The Collection

WORLD’S LARGEST PUBLIC COLLECTION OF CONTEMPORARY INUIT ART

The WAG holds in trust the largest public collection of Inuit art in the world – more than 13,000 pieces of contemporary and traditional art that represent important elements of Inuit identity and enrich the fabric of Canada’s culture.

The WAG first began collecting Inuit art in the 1950s when Northern art was largely unfamiliar to the rest of the world . Over the ensuing decades, the WAG continued to build the collection while cultivating relationships with Inuit artists and communities.

In 2016, the Government of Nunavut entrusted the WAG with the 7,300+ pieces in its fine art collection through a long-term loan. While at the WAG, these works are being documented, exhibited and shared. Nunavut and the WAG are working in partnership to create programs based on the collection that support arts and heritage workers and artists in the North.

An outstanding record of more than 160 exhibitions and 60 publications enriches the WAG’s amazing collection of Inuit carvings, drawings, prints, textiles and new media.

ON DISPLAY FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER

The creation of the WAG Inuit Art Centre will allow much of this extraordinary collection to be permanently displayed and shared with people of all ages and backgrounds.

The full collection will be accessible online, inviting Canadians and people around the world to experience the powerful beauty of Inuit art while learning about Inuit history and culture.

Most importantly, placing the collection online also means that the people of Inuit Nunangat (the vast homeland of Inuit of Canada) will be able to connect with the works, many for the first time.

13,500+ number of pieces in the collection
7,500 sculptures
4,000 prints
1,900 drawings
100s artifacts, ceramics and textiles
7,380 works on long-term loan from the Government of Nunavut

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In the lead-up to this historic moment, it is essential to the WAG that we acknowledge the colonial history of our permanent collection. We recognize that art galleries have historically been part of the colonial structure of perpetuating racism and oppression, and we are committed to dismantling these systems.

See the FAQs below to learn how.

FIRSTLY, WHAT IS THE COLONIAL HISTORY OF OUR PERMANENT COLLECTION (and what are we doing about it?)

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) has long been present in Winnipeg and was instrumental to the early development of the global Inuit art market. In the 1950s, carvings were purchased at fur trading posts in Inukjuak, Puvirnituq, Kinngait, and several other Inuit communities. Since the 1950s, Inuit have owned and operated artist co-operatives. Carving stone was locally quarried and distinctive to each community. The carvings came South by boat in the late summer or fall and were sold at the Handicrafts Guilds in Montreal (1949-) and Winnipeg (1952-), and in HBC stores across the country. Large private collections were formed in Winnipeg because of access to the bulk of the carvings that came to the HBC headquarters in the city. For more information on HBC’s history of collecting Inuit art, click here.

These private collections were formed, most notably, by Jerry Twomey, George Swinton, Bessie Bulman (head of the Guild), her sister Eileen Abbott, and HBC employees. Today, the WAG collection of Inuit art includes donations from these private collections. Our curators also maintain strong relationships with artists by visiting their homes, workspaces, and communities, and spending time with them on the land. We purchase works directly from the artists in their communities, from their cooperatives, or through the global art market. In addition, we collaborate with other museums, galleries, and arctic co-ops to exhibit artworks on loan.

Today, more than 2,000 Inuit artists from many of the communities of Inuit Nunangat are represented in our permanent collection, totalling close to 12,000 pieces. While several thousand of the artworks are sculptural, we recognize and celebrate the fact that Inuit art extends to an evolving array of media including prints, textiles, clothing, and digital media, all present in our collection. Inuit art encompasses any work created by an Inuk. While it is often studied and regarded in an ethnically-oriented context, Inuit art is very much part of the cannon of art history and the future of contemporary art.

WHAT IS THE WAG DOING TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE COLONIAL HISTORY OF OUR PERMANENT COLLECTION?

The WAG recognizes that the history of our Inuit art collection is tied to the ongoing history of colonialism in North America. Fur trading posts disrupted the traditional and sustainable nomadic lifestyle of Inuit communities, contributing to the permanent settlement of many Inuit. We hope to shed light on this history, and bring Inuit voices to the forefront through more storytelling.

As a non-profit art museum, we are taking part in national conversations around reconciliation, and have developed an artwork provenance policy to further collaborate with Indigenous artists and their families. If an artwork is found to be acquired in an unethical manner by the WAG or by the individual or institution who collected the work prior to it entering the Gallery’s collection, we would move forward with the necessary steps towards repatriation. Public access to provenance information on all artworks in our collection is available. More information can be found here.

