The WAG’s Inuit Art Centre – a museum for the 21st century

By Stephen Borys

WAG director Stephen Borys.
WAG director Stephen Borys.

As we continue to develop the plans for the new Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, I am constantly thinking about – and rethinking – the idea of the museum; not just what it looks like, but how it feels, communicates and functions. Through the program and stakeholder development, architectural design and the capital campaign for the IAC building project, I have been inspired and challenged to reconsider the template for the museum in the 21st century. And this is for right now – not the future.

A vision of the future Inuit Art Centre interior. Renderings by Michael Maltzan Architecture.
A vision of the future Inuit Art Centre interior. Renderings by Michael Maltzan Architecture.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery houses the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art with close to 14,000 carvings, drawings, prints, textiles and new media. The WAG began collecting Inuit art in the 1950s when this art form was largely unknown in Canada’s south. Supported by an unparalleled record of exhibitions, publications, research and outreach, this collection represents Inuit identity, culture and history.

To celebrate the art and to honour the people who have created these Inuit works, the WAG is building an Inuit Art Centre, the first of its kind in the world. The IAC will be a centre for exhibitions and programs, research and learning, studio practice and art-making. It will be a bridge, enabling peoples from the North and South to meet, learn and work together. It will be a gathering place—a community hub for exploration and advancement—with the art serving as a lens on Canada’s Arctic. Built on the strengths of the WAG’s Inuit art collection and its global reputation in the field, the Centre will also embolden the Gallery’s critical role in presenting indigenous art and culture.

This new museum is still a building, but its infrastructure is much greater than any form or edifice. Advancing beyond but not neglecting the age-old tasks of collecting, preserving and exhibiting, the new museum is about dialogue, exploration and reconciliation. Learning and advancement contribute to this enterprise but these are augmented by enrichment, enjoyment and the overall pursuit of health and well-being through art and culture. The museum reflects, responds to – and is the community.

The museum is a collection of objects, ideas and people reflecting cultures and stories that look back and ahead. It is a place where the acts of invitation, welcome and engagement thrive, enabling the museum to be relevant, impactful and sustainable. Its value may begin with the art and the art-makers, but it has expanded to reflect multiple voices and agendas in the sectors that have come to define and celebrate contemporary cultural thought.

Art is a living and dynamic force in the world, capable of imparting, responding to and shaping ideas and perspectives. With art there is always the exciting prospect of opening people’s minds and hearts to new images and ideas, new ways of thinking and perspectives on life and society. And in this vibrant, global exchange we call cultural democracy, the museum is the new forum. In a similar way, the Inuit Art Centre will be much more than a repository for the WAG’s celebrated collection of Inuit art. The IAC will be a transformative place led by the images and stories from the art, people and land.

Linking northern and southern Canada is at the heart of the Centre’s mission, where art is a vehicle for artistic, educational and economic development. Through regional, national and international partnerships, the Centre will be a forum for innovation and exploration. Our northern partners and stakeholders have embraced this international project, and continue to inspire and inform, leading us on a journey to their land and culture.

With its exhibitions and programs, the IAC will help shift the public experience through art, establishing new pathways to understanding and appreciation. This is where the story of indigenous art begins – where students will launch their own expedition to the Arctic. Here we have the chance to facilitate new ways of seeing and understanding through the creation and appreciation of art. Inuit art can inform and motivate children and youth, helping them understand more about their relationships with the North and indigenous peoples. With the latest communications technology, we can connect a classroom in Iqaluit with one in Winnipeg. This virtual connectivity brings students face to face with new learning streams – and it keeps the Inuit Art Centre linked to and centred in the North.

Innovative learning and training initiatives in the Centre will ensure that indigenous cultural workers have a place to study, train and to work in the field. Internships will be developed for educators, curators, conservators and other museum professionals. The galleries of the IAC will feature one of the largest indigenous exhibition spaces in North America. This is where Inuit art will shine, displayed in a breath-taking and state-of-the-art venue.

From the Inuit Art Centre’s inception, we have benefited from the guidance of Inuit – artists, elders, youth and community leaders. With their counsel, and the direction from the WAG’s indigenous curators and educators, we’ve begun to implement the cultural recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Using art to spur dialogue and understanding, we look to new ways to support this national initiative – and the Centre will be at the heart of the journey.

This new museum will be about a creative and evolving conversation sustained through open and respectful dialogue led by the values and stories that honour and reflect the full community of stakeholders and constituents. The exercise is at the heart of the museum for the 21st century. Fostering new voices and ideas will ensure the WAG and its Inuit Art Centre remain meaningful, present and around for the next century.

Stephen Borys is director and CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

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