Government neglect threatens Inuit art: Ryan

“The arts always fall to the bottom of the totem pole”



Government neglect of Inuit art is endangering the present and future work of Nunavut artists, says one of the territory’s key proponents of Inuit prints and carvings.

Terry Ryan, who holds the Order of Canada for his support of Inuit art since the 1960s, warns that unless the next legislative assembly breaks with the negligence of the last group of MLAs, collectors can expect to see less new and original art coming from the North.

“There is a long-term price to be paid for neglect of the arts,” Ryan said during a visit this month to the Kinngait Arts Co-op in Cape Dorset. “[That price] is the deterioration of the arts.”

In recent years, Ryan, who now markets Inuit art in the South for the co-op, has seen an increase in “production mentality” among young artists. Instead of striving to make something unique, most Inuit youth churn out streams of polar bear and inuksuk carvings on demand.

While this approach almost guarantees artists will sell their work for now, Ryan said the territory loses out on preserving a cornerstone of its culture. Also, he said in the long term, serious art collectors will shy away from spending much money on recently made carvings, and instead opt to buy sculptures and prints made decades ago.

In other words, there will be less private money for new artists.

Many factors contribute to the perceived decline of Inuit art, Ryan said, such as buyers’ romantic yearnings for old Inuit themes instead of new works. But even pressures like collectors’ desire for “Golden Oldies,” as Ryan calls them, come from the source problem: many new artists, or artisans, are ill-equipped to make an original work of art.

And more than any other group, Ryan said the Government of Nunavut must step in and stop Inuit art from going into his described tailspin of artistic repetition.

For starters, the government needs to deal with the communities’ lack of training space for budding artists, Ryan said.

And it needs to establish a mentorship program with older artists.

And aside from the museum in Iqaluit, which Ryan describes as operating on a bare-bones budget, the territory needs a large cultural centre to showcase promising artists. Although City of Iqaluit budget reports show the government has earmarked money for studying the creation of such a centre, Ryan remains skeptical that the next government will achieve more for Inuit art than the last.

All this happened, said Ryan, because the last territorial government acted like all its provincial counterparts, which he suggest tend to put arts at the bottom of their list of priorities. He said the Government of the Northwest Territories and the federal government did more for the arts in the last five years than the legislative assembly in Iqaluit did.

“As with the national level, the arts always fall to the bottom of the totem pole,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve been seeing here in Nunavut.”

Ryan suggested the government’s key to preserving Inuit art will be finding someone to work as an arts ambassador to Nunavut. Until now, he said no one has taken up the task.

If the next assembly continues with the status quo, Ryan expects the interest that Nunavut artists have enjoyed since breaking onto the national scene about 50 years ago, will all but vanish.

“It would be a real shame if Inuit art would have to be rediscovered 50 years from now, instead of being … supported right now,” Ryan said. “In an ideal art world, you’d have artists of integrity who are doing something original, and stretching the boundaries instead of giving into the market.

“But that would imply all sorts of support.”

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