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The Remai Effect

The new Remai Modern opened with a splash in Saskatoon last weekend. The question is: Where does it go from here?

By Saskatoon standards, the Remai Modern is a megaproject. And like all megaprojects, it comes with risk.

There are reasons to have concerns about the organization’s sustainability. By 2019, the Remai Modern is supposed to be self-generating $3 million per year. On the eve of its grand opening last weekend, Ellen Remai, the museum’s extraordinarily generous patron, committed to matching eligible donations towards the museum’s operations with up to $1 million annually for the next quarter-century. Yet this still leaves the Remai Modern on the hook for $2 million each year, a difficult sum to raise in a province that is no longer booming.

The good news is that before this commitment—which came along with a second promise of another $1 million for acquisitions every year for the next 25 years, bringing the Remai Foundation’s overall pledges to the new museum to $103 million—the Remai Modern’s failure was almost certain. Now, the museum is simply an extremely risky undertaking.

The museum hopes to see 220,000 visitors per year. That’s more than four times what the Art Gallery of Alberta gets in Edmonton, a city nearly four times the size of Saskatoon. Granted, the AGA’s building is not nearly as new, big or as nice, and they haven’t got millions to spend on acquiring new art. Last year, the Art Gallery of Ontario—with its incomparably larger population base, already-present tourists, vastly larger and better collection, and greater resources for big-draw exhibitions (the AGO’s annual operating budget is at least 10 times larger than the Remai’s)—saw 965,000 visitors. Clearly, the Remai Modern is ambitious—perhaps madly so. Its annual target translates into 700+ visitors per day, every day that the gallery is open.

“But it’s beautiful!” some people tell me, when I voice my concerns. Yes, it is. “I will take out a membership! I can’t wait to go there with my kids!” Yes, me too. “There’s a big hotel going up next door! Tourists will come!” they insist. Every second headline reads “Canada’s Bilbao!”

Let’s think about the tourism thing for a moment, shall we?

First, the idea of the so-called Bilbao effect—that a single art museum can transform a city—is, as architecture and design critic Edwin Heathcote noted in a February 2017 article in Apollo, “a massive oversimplification.” Bilbao was already undergoing a process of major transformation before its signature, titanium-shielded Frank Gehry building, a branch of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, was finished. This included a new metro system, river clean-up, re-investment in the city centre, and more. Likewise, the Remai Modern began as part of an already underway downtown revitalization scheme.

Like the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Remai Modern is conceived in no small part as a tourist draw. It has claimed it will support 292 full-time equivalent jobs, generate $30.4 million in output and $10.4 million in labour earnings annually in its first two years, based on a combination of projected museum expenditures and the museum’s tourism impact.

Is this optimistic? There are no direct flights to Saskatoon from centres like New York or Los Angeles. (It took one of my friends eight hours to travel from Ottawa for the opening.) We are a province of one million people in a territory just a little bit larger than France (or close to 1.3 times larger than Spain). We do not have northern Spain’s enviable climate, population base (there are 2.19 million people in the Basque Country alone), or proximity to other cities, and the Remai does not have the Guggenheim’s collection. Even in 25 years, the Remai Modern’s collection will not match Bilbao’s. Since it opened in 1997, the Spanish museum has spent 92 million euros (roughly $140 million CDN) on acquisitions.

And how great is the Bilbao effect, anyway? As Heathcote notes: “severe poverty has increased in Bilbao since 2000 by 33 per cent and today affects 11.5 per cent of Bilbao households, a figure that is twice the average for the Basque Country as a whole.” While jobs have been created because of tourism to the city, the resulting employment is “characterized by a relatively small number of highly paid managerial jobs and a much larger number of low-paid, unskilled jobs in the service industry.” Saskatoon should be careful about what it wishes for.

On the other hand, Bilbao’s art scene has flourished since the opening of the Bilbao Guggenheim. But this is not because the Gehry spaceship landed. Rather, public officials in the Basque Country understood that if the policy objective was to transform Bilbao into a more art friendly city, art consumption was not enough—it needed to be accompanied by a strong emphasis on art production. Thus, regional and municipal authorities increased their investments in the smaller organizations that were supporting the production and promotion of local artists.

Can we expect this to be the case in Saskatoon? Under Saskatchewan’s current austerity budget, it is unlikely. However, there is always hope for change.

My feeling is that to be sustainable—not just as an organization but also as part of a thriving cultural ecology in Saskatoon—the Remai Modern will need to prioritize its engagement of local communities, including but not limited to local artists and arts organizations. This can and should be very creative, even “cutting-edge” work. To meet their attendance targets and generate the required private investments, the Remai Modern will want a brilliant team of strategists and a focus on public engagement at all levels of the organization.