We care for the artworks so that their stories and the stories of the artists can continue to be shared for generations to come. We recognize that each artwork has a Spirit. An Indigenous Elder has been asked to care for the artwork the WAG holds. Since Treaty 1 territory is not the original homeland of Inuit art, it is important that the Spirit of the art is honoured and cared for. Ceremony and prayer take place regularly in all of our vaults for all of the art.

Our Guide to the Collections provides an overview of the WAG’s defining collection areas through 400 artwork highlights. Copies are available at ShopWAG.

SO WHY BUILD THE INUIT ART CENTRE ON TREATY 1 WHEN THE INUIT ARE NOT FROM THIS TERRITORY?

The Inuit Art Centre builds on the WAG’s long history of collecting and exhibiting Inuit art and working with the leadership of Inuit partners and stakeholders. By amplifying the voices of the artists and promoting cultural understanding, we aim to support reconciliation, bringing us all closer together. The Centre will be a cornerstone for building capacity among emerging Inuit arts and heritage professionals, a place for mentorship, learning, and intercultural dialogue.

The Inuit Art Centre is not only a building, it is a cultural venue for Inuit in Canada, and a beacon of Inuit agency. Inuit partners have been integral to the Centre’s conception, and are leading the development of design, exhibitions, and educational programming. We strive to provide a platform for Inuit voices and ensure all Inuit are welcomed.

The Centre will bring the North to the South to deepen the world’s understanding of Canada. The North covers over one third of Canada’s landmass, yet fewer than two per cent of Canadians will ever set foot in the North. The Centre will be a place to build and understand our relationships.

Inuit stakeholders look forward to having a ‘capital’ in Canada in which their art, histories, and stories can be shared with each other and with the world. We are working closely with Northern partners, and our relationship with the Government of Nunavut is fundamental.

WAG-GOVERNMENT OF NUNAVUT PARTNERSHIP

Due to space and resources, in 2015 the Government of Nunavut (GN) entrusted the WAG with its Fine Arts Collection, which includes over 7,385 objects. This long-term loan involves care, storage, exhibition, mentorship, and development of public educational programming. The Inuit Art Centre will provide a temporary new home for the GN collection.

Over the past five years, we have collaborated with the GN to host artist and Elder residencies and mentorship training, tour exhibitions in northern communities, digitize the collection, and open WAG@The Forks, a shop providing increased market access to Inuit artists.

We are honoured to continue to support the GN’s efforts in creating increased awareness and exposure to the rich collection until its return to Nunavut. We are dedicated to caring for the Spirit of the art with Ceremony, while Treaty 1 is its home. We are committed to supporting the development of a cultural heritage centre in Inuit Nunangat by offering resources and expertise, and creating space for a sister relationship between these institutions and the Inuit Art Centre.

...AND SO BECAME THE INUIT ART CENTRE

Opening in the coming months, the Inuit Art Centre will bridge Canada’s North and South through exhibitions, research, education, and art making with Inuit voices at the forefront. We will continue to honour the legacies of Inuit artists through exhibitions curated by Inuit, programs, and events at the WAG via the Inuit Art Centre.

HOW HAVE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE BEEN INVOLVED IN THE PLANNING OF THE INUIT ART CENTRE?

The WAG’s Indigenous Advisory Circle and Inuit task force (est. 2012) is at the heart of all of our decolonization and Indigenization work. The Circle provides leadership and counsel in the development and planning of related WAG exhibitions, education, community outreach, partnerships, programming, and through each stage of the Inuit Art Centre project.

The Circle is made up of representatives from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat: Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut. Urban Inuit and circumpolar Inuit communities such as Alaska and Greenland are also represented, along with First Nations and Metis members from Manitoba and across the country.

Local community consultations have been essential in developing our mandate and purpose for the Inuit Art Centre. Indigenous leaders in Winnipeg have been very generous with their time and sharing their knowledge. Leadership and Elders from all of the communities located on Treaty 1 have been engaged with our Indigenization journey. The Dakota Nation, who’s unceded land the Gallery sits on, has also been involved in conversations. The Metis Nation and the local Inuit community have been essential to Inuit Art Centre planning, from the project’s inception to the upcoming opening celebrations.

We acknowledge that without the input from the Anishinaabe, Ininawak, Dakota, Metis Nations, and the Manitoba Inuit community, the dream of Inuit Art Centre would not be a reality.

Indigenous artists, curators, advisors, and elders are all paid for their work.