Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mendel Art Gallery rejects freedom of information request, refuses to disclose records; federal government part of covert plan to move gallery

The organization at the center of Saskatoon’s latest River Landing controversy is refusing to release records that could shed light on the current efforts to have it moved.

On April 9 a request was made under The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to the Mendel Art Gallery for copies of any letters or emails between the gallery and the City of Saskatoon since February 1 regarding or relating to River Landing and/or the proposed new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. The request also asked for a complete copy of the agenda and minutes to the Mendel board of trustees March 14 meeting.

It was at that meeting when trustees allegedly unanimously approved in principle pursuing the construction of a new art gallery at River Landing. Rumours have been circulating, however, that the vote by trustees was not as unanimous as people think. It has been suggested that at least one trustee abstained from voting. Another is that one trustee couldn’t attend the meeting because of scheduling conflicts. Of course only those present at the meeting know for sure but, unfortunately, the organization is refusing to disclose any information.

In a letter dated April 17 Mendel director and CEO Vincent Varga said, “While I appreciate your request for information, the Mendel Art Gallery (Saskatoon Gallery and Conservatory Corporation) is exempt from this legislation and therefore not compelled to respond to your request. I would recommend that you contact the City of Saskatoon if you wish to pursue this further.”

A follow-up email to Mr. Varga on April 23 asked, even though the gallery might not be subject to provincial legislation would he consider releasing the information requested anyway. The answer was still no.

“I appreciate your second request for releasing information as described in your earlier correspondence. Consistent with good governance practice, this material is considered to be private and confidential and therefore the Gallery cannot release it to the public,” Varga said in a reply later that day.

It is disturbing that Mendel management feels the public has no right to know its business. The Mendel is a publicly owned and taxpayer funded institution. According to the city’s 2009 preliminary operating budget the gallery’s operating grant for this year is $2,064,900. This is up from $1,864,000 million in 2008.

The Mendel Art Gallery opened on October 16, 1964. The event was made possible, in part, by generous donations made by Saskatoon businessman Fred Mendel.

On June 17, 1960, Mendel announced he was making a $75,000 gift to the city to help fund the construction of a new art gallery in Saskatoon.

The StarPhoenix reported that the gift ‘was one of the largest of its kind ever given to the citizens of Saskatoon.’ [$75,000 Art Centre Gift to City (StarPhoenix, June 17, 1960)]

In making the gift Mr. Mendel said, “Over 20 years ago I came from Europe to make a new life in Canada. Today I am celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of my business in the city of Saskatoon. In that period of 20 years, my business has prospered. Saskatoon has been good to me; it has become my second home.

“To express my gratitude for the privileges of Canadian citizenship and for the friendliness and goodwill which my family and I have found in this city, I want at this time to make to the citizens of Saskatoon a gift that will help to enrich the quality of life in our city for years to come.

“Among the things that have made Saskatoon the cultural centre of the province, are the Saskatoon Art Centre and the work of local artists. For many years I, too, have tried to encourage original talent in art and the public enjoyment of art. It seems appropriate, then, that at this time I wish to give to the citizens of Saskatoon a sum of money sufficient to erect a public art gallery in this city, and I also wish to donate a group of paintings to form the nucleus of a permanent art collection in that gallery.”

Later realizing the initial donation wasn’t enough Mr. Mendel made another one the following summer.

On August 14, 1961, Mayor Sid Buckwold announced that Mr. Mendel was donating an additional sum of $100,000.

In his letter to the mayor, Mendel said: “It has become obvious that an Art Centre which will do justice to the city of Saskatoon and its citizens cannot be built with the present amount of money that is available. The building would be much too small, and a small building would not warrant a location suitable to the character of an Art Centre of which Saskatoon could be proud.”

Mr. Mendel attached five conditions to the gift with the second being: “The city will set aside for the building a plot of land on the river side of Spadina Crescent north of the Twenty-fifth Street Bridge, at the intersection with Queen Street.”

“It is my firm belief that the citizens of Saskatoon in the years to come will prize an Art Centre such as I visualize,” Mendel said.

City council, at its August 14, 1961, meeting approved the condition in principle and instructed the mayor to negotiate the matter further and report back. The rest is history.

