Public Discourse and the Arts in Saskatchewan

Recently I had a short but heated exchange on Twitter about the Mendel's plans to change its name to the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. I said: The Mendel will always be the Mendel. I find the title 'Art Gallery of SK' insulting to all the other museums in the province. I also discussed it briefly with another artsy type on Twitter who mentioned that at the recent Arts Congress there was some heated conversation about it to which I replied:That would have been an interesting discussion! I don't think the Mendel has thought through the PR implications.

No doubt my tweets weren't terribly enlightened but it's hard to get deep into the heart of a political argument in 140 characters, especially for someone like me who always errs on the side of using way too many words to express a point. I have strong feelings about the name change, which are rooted deeply in my history of working in the arts in Saskatchewan - close to five years at the Saskatchewan Arts Board first in grants administration and then in communications, nearly three years leading the PR effort at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and two years of volunteering on the board of the Arts Alliance (note that I am not speaking for these institutions in this post - the opinions expressed are completely my own). This does not even begin to run through the arts organizations I worked for on a part time or casual basis while in university. Despite moving to the United Kingdom a few years ago, I have continued to foster a deep appreciation of the arts community in Saskatchewan and am all too familiar with the important advocacy work that goes on behind the scenes to secure even the modicum of funding stability needed to keep things running. So imagine my surprise when someone I've never heard of or met tweeted this at me a day later:
@amythibodeau: Is the University of Saskatchewan insulting to all other provincial schools?

followed one minute later by: People who don't understand art galleries should not have an opinion about the Art Gallery of SK.
Yikes! Really?

My reasons for not supporting the Mendel's name change are fairly complex and have to do with them making the decision without consultation or even fair warning to the other museums in the province. When I worked at the MacKenzie, it felt like people were often trying to pit us against the Mendel - it was the Saskatchewan arts scene version of the 'feud' between Lady Gaga and Katy Perry - it was a fiction but one that people seemed to want to believe in. Whenever something controversial would happen at the Mendel, I would inevitably get calls from journalists wanting to know our position, which was always: we love the Mendel, we support the arts in Saskatchewan as a whole and we work together (and with other Saskatchewan museums) to do everything we can to ensure that the arts are widely supported. I often spoke to the marketing person at the Mendel and on a few occasions we even worked together to issue joint press releases. With very few exceptions, this collegiality was my experience while working in the incredibly vibrant arts community in Saskatchewan. We always tried to work together because we realized that fighting over funding scraps like rabid dogs only fueled the mojo behind the people who think that the arts should not be publicly funded.

So this is essentially why the name change bothers me. It was done without consultation (or with very little) and with little strategic consideration for how it would impact the wider provincial community. The name implies that there is only one premier art museum in Saskatchewan and it is located in Saskatoon and that disregards the nuanced history of the visual arts community throughout the province and the different roles institutions of varying sizes have played and continue to play in its development. The fact that the University of Saskatchewan has its name is, to my mind, pretty irrelevant to this discussion. The change sends a message to decision-makers that there is a clear funding hierarchy; by name the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan sounds like it has provincial status and value above and beyond what the other institutions in the province have and that simply isn't true - and if it is, it shouldn't be. The museum community is in a difficult situation here because to publicly speak out against the name change is to display instability and fissures to the provincial government in an environment where the arts are already the first thing on the chopping block.

I have yet to read anything from the Mendel that justifies the name change. It seems like more than anything it was a political move made to bolster the public's perception of the institution in the face of a massive capital campaign to build a new facility.

I could go on, but I suspect most of you are bored already. I think the Mendel is a great institution and that it should be supported but I think they've made a grave mistake not only in their new name choice but in the insensitive way they've gone about doing it.

