Quebec City Inuit gallery may be best in Canada
The Musée Inuit in Quebec City isn’t well-known, but it’s presentation of Inuit art is second-to-none.
QUEBEC CITY — An unparalleled exhibition of Inuit carving — possibly the finest in Canada — is located, oddly enough, in the heart of Quebec City’s old quarter.
The Musée Inuit, a totally self-supporting, privately-owned museum, opened there quietly a year ago.
And, while it has attracted its share of celebrity visitors, including French President Jacques Chirac, few northerners suspect there’s a landmark for Inuit art and culture on one of North America’s oldest streets, la rue Saint-Louis.
“We’ve pushed our passion for Inuit art to the limit,” said museum founder Raymond Brousseau. “What we’re doing is serious, even if we’re having fun.”
And the result is a space anyone could enjoy for its visual beauty, accuracy and trilingual presentations.
Last year, more than 25,000 visitors paid up to $6 each to tour the Musée Inuit. It has already received a prestigious Quebec tourism award, and was also nominated for special recognition by the First People’s Business Association.
Unlike many exhibitions that simply showcase Inuit art, the museum’s permanent display of more than 450 works tries to put Inuit carving in context.
The subject of every display is illustrated mainly through carvings, carefully chosen and identified, in French, English, and, in many instances, Inuktitut.
And the museum isn’t small. Covering 4,000 square metres, its displays, prepared by exhibit designer Lyse Brousseau, takes time to tour.
There are displays on the Dorset and Thule Inuit who first settled the Eastern Arctic, and the impact of explorers, whalers, missionaries, RCMP and co-operatives on the evolution Inuit art.
These displays include ancient examples of carving, scrimshaw, and even an engraving from 1776 showing the “crew of Captain Cook shooting sea horses [walrus] on the ice of the Northern Sea in order to supply the want of fresh provisions.”
The artistic styles of the eastern Arctic’s different regions, and the kinds of stone that carvers use, are also shown.
And there are displays on technology developed by Inuit, the activities of women and men, the various animals hunted by Inuit — caribou, birds, and sea mammals — as well as displays on myths, legends and religious beliefs.
As well, there’s a rotating display on specially chosen themes.
The works of more than a dozen well-known artists, such as George Arluk from Arviat, Kalluq Pallituq from Clyde River, and Ivujivik’s Mattiusi Iyaituk are also highlighted.
All these magnificent carvings come from the private collection of Brousseau, part of which is now held in trust by the museum.
Brousseau started collecting Inuit carving 40 years ago when he was still a student.
“I was struck by their beauty, by the choice of subjects and the culture,” Brousseau said.
“And they were being produced by our neighbours, our cousins, whom we didn’t know very well.”
Brousseau bought one carving, then another, and another, until, finally, 25 years ago, he decided to open a boutique in Quebec City to sell the overflow from his collection. Brousseau now owns three galleries in Quebec City that sell Inuit art, and is the largest retail seller of Inuit art in Canada.
But opening the museum has changed his buying habits as a collector.
“Before, I used to buy acccording to my own tastes, but now I try to think about what would be good for the museum,” Brousseau said.
Brousseau buys almost exclusively from the co-operatives, from the FÈdÈration des coopératives du Nouveau-Quebec, from the West Baffin Cooperative and Arctic Co-operatives Limited. In Brousseau’s opinion, the co-ops offer a kind of quality control system over artists’ production — and they contribute to the community.
“Of course, the artists also have to be responsible, too,” Brousseau said.
He feels the Inuit art market has suffered, because over the past few years, individual art promoters and carvers have broken with the co-ops and flooded the market with low-quality work and mass-produced duplicates.
At the same time, Brousseau doesn’t feel the public’s interest in Inuit art has diminished.
“I think the public, in fact, is more informed,” he said. “Five years ago they wouldn’t have known what the word Inuit meant. Now, they do.”
Broussea fears the Inuit art market in Quebec City is also being hurt by the proliferation of fake Inuit art.
At many boutiques in the old town, Southern-produced “Inuit-style” carvings are even on display side-by-side with real Inuit art. This practice, according to Brousseau, is both confusing and dishonest.
“I think it’s terrible to fool people, and rip off Inuit,” Brousseau said.
Brousseau said his Inuit art clients, divided equally between Canadians, Europeans and Americans, want authenticity, but don’t always know what to look for.
Brousseau said he’s never offered anything of “souvenir” quality for sale. At his main gallery, there’s a note beside a display of ivory, bone and baleen, saying “our jewellry is crafted ecologically! No squandering for the Inuit!”
The Musée Inuit is located at 39, rue Saint-Louis, in Old Québec, and opens daily from Mon. – Fri. from 9:30 am to 4 pm. Groups can request reservations at 418-694-1828.