From bar room floor to NWT archives
AN ESSAY ON WHAT ACTUALLY TOOK PLACE TO LAUNCH INUIT GRAPHIC ART IN 1959. Note: Because of the time in history referred to in this article, the word Eskimo is used in this article.
This essay has been written to fill the gap left unexplored by numerous “chroniclers” of Inuit graphic art. No one I know has sought to scan the files of the Industrial Division, Northern Affairs (now residing in the NWT Archives) to reveal the early development of bringing Inuit Art, known as Eskimo Graphic Art, to the public.
In 1959, Gordon Robertson was the Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Bent Sivertz was the Director of Northern Administration and Robert Phillips known as the “RAJ” was the Assistant Director who might, on occasion, report to the Deputy Minister. Alex Stevenson was a valuable member of the Northern Administration branch and played an important part in the early development of the plan of action to help James Houston promote Inuit Art from Cape Dorset, Nunavut.
I moved to the Industrial Division of Northern Affairs and National Resources in 1959. The division head was the talented Donald Snowdon. The division staff also consisted of Ronald Gould, Leo Bereasa, Paul Godt, Alex Sprutz, Chesley Russel, Max Budgle, Paul Valalee, Robert Jenness, and five excellent secretaries.
As I had a background and contacts in the Arts, my first assignment was to develop a plan of action to create public awareness of a new art form referred to as “Eskimo Graphic Art” and put it to work”. Armed with a huge roll of early prints that had been languishing in our locker in the basement of 150 Kent Street in Ottawa, Ontario, I headed to the National Gallery of Canada.
The National Design Council, of which I had been Assistant Director, was an arm of the National Gallery of Canada; consequently, I knew Alan Jarvis, Director of the National Gallery, as well as Kathleen Fenwick, curator of prints and drawings, and Richard Simmins. My request to have a small exhibition of the 1959 prints was turned down by Kathleen who suggested that the Museum of Civilization might consider such a proposal. As I was about to leave the Gallery, Richard took me aside and stated that he might be able to help. Richard mentioned that the newly appointed Director of the Montreal Museum of Art, Dr. Evan Turner, might be interested in mounting an exhibition of Eskimo Graphic Art.
Richard suggested if I were interested, he would talk to Evan who was visiting the National Gallery and proposed Evan and I might meet in the bar of the Beacon Arms Hotel just around the corner from the Gallery. About an hour later, Dr. Evan Turner arrived, we shook hands, ordered beer and I began to unravel the saga of what we were trying to do to promote this wonderful new art form from the Arctic.
Evan displayed interest and suggested I come to his gallery in Montreal with a selection of prints so he might assess their quality for a possible exhibition. I couldn’t help but smile as I said in response, “Wait just a minute I have something to show you.”
I returned from the bar’s cloakroom with the same bundle of prints I had shown to Kathleen and Richard just an hour or so before. I laid the prints out randomly on the bar room floor to Evan’s delight and the amused curiosity of the patrons in the bar. Though there was a modest display of prints at Stratford, it was then and there, on a bar room floor, that the first major exhibition had its beginnings.
The first matter was the creation of a committee that would have the following tasks: 1) establish guidelines regarding the market value of each print, 2) decide on the number of prints to be produced for each subject, 3) select the prints to be included in the annual collection and 4) create marketing guidelines regarding business arrangements with art dealers. The committee could include any matter deemed to be of importance to the production, promotion and marketing of Eskimo Graphic Art. Given the perception of being an “arty guy” I was tasked with establishing the first committee.
I sought help from a fellow graphic designer, Paul Arther, who, in turn, recommended his close friend Bud Feheley. Alan Jarvis graciously accepted an invitation to join the committee and I vaguely remember Kananginak Pootoogook as an ex officio member as well.
During the flurry of activity in 1959, Alex Stevenson revealed that James Houston wanted to leave Cape Dorset as soon as possible to take up a prestigious position with Stuben Glass in New York. Most importantly, there was no one in line to replace Houston. Alex asked if I knew of a possible replacement. I replied perhaps he might contact an old schoolmate of mine, Terry Ryan, who was working in Clyde River.
It was during this early period of developing ways and means leading to the success of Eskimo Graphic Art that Jim Houston came up with a brilliant idea. Why not have a Patron of Eskimo Art? Why not ask the Governor General (at the time) Georges Vanier to be its Patron? Jim drafted the letter from Kananginak Pootoogook to the Governor General asking that he honour the Inuit Artists of Cape Dorset. The letter was transmitted by Robert (Bob) Phillips to Government House and shortly thereafter, Bob and I were summoned to Government House to meet with the “GG”.
Off we went with a bundle of the 1959 prints and met with the Governor General and his lovely wife Pauline in the Ballroom. I spread out the prints on chairs and the Ballroom floor (a little tonier than the bar room floor a few months previously). Questions and enthusiasm from the Governor General and his wife heightened as we carefully moved about images of spirits, enchanted birds, animals, hunters and mermaids. The meeting was recorded by the Government House photographer and thus Kananginak’s and Jim Houston’s desire for the patronage of the Governor General of Canada was made a reality.
The small number of staff in the Industrial Division had a key role to play in the early promotion and marketing of Inuit (Eskimo) Graphic Art. For example, the prints were sent to us unnumbered and untitled, except for a single print of each subject in groups of 50 copies. We had to number each print, and write out in pencil the full title, including the artist’s name and date produced. This arduous task was shared by Ron Gould, Leo Bereasa, Paul Valalee, our five secretaries, and I.
I remember titling about 25 “Enchanted Owls,” then rushing to produce the first catalogue. There was no budget to produce that first catalogue, not a penny! There was a unit of the Queen’s Printer in the basement of our building. I knew the unit head and over coffee, told him about the project asked if he could give me some advice on how to produce a modest catalogue while having no budget. He asked me to bring him the “stuff” to be printed and he would see what could be done.
I photocopied each print and painstakingly did all the typography on each photocopy using my old Leroy lettering set. When my friend in the printing shop saw the material, he said they would help by printing the catalogue. The only paper at hand was Ministerial letterhead. Fortunately, the second sheet did not bear the gold embossed emblem of Canada so that’s what we used to communicate with art dealers in Canada, the U.S. and abroad.
Following the production of the first catalogue, a budget was approved for subsequent ones related to each year’s offering of prints. Although not an award-winning design, the opportunity to design the first of the line of catalogues was my redemption.