Are they up for it? So far, the message has been that the Remai Modern puts “belief in art” and its international profile before its belief in the people and communities of Saskatoon. At the opening preview, executive director and CEO Gregory Burke stressed how difficult it had been to find a chief curator whose “commitment to art” came close to matching his own. He and the museum’s director of programs and chief curator, Sandra Guimarães, managed all aspects of the opening show, “Field Guide,” which saw them travelling, mostly out-of-province and abroad, a good deal over the past two years. Granted, it was crucial that this opening succeed, and I believe it has. “Field Guide” is a visually stunning exhibition, a smorgasbord of modern and contemporary artworks that illustrate the curators’ sophisticated tastes and allude to Saskatchewan’s history of engagement with American modernism through the well-known Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops.

Perhaps now Burke, Guimarães, and the board can begin to broaden their focus, and articulate a plan for the Remai Modern’s relationship to the people of our region. Maybe they will spend more time getting to know Saskatchewan communities—and not just communities of people with deep pockets. If this does not interest them—because, who knows, it might not—perhaps they can permit the rest of the museum’s experienced curatorial team to exercise their connections with the place they live. Public engagement is not solely, or even primarily, about exhibiting the work of local artists. It’s about listening to and learning from the values, concerns and histories of the public, and working with that public, in a wide variety of ways, to set direction and co-produce programming.

We don’t need this in year one. People will come in droves to see the new building through 2018. They will pay the $12 admission fee ($10 for students and seniors). We need this for the Remai Modern to continue as a museum, and not a subsidized wedding hall, deeper into Saskatchewan’s uncertain future.

When my friend Franklin Sirmans became director of Pérez Art Museum Miami, he was quoted in the New York Times, explaining why his museum fully embraces its local connections. “We’re here,” he said, referring to Miami, “and we should be able to do ‘here’ better than anybody else.” He used the example of Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, who “used to be relegated to the coat room at MoMA.” In Miami, Sirmans said: “here he’s our Picasso.”

Who is Saskatoon’s Picasso? Currently, at the Remai Modern, well—it is Picasso.

A thorny problem for the Remai Modern is the museum’s relationship to local Indigenous communities. How will reconciliation take place in a museum of modern art? From Paris to Vancouver to São Paulo, modernism was built on a notion of progress that required the cannibalization of Indigenous and Black bodies and cultures. Remai Modern management avoided directly addressing this problem by delegating the curation of an opening installation to Tanya Lukin Linklater and Duane Linklater. Their Determined by the river is a strong concept—some might even call it an institutional critique—with outstanding works by 16 Indigenous artists from the permanent collection, including Saskatoon residents Ruth Cuthand and Lori Blondeau. However, Burke has promised to set “a new course, a new direction, in terms of how we engage with contemporary Indigenous art practices.” Hiring Indigenous guest curators is not enough.

The Remai Modern is a beautiful building, and it has so much potential. But it won’t survive on boosterism and blind optimism. In the end, it’s the people of the Saskatoon region, from all classes and cultural backgrounds, who will make—or break—the project.


Jen Budney is an independent writer and organizer of art projects, including the 2014 conference Stronger Than Stone: (Re)Inventing the Indigenous Monument. She is also a PhD candidate in Public Policy at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan, where her research examines structural barriers to public engagement and public value creation at art museums in North America. She worked for six years as a curator at Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery.

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Marcus Miller says:

Jen – a beautifully written and insightful review – and I like that you put your thoughts out on FB first. Your reaction to public comments on the indigeneity of this new (not) institution, are spot on. What I was so impressed with, when I moved to Saskatoon was, not only the amazing allegiance people here seemed to feel toward their gallery (free – every day), but also how remarkably top-heavy (the high proportion of curators) the Mendel was. What a great relief it seemed, after experiencing such blatant hierarchy at comparable institutions. Of course, the coarse elitism of the art world is typical and runs deep. Moving on, I hope all the smart people at the Remai (its strongest assets) are valued and that the structural reforms (c.f. a few years back: Gerald McMaster as Curator of Canadian Art, AGO, notwithstanding subsequent developments) as you and others have called for, are taken to heart by management and board. As for Picasso – it’s a terrific installation of the lino prints Ellen Remai bestowed to us – and great to have. What to do with it: Ryan Gander was smart, but going into the future, “Who is our Picasso” is a great question.

Haema Sivanesan says:

Thank you for this important article, Jen; a substantial counterpoint to Marsha Lederman’s cheerleading review in the Globe and Mail. The corporatization, narcissism, and bullying that is driving this approach to the visual arts in Canada must be closely examined, before it altogether undermines the unique purpose, strengths and ecology of the arts in Canada.

Nemo says:

An alternative take that may or may not be a response to this FB post / Op Ed, that offers some facts and on the ground analysis. Its good to balance some overt doom & gloom with some informed and positive opinions, too.

Lizzy says:

re the Star Phoenix, Tiffany Paulsen was a Saskatoon city councillor and past Board member of the Mendel/Remai. I hardly think her analysis is “balanced”. The Mendel/Remai Board’s blatant disregard to investigate community concerns regarding the treatment of staff at the Remai would be a case in point.