Back to the Twitter comment: People who don't understand art galleries should not have an opinion about the Art Gallery of SK, which has played over in my head more than a few times over the past few days - and I should note, was directed at me by a Saskatoon-based artist. Whether you agree with my opinion about the Mendel or not, this kind of reactive nastiness does nothing to further the important dialogue that needs to continue about the state of the arts in Saskatchewan. Whether or not I fully understand or have the proper credentials should be irrelevant to my right to an opinion expressed respectfully and in the interest of conversation - in fact, shouldn't we be trying to expand the debate so that people outside of our circle feel welcomed to become engaged and passionate supporters of the arts? It is this kind of elitist reaction that gives those who don't think the arts should be publicly funded the tools they need to divide and conquer. Social media can be a great facilitator of dialogue; if supporters of the Mendel name change see a comment, even if they disagree with it, wouldn't it make sense to engage that person, bring them into the fold a little, make them feel like their voice matters, their concerns heard? If arts supporters cannot even be respectful with one another when discussing issues publicly then how can we ever hope to mount a strong advocacy campaign should those cuts come? And don't kid yourself, they are coming.

We are never going to agree on everything, but fostering a wider public discourse and activism around the arts is key to expanding support for the arts community. And it should be fostered at every opportunity in Saskatchewan and elsewhere if we ever hope to gain a foothold on stable funding.

Image Credit: Mendel - This One's For Hope by er1danus

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Amy said...

A good tidbit of information from a friend:

"The U of S was named when it was the only university in the province. The university in Regina was a campus of the U of the S until the early 70s."

Right - and because there are other museums in Saskatchewan it seems completely out of context for the Mendel to go this route.


* said...

There's only one way to solve this.

The McKenzie should change it's name to The Official Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, followed by Moose Jaw who should change their name to The Only Important Art Gallery of Saskatchewan followed by the Godfrey Dean who should change their name to The Best Art Gallery of Saskatchewan...

The Mendel fucked up.

The end.

Unknown said...

I do believe that people should be properly educated about something before they form an opinion about it, is this wrong? And that comment wasn't directed neccessarily to you, either. I know a lot of people who hear something on the street and presume it to be true. I want the arts in SK to be as vibrant as any other province, just like you do. I appreciate your point of view, but I don't really agree that it's a slap in the face of every other gallery. That's just getting too hairy... Just accept the name and the fact that it will probably become the premiere gallery in the province, now that it will be the largest. A month ago, you caught me on a day when I was listening to a bunch of narrow-minded remarks about the AGS, and feeling frustrated. I apologize, but thanks for slandering me all over the Internet.

Amy said...

Hi Crystal. The problem - or maybe challenge - inherent in a publicly funded arts system and one we worked hard to counteract at the Arts Board and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, is the notion that a lot of people think the arts don't apply to them or that they aren't allowed to participate because they aren't formally educated - they think it doesn't apply to them. Saying that people should be, what you consider to be, properly educated in order to have an opinion about the arts means that most people in the province shouldn't be allowed an opinion, yet they are essentially paying for the service. The arts are not or at least they should not be an elitist bubble where only those deemed educated enough are allowed to participate in the dialogue - that way lies the path of exclusion and puts so much of what many of us have worked for, for years at risk.

It actually isn't getting too hairy to discuss the politics of naming. The notion that a name is something political and powerful isn't something I've invented and I'm quite certain that the clever people at the Mendel well understood the implications of their name choice. Yes, with this new building it may well mean that they are the biggest gallery in Saskatchewan in size - but come on, is size really the biggest indicator of success? Judging from all the "narrow minded remarks about the AGS" you've been hearing from the throngs of the uneducated, maybe it won't be the premiere gallery. Maybe this will actually turn around and slap them in the face in a way they aren't currently anticipating. For the sake of the community of Saskatoon, I hope not, because the Mendel does some important and cool stuff. But once you start to ignore the voices of your community, you're heading down some potentially rough waters.

I'm sorry if you think I misinterpreted your comment during our Twitter exchange but this is not slander. When you entered into a discourse in a public forum with me about this topic, you opened the door to allowing me to continue the conversation. Additionally, slander implies that I said something maliciously false about you, I didn't.