Equity in the art world

Training a new generation of Inuit art leaders

Inuit Futures first year cohort of Ilinniaqtuit (students and learners) and mentors at the Isuma exhibition, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, Canada Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 2019. 

Photo: Tom McLeod

Thousands of Inuit artists are working today, their art showcased in museums, galleries and theatres around the world. But only a small fraction of those institutions’ leadership, research and curatorial roles are held by Inuit or Inuvialuit. Heather Igloliorte is working to change that by providing training and mentorship to emerging Inuit knowledge creators.

Igloliorte, University Research Chair in Circumpolar Indigenous Arts and associate professor of art history at Concordia University, is Canada’s only Inuk with a PhD in art history. When art institutions have opportunities for Inuit students, they ask her for recommendations.

“There’s a real appetite to bring more equity into arts leadership, but there’s a disconnect between the students and the institutions,” she says. “I know Inuit art students are out there who would be really interested in this field, so I wanted to help build their confidence and capacity to work in arts institutions across southern and northern Canada.”

Inuit-led leadership development

With the support of a SSHRC Partnership Grant, focused on research training, Igloliorte launched Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership: The Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq Project. The fully Inuit-led initiative is grounded in Inuit traditional knowledge and emphasizes pilimmaksarniq and pijariuqsarniq, the Inuit societal values of developing skills and knowledge through observation, mentoring, practice and effort.

Through the project, emerging Inuit art administrators, curators and other knowledge creators get practical experience and one-on-one mentorship in galleries, theatres, film sets, publishing houses and other arts institutions. Since its inception, Inuit Futures has placed more than 20 students (including 15 women) in 15 partner organizations in the North and across Canada. Partners include the Inuit Art Foundation, Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, the National Arts Centre and Western Arctic Moving Pictures, as well as five universities in cities where many Inuit live.

Originally from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut, Nakasuk Alariaq is pursuing a PhD in art history at Concordia University, where she works with Igloliorte and has contributed to several exhibitions through the Inuit Futures project. Alariaq is pictured here after her lecture at the exhibition Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios at the Textile Museum of Canada, which featured work by her great-aunt, world-renowned artist Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013). 

Photo: Heather Igloliorte

“We thought we’d have four students in the first year, maybe five or six in the next year,” says Igloliorte. “Instead, we placed 11 people in year one and now have a cohort of 15 for years two and three, so it’s going very well. We’re learning a lot about the kinds of supports students need to succeed.”

Students also get opportunities to participate in networking events, workshops and publications. These have included attendance at the opening of Canada’s pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale art exhibition, contribution to a special edition of Inuit Art Quarterly written and edited exclusively by Inuit, and organization of a virtual workshop series in 2020 with topics ranging from throatsinging and beading to logo design. The students are currently collaborating on the development of an audio guide for INUA, the inaugural exhibition of the new Qaumajuq Inuit art centre opening at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in March 2021.

Learning from each other

Partner organizations also learn a lot from working with Inuit students—even those institutions that already hold Indigenous art collections and may be familiar with either First Nations or Métis culture. At annual gatherings, the Inuit Futures leadership team delivers workshops to help partners understand the specific needs of Inuit and Inuvialuit.

“We have some unique cultural norms and social cues, like our use of facial gestures, which can sometimes be misinterpreted,” says Igloliorte. “Through this program, we’ve tried to ensure the responsibility of explaining those differences is taken on collectively, rather than letting it all fall on the individual Inuit students.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also proven to be a learning experience. Many art institutions would be happy to hire Inuit, but only if they move to the city—which many Inuit are reluctant to do. However, with many program participants doing their internships remotely over the past year, organizations are learning that with more flexibility, Inuit can work and contribute from anywhere.

A lasting legacy

While Inuit Futures’ immediate goal is to increase the number of Inuit in art leadership and research positions, it’s the long-term evolution of the field that excites Igloliorte the most.

“For Inuit, one of our highest forms of leadership is to serve,” she says. “The people we’re training today will go on to serve and include more Inuit in their own work, their impact growing ever outward, with every generation introducing positive changes that make the art space more welcoming for the Inuit who follow.”

Visit the Inuit Futures website for more information, and follow the project on Facebook and Instagram.