Remai Gallery Too ‘Modern’ For Us Prairie Folk

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The 10th anniversary Jane's walk will begin at Remai Modern Art Gallery, with a screening of the documentary Citizen Jane on April 26 at 7 p.m.

Former Remai Modern CEO Gregory Burke recently penned his own professional eulogy, published in the StarPhoenix.

He didn’t hesitate to point out his passionate leadership and hard work in developing our new modern gallery. He also commented that “the new gallery was never going to be the Mendel, and yet the political and philosophical debate over the Mendel versus the Remai is central to the current upheaval.”

On that, he is absolutely right.  

What he missed is that the public believed that what they were getting was an expanded version of the Mendel. 

When he and the board (which at that time included Mayor Charlie Clark) made the decision to create a modern and contemporary gallery to replace the Mendel, the public was not fully aware of the change in direction.  

When “modern” was added to the new gallery’s name, most thought it was done to avoid the acronym RAGS (Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.) 

It wouldn’t have mattered what the new building looked like because you would always have a percentage of the public that loved it, a percentage that hated it, and those ambivalent about the building design. 

What is of concern now is what is inside the building.

While it may be that Burke is a connoisseur of modern, contemporary and interactive art, the majority of us prairie plebeians don’t view, for example, a couple of pieces of wood leaning against the wall with a bag of carrots behind it (carrots that had to be replaced 25 times during the period of the exhibition) as art.

From what I hear, there was a public expectation of various art forms, including traditional, abstract and impressionist pieces, together with a variety of sculptures and Indigenous art. Periodically, there are exhibited pieces that meet those expectations, but by and large the gallery exhibits modern, contemporary, abstract and interactive art.    

Burke also commented that he toiled to build a gallery of international acclaim, but that the project was alarmingly short on funding for construction, transition and operations once it opened. 

That is a hard pill to swallow, considering the building cost upwards of $110 million, and annual operating costs were in the millions of dollars, including the 2019 subsidy of $6 million, paid by a relatively small tax base.

Added to that was the introduction of a general admission fee of $12. It is appropriate for us to thank and acknowledge the exceptional generosity of Ellen Remai and other notable citizens for their considerable donations, but perhaps it is also appropriate to acknowledge and thank taxpayers for their contribution.     

Burke said he faced the relentless machinations of city hall, with many board members commenting that he had a bull’s-eye on his back. 

He alleged that in 2017-2018, city hall engaged in an active campaign to have him removed, although the independent board members did not support that effort. He suggested that his contract renewal was delayed by five months because of it.  

Maybe it was because of three incidents of workplace harassment that were being investigated that raised a red flag at city hall, as well as a Human Rights Commission complaint?  

Although an outside consultant did not substantiate the incidents, it did result in the board incorporating recommendations from the report to create a friendlier workplace environment.  

Another red flag might have been the departure of almost half his newly-hired employees, which is a huge turn-around in staffing in any business. Maybe the board should have been doing exit interviews with those departing employees. 

Burke expressed alarm about the non-reappointment of highly ethical business leaders to the board and sabre rattling about the future of the gallery without this leadership.  

He commented that no other gallery of this scale had a process where board members are appointed and controlled by council, without noting how many other galleries are fully owned and operated by their municipalities or proposing how members should be appointed.  

Was the gallery to be run as his own little fiefdom, with council’s role being that of the banker, doling out public dollars without any expectation of accountability?  

For the record, only two board members were not being reappointed and four resigned in protest. 

I am not personally acquainted with any of these board members, but accept their credentials were impeccable and their commitment to the cause was unshakable. However, if any of these board members were advising Burke of council’s alleged hostility towards him, I can see why council might want to consider new members.  

And until proven otherwise, we should believe that the new appointees will also be highly ethical and will bring the same level of acumen and competence to the board.      

I also think it bears repeating that council is ultimately responsible to the electors for all civic facilities, regardless of the use of controlled operating boards. It is council that sets the mandates for the facilities, and the boards’ obligations are to fulfill those mandates.

Allegations of political interference abound, but the departing board members do not clearly articulate what that interference was and thus we are left to speculate. But it is not political interference for council to hold any appointed board accountable.

If the definition of success is counting the number of people who entered the building, then it was a success. However, if the definition of success is how many people actually paid admission to explore the gallery, then it fell short of the mark.  

The annual report indicates there were 44,705 general admissions, and that 40 per cent of visitors (17,880) were from outside Saskatchewan. That means that out of over 250,000 souls residing in Saskatoon, only 26,825 paid for admission to the gallery, and that presumes they were one-time visitors.  

Further, Remai’s chief operations officer, Celene Anger, said that some of the gallery’s business activities came up short of projections, and that the projected targets are being revised now that they have a real year of data to use as a yardstick.

It was the fundraising and membership drive that contributed to pushing the gallery into the black with a $52,000 operating surplus. But can the gallery be sustained in the long term through solicited private donations and memberships after the bloom of the long-awaited grand opening fades?  

Will the gallery donor dollars dry up if and when the fundraisers start beating the bushes for money for a proposed arena? Will taxpayers begin to loudly oppose any increases to future operating subsidies?

There seems to be a sense that Burke and his board’s objective was to create an international destination gallery that would attract visitors to the city from around the globe.

To his credit, Burke did a good job getting rave reviews from the critics in New York and beyond. But the gallery will not survive without buy-in from the local community.  

While it is great to invite the global community to visit our gallery, it is imperative to ensure the gallery meets the needs of the regional community, which may mean targeting some exhibitions that have more appeal to local residents. There is ample room in the gallery to satisfy the pleasure of every visitor. 

I will use this opportunity to thank past and present board members, volunteers and many other people who gave their time and skill in support of the gallery, and to the donors who contributed to its financial needs. 

I may not agree with everything that was done, but I do value people who step up to the plate with their time and resources to support their cause.    

What really transpired in this upheaval may go down in the annals of Saskatoon history as the best-kept secret at city hall. Mayor Clark is probably wise to keep quiet about it publicly, because one simple retaliatory comment might mean we, the taxpayers, may wind up paying a settlement to Burke for alleged defamation.   

When all is said and done, we have an expansive and expensive gallery on River Landing. What council and the board do in the future will determine whether we have a showcase gallery that serves our public, or a white elephant.  

ehnatyshyn@gmail.com