that the building isn't going anywhere, but megan pretty much summed it up well. I understand the nostalgia factor, but if the building is properly repurposed as a public institution many generations hence will get to enjoy the banana tree and cafe overlooking the river etc. Saskatoon deserves a gallery that can bring its citizens the splendour of Degas and other large touring exhibits that would presently not run the risk of exhibiting in the dated space a la the Warhol exhibit in Regina that would never have come to Saskatoon