Nemo says:

Perhaps. Along those same lines, the author is a loud proponent of the University of Saskatchewan, which has in the last six years faced serious allegations of institutional racism on two different occasions, and is currently flailing under a deficit that is only getting worse….and whose treatment of staff (as with the TransformUS debacle which is still to be resolved in various lawsuits, and made national and international headlines) and disregard of community concerns is exponentially larger than what is alleged at the Remai. But that kind of hypocrisy is common in the Saskatoon visual arts community.

Zamma Henders says:


Bart, your rhetoric has always tended to ring hollow where the Saskatoon visual arts community is concerned. If you were to read the article with more care, you’d find that the author is very supportive of the Remai, but understandably concerned with very valid problems that institution faces. Far too many Remai stakeholders and supporters are resorting to name-calling and anonymous sniping at the slightest Remai criticisms, as if boosterism is the only route to the Remai Modern’s success, and as if fair critique of the Remai’s current strategy is somehow akin to an act of disloyal sabotage. Sticking our heads in the sand does no service to the Remai Modern … it needs concerned critique more than it needs blind faith.

Frank Garry says:

I likewise like this sober assessment of the gallery and its future.
After visiting the gallery, however, I was largely unimpressed with anything but the views. There’s no flow to the building: you get to each new floor and wonder where you’re supposed to go next instead of there being some logical progression from one room/theatre/gallery to the next like in the AGO, the Tate Modern in London or the Pinchuk Gallery in Kiev, Ukraine. The signage is simplistic at best and while the security was ample inside, it wasn’t (nor is it) their job to direct people where to go. The program guide for Field Guide was similarly underwhelming given that you’ve got all sorts of people wandering about now knowing where to go and not being given a proper “road map” to do it.
While a city as small as Saskatoon can’t grab the biggest and most eye-catching artists in the world to be part of the opening of a place as relatively insignificant (yet) as the Remai Modern, the choice of exhibits was nonetheless disappointing. The performance art was a yawn and completely without point to most observers, the Field Guide collection looked like it was thrown together rather than stimulating a real sense of the city’s connection to the river, its fluidity and its original Aboriginal denizens, and the idea that a full tour of all exhibits at the gallery should take approx. 90 minutes is laughable when two of the video presentations alone topped out at 68 minutes between them; you’re apparently supposed to run through all the other exhibits without actually taking any of them in and only give yourself enough time with the videos to ascertain that they are, in fact, “art”.
The delay of the gallery’s opening was, from lots of whispers through the grape vine, because the team of planning architects did not include anyone from Saskatoon or area. Talk about not appreciating context: as exemplified by the problems with other large structures built along the riverbank in recent decades, the banks of the South Saskatchewan River are not stable – it is a river that has shifted over the millennia – and the builders erred in their calculations. How much did the building sink/shift/settle above and beyond what they’d figured? Hard to say. But from a timeline consideration, two years (and the cost overruns this entailed) should have meant someone’s head rolled. But that didn’t happen and wasn’t going to because there’s no accountability here. It took them long enough to dismiss someone with racist leanings from the board because so many people associated with this project are tone-deaf. It’s the emperor’s new clothes all over again. And if anyone paid attention to what voters were saying publicly and privately ahead of the last election, there is intense and widespread soreness over the closure of the Mendel and the cost overruns at the Remai. This kind of negative sentiment cannot be discounted, especially when you factor in that people living in the suburbs (and who already hate going downtown because of the perceived parking shortage or costs associated with it) will hesitate to visit since there’s not a lot of parking near the gallery (due in part to construction that will last for at least another year or two). That’s not been addressed by anyone.
As you say towards the end of your piece, the gallery has to be part of a larger consideration of the arts in Saskatoon. If the current city council and admin wants the gallery to be successful going forward, projects such as Artspace Saskatoon (to transform the old bus barns in Caswell; have to be emphasized and encouraged, not mired in red tape and out-moded thinking habits. The gallery has to be part of something larger in the community. The “build-it-and-they-will-come” fantasy is quickly going to be proven to be just that if more is not done citywide and in the wider world to develop the story of Saskatoon as more than just an isolated prairie town with an art gallery.
Now to speak of the elephant in the room: there was virtually no Aboriginal engagement as part of the opening. Was there a pipe ceremony or powwow to open the gallery? Were any local elders asked to be part of the opening? I haven’t heard of anything of the sort, so as far as connecting with the Aboriginal community, that’s already telling.
If the next exhibit and future ones are sleepers like this one, they’re not only going to fall far short of revenue and attendance figures, but they’ll be desperate to ensure they get all the weddings and corporate bookings you fear because there simply will be no other way to feed this beast.

Michael R. Gaudet says:

Sounds like yet another elitist, out-of-touch “institution” that will only succeed in further alienation of the public… who I daresay would love to see engaging, enlightening artwork. As a whole, we are not stupid or ignorant and can actually comprehend when we are being lead down yet another fake garden path. It leaves me wondering, will the guest/comment book be over-flowing with effusive compliments and wonderment? Take a look. I think you will see it is not. Put me down as “snooze-fest”.

Kino says:

As some respected Canadian artists once said, “It’s all privileged art”

Kino says:

Apologies – “It’s still privileged ar.”

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