Friday, August 21, 2009

‘I assure you for all time, this centre will be good’: Fred Mendel; Federal gov’t stalling, breaking law on FOI requests; Province withholding records

The StarPhoenix, October 17, 1964

The StarPhoenix, June 18, 1965

In 1960, Saskatoon businessman and art collector Fred Mendel approached Mayor Sidney L. Buckwold to initiate discussions for the creation of a new civic art gallery which would provide a permanent home for the Saskatoon Art Centre. Subsequently, Mendel donated $175,000 to build such a gallery, and the amount was matched by the provincial government and augmented by assistance from the municipal government. [The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan]

In a letter to the mayor on August 14, 1961, Mr. Mendel asked the city to “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,” he said.

At the official opening of the Mendel Art Gallery on October 16, 1964, Mr. Mendel told an audience of civic and provincial dignitaries, artists, and many private citizens that, “I could not visualize it would be so beautiful. I am in love, not for the first time,” he laughed, “but I am in love with this beautiful building and the perfect site on which it has been set on the bank of the river. This beautiful creation of a gallery and conservatory combined in one unique building will be one of the beautiful spots of the world. It cannot be created again. There is only one.”

Mr. Mendel, according to The StarPhoenix, recalled his father’s advice, “watch your name. If your name is good, then everything is good. I assure you for all time, this centre will be good.” [Gallery-Conservatory idea “stroke of genius” (StarPhoenix, Oct. 17, 1964)]

This does not sound like someone who would appreciate, let alone support, having their name and legacy trampled upon like it is today.

On April 3, 2009, Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight announced that construction of a new art gallery at River Landing, to be known as the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan (AGS), is being proposed for federal infrastructure funding under the project category of sport and culture. The long-planned renovation and expansion of the current facility would be abandoned. The proposal, developed in secrecy, only became public at the last minute. The Mendel family, gallery members, donors and the public were not consulted.

Adding insult to injury was the Mendel name being callously omitted from the official news release and glossy brochure that were distributed at the press conference, and also absent from board chair Art Knight’s op-ed published in The StarPhoenix on April 4.

At a presentation on June 17, 1965, the Mendel family offered 13 paintings to the gallery to form the nucleus of a permanent collection.

“When this child was born,” said Mr. Mendel, referring to the Mendel Art Gallery, “it needed help to walk. It is not enough to bring something into this world without giving it the necessary frame.”

The gallery, he continued, needed a permanent collection, paintings to hang that would attract people and give joy and happiness to all, including his family who had lived with most of the paintings for a long time and who were happy to see them hanging in such worthy surroundings.

John Climer, the gallery’s first curator-director from 1963 to 1979, thanked the Mendel family for their generosity.

“Curator-directors and boards of directors come and go,” he said. “The society and the institution live on. And so it is in the name of the Art Centre that I gratefully accept this gift from the Mendel family, to hold in trust, with pride and confidence in your selection for the enrichment of Saskatoon, the pride of the province and of the nation, and for the enjoyment of all who may visit this gallery for years to come.” [Mendel presents 13 outstanding paintings to art centre; curator lauds generous gift (StarPhoenix, June 18, 1965)]

The city and board of trustees are proposing to remove the paintings from the gallery and rip the Mendel name from the building. If this should come to pass the honourable thing to do would be for the city to return the paintings to the Mendel family along with a letter of apology.

Mr. Mendel died May 26, 1976, in Palm Springs, California, at age 87. He is buried next to his wife, Claire, at Desert Memorial Park in nearby Cathedral City.

It’s doubtful that anyone working at The StarPhoenix today ever met Mr. Mendel. That hasn’t stopped some columnists and editors, though, from suggesting that Mr. Mendel would not likely object to what the city and gallery trustees are proposing to do.

The Mendel’s had two daughters, Johanna Mitchell (1917-1999) and Eva Mendel Miller (1919- ), who, after their parents passed away, fought to keep their father’s legacy alive and intact. Who better to speak for the family? Their words certainly carry far more credibility than newspaper columnists who never met the man.

In October 2005, when the city floated the idea of moving the gallery to River Landing, Eva sent a letter to then Mendel director and CEO, Terry Graff, threatening to withdraw her support if the city followed through with the plan.

“This proposal is a betrayal of the city’s commitment to my father, Fred Mendel, when Saskatoon donated the land for the current Mendel Art Gallery in the spirit of public-minded generosity that prompted my father to donate part of his own art collection as the foundation for the public art collection it has become,” Mendel Miller said. “In this sense, the current proposal is a betrayal of the people of Saskatoon as well, who have, since the founding of the Mendel Art Gallery, enjoyed the benefit of a magnificent, growing collection housed in a beautiful, architecturally significant building.

