SASKATOON -- The curious and the devoted, art lovers and tourists, local fans and international media have flocked to Saskatoon this summer to take in an unprecedented art exhibition by a woman whose talents are clearly diverse.
Voices, Joni Mitchell's first retrospective, and first Canadian exhibition, opened at the Mendel Art Gallery on June 30. Two months later, more than 67,000 people had trooped through the small, riverside museum to see the 85 works that make up the show. July attendance alone was 36,156 -- an increase of 92 per cent over the same month a year earlier. And by the time voices closes on Sunday, gallery director Gilles Hébert expects that total to reach as high as 80,000. "In a city of 210,000 people," says Hébert, "it's kind of unbelievable."
Hébert, 45, has every reason to be pleased. A succession of directors at the gallery had watched the career of Joni Mitchell, who lived in Saskatoon for much of her youth, and pondered the idea of organizing an exhibition. But none had brought it to fruition.
After a year of discussions and exhilarating, exhausting trips to Los Angeles to assess, alongside Mitchell, about 600 of the artist's works, Hébert succeeded in mounting a compelling, multifaceted show -- and one that is proving to be the gallery's most successful in 36 years.
Among the satisfied "customers" have been Gareth Neufeld, a school administrator from Winnipeg, and his wife, Elsie Regehr-Neufeld, a social worker. They drove to Saskatoon on a recent weekend to see voices, and visited the gallery more than once during their stay. High-school sweethearts when Mitchell's first albums came out, they have followed her career closely, and during their nine-hour drive to Saskatoon, says Neufeld, "kind of immersed ourselves in it, playing her CDs in the car."
As for the art, Neufeld described it as "a treat to see some of her early stuff," referring to felt-pen drawings of such Mitchell contemporaries as Neil Young, Judy Collins, Graham Nash and James Taylor. And both he and his wife said it was a thrill to see Mitchell's real paintings, rather than the reproductions that have graced her album covers.
Indeed, people have come from much farther than Winnipeg to see voices -- and hear it (tours are augmented by audio tracks from five of Mitchell's CDs). Home addresses in the guestbook show visitors arriving from as far as Montreal and Whitehorse, South Africa and Japan. Along with devoted followers, several high-profile media outlets also came to call: Newsweek paid a visit, as did The New York Times, which last month featured the show in its Living Arts section.
But it was clearly the rank-and-file fans that made up the bulk of the audience. When Susan Joe, an optometrist in Sherwood Park, Alta., couldn't convince any of her friends to accompany her, she made the pilgrimage alone. While Joe said she wasn't surprised by the calibre of the works, she was wowed by the sheer range: abstract paintings, figurative works, self-portraits and photography. Said Joe: "It looks like she's tried just about everything."
If fans like Joe were disappointed, it seemed to be only by the paucity of souvenirs to take home with them. While she snapped up one of the $45 exhibition catalogues, Joe noted that there were none of the more kitschy or fun reminders that usually accompany such exhibits: no fridge magnets, no Clouds umbrellas, no Joni address books. Aside from the catalogue, visitors were given the choice of a $10 poster; Random House's 1998 edition of Mitchell's poems and lyrics, at $21; and a selection of some of her CDs.
The catalogues have presented the only tic in what has otherwise been a triumph for the Mendel. In early July, the distributor, Montreal's Lawrence Boyle of Art Books Canada, fired off press releases claiming the gallery was unwilling to supply as many books as it wanted -- and blamed it on pressure from U.S.-based Random House, which has Mitchell under contract to supply a not-too-dissimilar book of her works as well as an autobiography.
Hébert counters that there has been no coercion from Random House, that the 63-page catalogue is "not meant to be an art book," and that Art Books has received all 1,500 catalogues requested (and remains the distributor until year end). Meanwhile, through the gallery shop and sales on its Web site, the Mendel has sold more than 1,600 catalogues on its own.
That wrinkle aside, Hébert is clearly pleased with the show's success. And while he says that he always believed there would be "considerable local interest" in the show, he had "underestimated the amount of national and international interest." The challenge now will be to capitalize on that success. "The momentum is going," he says. "We're hoping we can build on this in other programming for the future."
Given the amount of interest in the show, adds Hébert, "It's logical to have a tour of three or four other Canadian art institutions." But he's quick to add that nothing has been confirmed. Most museums, he points out, plan shows one to two years in advance, and would have difficulty "plugging voices into a schedule before next summer." In the meantime, says Hébert, "We're planning to strike the show, pack it in crates and send it back to Los Angeles" -- the end of one of Mitchell's most memorable returns to the city she once called home.