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Remai Modern, Saskatoon's New $85-Million Art Museum

The scent inside the Mendel Art Gallery’s basement is a cocktail of paints, varnishes, metals and woods – intoxicating, though not unpleasant – but I’m only whiffing a fraction of Saskatoon’s largest public art vaults. Most of the gallery’s 7,500 works are encased in sedan-size wood coffins, insulated, cushioned, buckled, stacked and ready for their next destinations. A radiant Alex Janvier painting is headed for Ottawa’s National Gallery. A Lawren Harris is Toronto-bound. But the vast majority will take a quick jaunt around the bend of the South Saskatchewan River to their palatial new home, the Remai Modern, the $85-million art museum that is set to become Canada’s MoMA when it opens in October.

At least that’s the audacious hope of Gregory Burke, its founding director, who’s invited me to visit what might already be Saskatoon’s most iconic building. (The Bruce Kuwabara design won a 2011 Award of Excellence from Canadian Architect magazine before construction even began.) I walk there from the now-closed Mendel in 15 minutes to meet Burke, whose shirt’s backwards text would read “The End of the World” had I a mirror on hand. He leads me through the glassy cantilevered body that hugs the Persephone Theatre next door. Muffled drilling and screeching tape echo off the 40-foot-high white-oak ceiling, and orange-vested workers haul 12-foot-long baseboards on each shoulder as they add final touches. The result will be a clever tribute to the Prairies: Flat and long, boxy like old grain elevators stacked on their sides, with glass walls creating an openness that’s more than sensory. A generous portion of the Remai is free space, including a communal atrium designed around a huge fireplace.

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