Annual Mann Art Gallery winter festival show attracts nearly 100 artists

Guest curator Heather Benning took a break from curating the 2021 Mann Art Gallery Winter Festival Show and Sale Thursday to pose for a photo. The 2021 show opens on Feb. 12, 2021. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

One of the biggest annual art shows in Prince Albert is ready to go up on the walls ahead of its official opening two weeks from Friday.

While it’s slightly smaller than in previous years, the Mann Art Gallery’s annual Winter Festival Art Show and Sale has been curated. Now, it’s just waiting to be installed.

This year marks the show’s 45th iteration. Despite fewer artists submitting works, there are still 94 works in the festival with varying styles, media and themes.

While past curators have set up the show by grouping together works that shared a colour palette, style or medium, this year’s guest curator took a different approach.

“I wanted the work to communicate with each other,” said Heather Benning, who hails from rural Saskatchewan and a prominent figure in the Swift Current arts scene.

“I wanted the work to complement each other but I didn’t want to base it on media or themes. I wanted it to have variety throughout each space so there would be different kinds of paintings and sculptures intermixed with the paintings.”

Benning is no stranger to the Mann Art Gallery.

Known for her large-scale, site-specific installations, Benning is predominantly a sculptor that dabbles in multimedia. In 2017 she had a solo exhibition at the Mann, a collection of three large, sculptural works and a film of a barn made up to look like a giant dollhouse burning to the ground.

One of those sculptural works, Work Hard Be Nice. Work hard, is a collection of 29 17-inch little girl sculptures, all nearly-identical and solemnly gazing at their feet. The girls were placed in the centre of four four-foot-tall pillars topped with cheerful-looking little boy sculptures.

Benning also has a collaborative piece, done with her artistic partner, Tim Moore, in the gallery’s permanent collection. Called Go Forth and Prosper, the seven-foot-long sculpture of a larger-than-life rearview mirror created with foam and resin hangs near the reception desk at the gallery.

Benning has known about the Winter Festival show for some time. Each year, it brings in a different guest curator to assemble and judge the entries.

“It’s fantastic to be asked. I’ve always wanted to be a guest curator for the Winter Festival exhibition,” she said.

“It’s kind of a milestone for a Saskatchewan artists’ career. Every year they have to find someone. I’m very happy I was selected.”

The show is one of few like it in the province. It’s open to everyone who is a member of the gallery and attracts works from across Saskatchewan. It doesn’t limit work by skill level, medium or subject matter. Each artist is limited to one entry each. What results is a hodgepodge of top-notch art from professionals and amateurs alike, all hung on the walls of a professional, public art gallery.

This year’s show is the first for Marcus Miller, who was hired as the gallery’s newest director/curator last year.

“I know it’s a big deal. This is the 45th iteration of ut. I’ve seen pictures of past shows and it looks spectacular,” he said.

“These shows are really delightful. You get a full spectrum of people and it’s always great to see that.”

Miller is also excited to welcome Benning to the gallery as the guest curator.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said.

“She has been here a number of times before. She’s curated before and she’s a really great artist. I have a lot of respect for her as an artist. She’s coming to this job, a daunting job, with a very hands-on perspective. She knows what she’s dealing with here.”

Like many guest curators before her, Benning was impressed with the quality of works submitted to the annual show.

“I am blown away by the skill level of the artists in Prince Albert and area, and I was blown away when all the work was just put here and not organized in any way. You could still see and pick out so many fantastic works,” she said.

“There is a high level of artistry that happens in the north. It’s wonderful to get to exhibit it and see it all together.”

That makes Benning’s other task, that of judging the works and choosing winners, even more difficult than cohesively curating 94 different artworks.

“That is the hardest thing to do,” Benning said.

“You think there are a lot of awards, so you’re not worried about it as you (pick out) work. Once you start putting awards out — there are so many pieces you want to give awards to. It’s unbelievably difficult. I wanted to give everyone an award. Everyone deserves a ribbon.”

While that’s consistent with past years, one thing that’s different is the way this year’s show will work in light of the pandemic.

Usually the festival kicks off with an opening reception followed by a curator’s walk-through the following day.

Dozens would pile into the main gallery. This year, though, both the opening reception and curator’s talk are taking place online. They will be live-streamed and recorded.

COVID-19 also affected the art itself. There’s less of it, and the pieces that were submitted are smaller and quieter than Benning has seen in the past.

Previous shows have seen pieces that serve as a commentary on current events, but Benning didn’t see one piece that was about COVID-19.

And while this year’s reception is being held virtually, the gallery is still open Tuesday through Saturday and the show is open to all.

“A way to escape from COVID is to come to the Mann Art Gallery and experience a variety of art from local and provincial artists,” she said.