Mr. Mendel died in 1976 at the age of 87.

At a press conference on April 3, 2009, Mayor Don Atchison and Art Knight, chair of the Mendel Art Gallery board of trustees, in a stunning act of betrayal and breach of trust to the gallery’s namesake, announced plans to move the gallery to a proposed new $55 million building located at the city’s troubled River Landing development.

The plan included stripping the Mendel name from the building and instead calling it the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. (Apparently, Mendel will be honoured somewhere in the new gallery).

The Mendel name was also callously omitted from the official news release, glossy brochure and board chair Art Knight’s op-ed that was published in The StarPhoenix on April 4.

The covert plot to move the gallery was developed in total secrecy only becoming public when the story was leaked to the media and reported in The StarPhoenix on April 1. So far along were the plans that a four-page brochure had already been printed and press conference booked.

In the news release Atchison tried to justify the despicable plan saying separate and independent projects for a River Landing destination attraction and an expanded art gallery ultimately don’t make as solid economic sense as a joint project.

“There simply aren’t enough dollars from either governments or private donors to fund many different riverbank projects. A co-operative approach – where the gallery is the destination centre is a more elegant solution for Saskatoon and the people of Saskatchewan,” he said.

What goes unsaid is that River Landing, which is fast becoming an endless money pit, was hatched behind closed doors shortly after Atchison first became mayor in October 2003. The concept plan for the area was developed quickly and shoved down the public’s throat in April 2004. That problems exist is the city’s own fault (i.e. the mayor’s obsession for a hotel).

Moneywise in the January 14, 2004, article ‘How federal cash will be spent focus of mayor, Goodale meeting’ (StarPhoenix, Jan. 16, 2004) Atchison confirmed that he wasn’t interested in spending public money on the former Gathercole site (River Landing Phase I), as some have suggested.

“For the life of me, I can’t believe we would take federal, provincial or municipal dollars on a site where the private sector has been knocking at the door,” the mayor said.

To date at least $21.65 million in taxpayer money has been either spent or committed to the site. The only thing to show for it is roads, some expensive public art and Persephone Theatre’s architecturally challenged battleship gray facility.

Another reason Atchison and Knight give for moving the gallery is that blowing $55 million on a new building makes more sense than spending $24 million renovating and expanding the current site.

“Construction of a new and expanded art gallery makes more financial sense, and delivers a better end result, than wrestling with renovation,” Knight said in the news release.

Neither the city nor the Mendel has released a business plan or drawings for the new gallery.

The strange thing is until just recently both the city and the Mendel continued to support the renovation and expansion of the current building. The excuses we’re hearing now were nowhere to be seen.

In late October, Varga told The StarPhoenix that the Mendel board reaffirmed its position in June 2008 that the gallery would remain at its present location. [Mendel forced to look for alternative funding (StarPhoenix, Nov. 1, 2008)]

In the city’s 2009 capital budget (approved December 15, 2008) page three states: “The Mendel Art Gallery Renovation and Expansion project was re-budgeted in 2009. The total cost of this project is $24 million with $12 million budgeted in 2009. This project is now into the development of detailed drawings stage in preparation for going to tender. The next stage will be the contract administration and construction; projected to take begin in 2009 as a Federal grant and Mendel Capital Campaign funding is secured. This project is subject to the confirmation of the Mendel fundraising campaign as well as senior government funding and Public Notice for borrowing.”

The budget document notes that a grant application has been submitted to the Buildings Canada Fund in excess of $7 million. There is absolutely no hint that moving the gallery was being contemplated.

Then on January 6, 2009, the Mendel posted a message to its blog with the heading ‘Advocacy on behalf of the Mendel Art Gallery.’ The open letter from board chair Art Knight and director Vincent Varga asked the public to show its support for the renovation and expansion plan by sending a message to Saskatoon’s four Conservative MPs: Kelly Block (Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar), Bradley Trost (Saskatoon-Humboldt), Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin) and Lynne Yelich (Blackstrap).

“The Mendel needs your help!” Knight and Varga said.

