World's Biggest Inuit Art Collection Gets New Home

The Winnipeg Art Gallery marks Canada's 150th birthday in 2017 by opening a centre to showcase its vast collection of Inuit art.

Written by Steve Ducharme 

Posted April 16, 2014

The goal is to move the 13,000 pieces currently in the WAG vaults and create a dedicated exhibition space for the collection, which is the largest of its kind in the world.

WAG director Stephen Borys has advised "The goal is to open for Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.”

The Inuit Art Centre will be the largest space devoted to an indigenous group in North America. For Borys, the benefit to visitors will be immediate. “It will allow us to expand our display many times fold,” said Borys. “There will be a huge visible vault where you will see thousands of works at any given time.”

 The centre will be built adjacent to the existing art gallery.

The new centre will also allow the gallery to expand its educational services. Room for new studio and school programs will be included. The advantage of integrating classrooms into the new centre will be to give visiting children firsthand experience with the internationally distinguished collection. “The first object schoolchildren see when coming to the WAG will be an Inuit object,” said Borys.

Angeliki Bogiatiji, a volunteer at the WAG who is a specialist in Inuit art, sees the transition to a fully dedicated building as the next step in understanding the evolving art form. “There are challenges to managing a collection this size,” said Bogiatiji. “We exhibit very little right now, but that will be addressed with the new centre.”

A past Inuit exhibition at the WAG, From Our Land, was a small cross-section of works collected by the gallery. Limited floor space was available to showcase this collection in the main building, and that restriction requires smaller exhibits to be rotated over the year to maximize content.

While the WAG has always enjoyed a strong relationship with the Arctic, Borys hopes the centre will bring that relationship to a new level. “While we’ve worked with the Inuit for decades, we’re thinking of new ways to teach, and to correspond,” said Borys. “It’s not just about the WAG and the North, it’s about the North coming to the WAG.”

The contract for designing the new building was won in 2012 by Michael Maltzan, an award-wining American architect. Maltzan’s design was one of sixty-five submissions, with teams representing fifteen different countries.

The WAG’s collection of Inuit art dates back to the early 1950s, when the Hudson’s Bay Company brought the first pieces south to Winnipeg from Arctic trading posts.

Since that time, a strong community has grown around the development of the art, which now not only includes sculptures, but prints, tapestries and visual media. The works have also been the focus of academic scholarship and have contributed to the understanding of Inuit culture.

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Update:  TD Bank announced a $500,000 donation Thursday March 26, 2015 to help fund an artist-in-residence and a printmaking studio. TD Bank has been collecting Inuit art for almost 50 years and believes it has one of the largest corporate holdings of its kind.

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