During the 1940s and 1950s, the focus of visual art in Saskatoon was the Saskatoon Art Centre, established in 1944 and located in the Standard Trust Building before moving to the King George Hotel in 1949. This organization hosted touring exhibitions of art and arranged shows of local artists. 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 Mendel Art Gallery & Civic Conservatory opened officially on October 16, 1964, with an exhibition of works from Mendel's personal collection. In 1967, the Saskatoon Gallery and Conservatory Corporation was established by the city. The Mendel Art Gallery is an autonomous freestanding organization, registered as a Canadian charity and certified under the non-profit Corporations Act of Saskatchewan. It is one of two public art museums designated by the government of Saskatchewan as having provincial programming responsibilities. Two members of the Board of Trustees are elected by the membership, the remainder by civic appointment; the Board appoints the director and approves policies and budgets. In a 1999 survey, the Mendel was ranked as the sixteenth largest public art gallery in Canada by budget size, with the sixth highest overall attendance in the country. It maintains four primary exhibition galleries (8,000 square feet), a Gallery Shop, a public programs studio, and an auditorium. Regular staff is assisted by an active volunteer group to provide services for openings, special events, and membership and fund-raising campaigns.
The mandate of the Mendel Art Gallery is realized through its collection, exhibitions, publications, public and professional programs, extension services, and research. The Mendel is one of the major collecting art galleries in Saskatchewan. In 1965, Fred Mendel donated thirteen paintings to the Gallery, including paintings by the Group of Seven which became the nucleus of the Gallery's collection. Over the years, by donation and acquisition, the collection has grown to over 5,000 works by Saskatchewan, Canadian and international artists in a variety of media and styles. Works from the collection are exhibited regularly in the gallery, lent to other museums for display, and are available for research. Highlights of the collection include work by major Canadian contemporary artists, the Group of Seven, historical Saskatchewan artists, and Inuit and folk artists.
The Mendel is committed to situating the production of artists from this region in a national and international context, and to supporting Saskatchewan artists through solo and group exhibitions which explore trends in both historical and contemporary art production. Staff members conduct research and produce publications that both document exhibitions and are used as critical tools to engage artists and their communities. Highlights include: The Mendel Collection; Ernest Lindner: A Retrospective; Antoni Tapies; Eric Fischl: Paintings; Western Sunlight: C.W. Jefferys on the Canadian Prairies; The Photographs of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson; Paterson Ewen: The Montreal Years; Twenty-Five Years of Collecting; The Flat Side of the Landscape: the Emma Lake Artists' Workshops; Edward Poitras: Indian Territory; Corpus; The Post-Colonial Landscape; The Urban Prairie; Dorothy Knowles; William Perehudoff; Eli Bornstein; David Alexander; Women & Paint; Reviewing the Mosaic: Canadian Video Artists Speaking through Race; Plain Truth; Paul Fenniak; Voices: the Work of Joni Mitchell; Qu'Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys; Billy's Vision; and Indivisuals.
Public and professional programs are developed in conjunction with a strategy that links the production of art to the society in which it is produced. As a consequence, the Mendel has made a strong commitment to presenting and interpreting difficult and challenging artwork in its community. Major initiatives over recent years include Something on Sundays, Open Studio, The Reading Room, and the School Tour Program. In 2000 the Curatorial Consortium, consisting of program staff, adjunct, independent and guest curators, was initiated to broaden the base of curatorial and public programs and to research regional, national and international interdependencies. The Mendel Art Gallery organizes touring exhibitions to provide increased access on a provincial, national and international level and to foster audience development, collaboration, and cross-cultural exchange.