“The Federal government is poised to make important decisions with respect to investment in infrastructure as part of its economic stimulus package. The Mendel is seeking $ 7.1 Million from the Federal Government. The Mendel Art Gallery invites you to support the gallery’s renovation and expansion initiative by sending an email to your local Member of Parliament within the next 24 hours. It is critically important that the government hear from you how essential this investment in the Gallery is for our community, at this time.

“We understand that the City of Saskatoon has included the Mendel project on its list of priorities for the Canada Builds program. Also, the Gallery has recently learned through Kindrachuk Agrey, the project architects, that this project can be tender ready by March of this year! Once the Gallery has achieved approval from the City to proceed with the project, the Mendel will make arrangements for an interim location to maintain an effective presence and assure service to our community during the construction period.”

The pair suggested that email letters of support might include elements of the following text: “[Fred Mendel’s] vision remains relevant today and the Mendel is poised to enrich its commitment to service to community through a rejuvenation and expansion of its ageing physical infrastructure.”

Or perhaps this: “The Mendel is seeking $ 7.1 Million from the Federal government for completion of this project. Federal government funding is essential to the success of this project both in terms of the funds themselves and as a necessary prerequisite to the success of the Mendel’s fund raising efforts by providing the momentum to leverage private sector support. The Mendel Art Gallery’s transformation is “shovel ready” and can serve as an effective beacon signaling the gallery’s commitment to this place and its contribution to our fabric.”

Like the city’s capital budget document there is no suggestion whatsoever that moving the gallery or removing the Mendel name from the building was being discussed. Even better is the fact that Knight and Varga clearly admit the current project is “shovel ready” which is something the new gallery is not. It has to be built from scratch.

At the end of their letter Knight and Varga ask once again that emails be sent to MPs “within the next 24 hours.” The reason for the extreme urgency is not fully explained. It begs the question, what happened after January 6 that the public aren’t being told? Did the city receive word from the federal government that it would not receive funding for the Mendel’s renovation and expansion? If so, why hasn’t that information been shared with the public?

The federal government is clearly up to its neck in the plot to relocate the gallery.

The snazzy brochure that was distributed at the April 3 press conference notes the following: “We’ve fully explored the implications of expanding our old home. With our partners in the City, Provincial and Federal governments, we have come to the conclusion a new building is the best fit for Saskatoon’s expanding future and our city’s amazing new urban riverfront.”

The problem is no one bothered to let the public, or the Mendel family, in on the secret until well after the decision was made.

The federal government isn’t talking. Of all the news stories and columns that have been published in The StarPhoenix since April 1 there has not been one quote from federal officials. Why is that? Furthermore, even provincial officials seem to be silent. Justice Minister and Attorney General Don Morgan and Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport Minister Christine Tell were at the April 3 press conference and both spoke, but The StarPhoenix didn’t report it. Why? Does the newspaper know something that the public doesn’t? After all, reporter Lana Haight appears to have spoken with an unnamed ‘source with knowledge of the project’ on or before March 31 just prior to when the story first broke.

What is certain, though, is that the idea of moving the gallery and changing the name is not supported by members of the Mendel family.

According to The StarPhoenix the plan came as a total surprise to Mr. Mendel’s grandson, Chip Mitchell.

“This is a complete shock to me,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

“I think it’s a big mistake.”

“That’s definitely not the kind of pact that the city and the province entered into with my grandfather,” said Mitchell. [Mendel eyes move (StarPhoenix, Apr. 1, 2009)]

In a story published on April 2, Camille Mitchell, Fred Mendel’s granddaughter, said she was “outraged” when she got word of the proposal.

“It’s so short-term and disrespectful to the people of Saskatoon and the history of Saskatoon for a select few who want to line their pockets,” she said. “There are sizable funds that will be donated by my family if it stays at its current location. If it moves and the name of the gallery is changed that implies very strongly to us that we are, as a family, and my grandfather is being disrespected and his memory is being trashed.” [Mendel plan ‘travesty’ (StarPhoenix, April 2, 2009)]

The Mendel Art Gallery does not belong to the mayor or to federal and provincial politicians looking to further their political interests. It belongs to the people of Saskatoon. It’s time those peddling this misguided plan are reminded of that.


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