Winnipeg's Qaumajuq launch prompts a question: where's Yellowknife's art gallery?

·4 min read
A work by artists Mattiusi Iyaituk and Etienne Guay, titled 'Iqaluullamiluuq (First Mermaid) that can maneuver on the land,' featured in the inaugural exhibit of Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Inuit art centre. The opening of the centre has prompted renewed calls for a permanent gallery space in the N.W.T. (John Einarson/CBC - image credit)
A work by artists Mattiusi Iyaituk and Etienne Guay, titled 'Iqaluullamiluuq (First Mermaid) that can maneuver on the land,' featured in the inaugural exhibit of Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Inuit art centre. The opening of the centre has prompted renewed calls for a permanent gallery space in the N.W.T. (John Einarson/CBC - image credit)

Yellowknife artists are again calling for a place to celebrate northern art after the unveiling of Qaumajaq, the Inuit art centre in Winnipeg.

Sarah Swan is a board member for the Yellowknife Artist Run Centerless Centre (YK ARCC) and noticed that the new art centre down South really highlights the lack of attention visual art gets in the territory.

"It's watching that beautiful place unfold and open its doors. It's watching the incredible respect that's been given at that place for Indigenous arts, for Inuit art that's just not here," she said. "Their wealth has exposed our lack and so a lot of us in the arts community are feeling very sad."

"We're one of the only territories or places in Canada that doesn't have an arts centre, a territorial arts centre or a territorial gallery. That's embarrassing and shameful," said Swan.

Swan is also the volunteer director of YK ARCC's Art Gallery of N.W.T., a 16-by-8-foot mobile art gallery.

"We wanted to do our best not just to complain, but to contribute to fixing the problem."

Currently, the Art Gallery of the N.W.T. operates out of a 16-by-8 foot trailer. Here, visitors take a look at exhibition by Yellowknife's Alison McCreesh and Yukon's Kim Edgar in Yellowknife last July.
Currently, the Art Gallery of the N.W.T. operates out of a 16-by-8 foot trailer. Here, visitors take a look at exhibition by Yellowknife's Alison McCreesh and Yukon's Kim Edgar in Yellowknife last July.(Sarah Swan/YK ARCC)

Along with the gallery, she says the museum and other local businesses try their best to display local art, but what's really needed is something stable that's solely dedicated to showcasing northern art.

"We need a professional space where visual art can be shown in a clean, dynamic and exciting and focused way in the territory. We don't have that," she said. "We don't have a place to congregate and discuss ideas. We don't have much of a place for education, for talks, for workshops."

Robyn Scott is an emerging artist in Yellowknife and says this has been an issue for at least 15 years.

"We look to places like ... the Yukon Arts centre and the amazing success that they have, and we keep asking, 'Why not us?' Why isn't our work being valued in the same sort of way?" Scott said. "So we look down South, we look to the West and think when is it our turn?"

Paintings by Shelley Vanderbyl being displayed in the Art Gallery of N.W.T. in May 2020.
Paintings by Shelley Vanderbyl being displayed in the Art Gallery of N.W.T. in May 2020.(Sarah Swan/YK ARCC)

Scott is also the art teacher at Sir John Franklin High School and says she has parents asking her where they can take their kids to continue art outside of the classroom, but there are few, if any, places to go.

"We have a few small art studios trying to put things together [and] offer programs for kids, but we just don't have a place to do it," she said. "I think that we should be doing more for them and the future of the arts in the north."

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the city is starting to take steps toward better supporting visual artists.

In the short term, it is planning on moving the visitors centre from City Hall to Centre Square Mall and have it double as a non-commercial art gallery.

It will also start work on an arts and culture master plan, which will look at what resources the city is offering artists, what gaps need to be filled, and what the future path for arts in Yellowknife could be.

Alty said the plan could ultimately help answer questions about what a permanent gallery could look like.

"Is there a space that's currently available that we could renovate? Or is it a stand alone building?" she said.

Swan is glad changes are happening and that more support is coming. She said she hopes this will start a discussion on what the art community needs to keep thriving.

"I would just like the territory to recognize — to really recognize, not just pay lip service to — the importance of visual arts in the North," she said.

"Why should northern art be celebrated down South, but not up here?"