“Unfortunately, should the art collection be moved from its current location, I regret that I will be forced to revoke any promise I have made to support further expansion of the Mendel Art Gallery and discontinue any future support of the Mendel Art Gallery.”

Graff told The StarPhoenix he’d received “a number of e-mails and countless calls, all of which disapprove of the idea.”

“We have a moral duty not to violate that moral obligation to the spirit, vision and wishes of Fred Mendel,” he said. [Mendels threaten to pull cash gift: Plan to move art gallery doesn’t sit well with donors (StarPhoenix, October 12, 2005)]

Chip Mitchell, son of the late Johanna Mitchell, said he didn’t think his family would have sanctioned the move.

“I have to put on my family hat when I think about the Mendel,” Mitchell said. “My sense is my grandfather and my mother would be very disappointed and very upset if the gallery was to move.”

Two decades ago, the city also toyed with the idea of moving the gallery, and Mitchell’s mother, Johanna, spoke out against the move then.

“She went in and said, ‘If you want to do this, don’t expect a lot of support from the family anymore,’ ” Mitchell said.

Fred Mendel loved the gallery’s current riverbank location and parkland-surrounded site, Mitchell said. While Saskatoon is no Paris, moving the Mendel would be akin to moving the contents of the Louvre to another building, he said.

“It’s 40 years now that (building has) been associated with the Mendel, and my feeling is, if something isn’t broken, then don’t (fix it),” he said. [Council cautious about Mendel move (StarPhoenix, October 11, 2005)]

Unfortunately, Atchison and Knight seem determined to fix something that’s not broken.

In fact, on January 8, 2009, Atchison and Knight sent a letter to then Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport Minister Christine Tell saying they were “confident” that the expansion and renovation of the gallery is a “worthy and important project” that “will be successful.” Less than three months later they were suddenly telling the public that the city and gallery had somehow, almost overnight, outgrown those plans.

(It should be noted that the Mendel is still being promoted as “a Saskatchewan treasure” and “Saskatoon’s premier destination for contemporary and historical art” in brochures being distributed around the city this summer.)

On August 14, 2009, the StarPhoenix reported that city officials have presented their business case to the federal government to retain funding for the new gallery, but they haven’t heard any feedback yet on the plan. [River Landing budget balloons by $6.3 million (StarPhoenix, August 14, 2009)]

To date no federal official has spoken publicly about the project and at least two federal departments are dragging their heels in responding to freedom of information requests.

On April 15, 2009, an access to information request was submitted to Infrastructure Canada (IC) for any records regarding the Mendel or the proposed new gallery. The department received the request on April 23, 2009.

On May 15, 2009, IC advised that a 30-day extension was being applied to the request in order to conduct external consultations. Under federal law IC had until June 23, 2009, to complete the request. As of August 21, 2009, that requirement has not been met. IC has broken the law but department officials don’t seem to care. Four IC officials, including Minister John Baird and assistant deputy minister John Forster, have been made aware of the situation but neither has bothered to respond.

A similar request was made to Canadian Heritage (PCH) on June 24, 2009, which the department received on June 29, 2009. On July 22, 2009, PCH staff advised that an outrageous 60-day extension was being applied to the request so consultations could be done. The department has until about September 27, 2009, to complete the request.

At the provincial level, a freedom of information request was submitted to Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport (TPCS) on July 7, 2009, for copies of various Mendel-related records.

On August 10, 2009, TPCS deputy minister Wynne Young advised that 2 responsive records, totaling 4.5 pages were located but access to them was being denied.

“The reason for the refusal of these records,” Young said “is that they could reasonably be expected to disclose plans and procedures developed for contractual or other negotiations or considerations that relate to those negotiations. The records also could not be released as they could reasonably be expected to disclose advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed for a member of the Executive Council. Financial information supplied by a third party as well as information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to result in financial loss or gain, or interfere with the contractual or other negotiations of a third party are also reasons for refusal of these records.”

The outright denial appears to violate section 8 of The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act which is mandatory stating: “Where a record contains information to which an applicant is refused access, the head shall give access to as much of the record as can reasonably be severed without disclosing the information to which the applicant is refused access.”

On October 2, 2007, the Mendel Art Gallery entered into an agreement with the provincial government to receive a grant of $4,092,877 under the now defunct Building Communities Program “for work associated with capital development and construction of the expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery.”

The city and Mendel management would now like to see that money put toward the construction of a new gallery at River Landing. It is quite possible that some of the records being denied by TPCS are related to the two parties negotiating an amendment to the original agreement.

Earlier this year the City of Saskatoon and Mendel Art Gallery both refused to disclose any information through the freedom of information process.

It would appear that a conspiracy of silence is taking hold.


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