Starting on June 3, 2017, the Inuit Art Foundation began its 30th anniversary celebrations by announcing a year-long calendar of program launches, events and a special issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly that cement the Foundation’s renewed strategic priorities. Sometimes called Ikayuktit (Helpers) in Inuktut, everyone who has worked here over the years has been unfailingly committed to helping Inuit artists expand their artistic practices, improve working conditions for artists in the North and help increase their visibility around the globe. Though the Foundation’s approach to achieving these goals has changed over time, these central tenants have remained firm.
The IAF formed in the late 1980s in a period of critical transition in the Inuit art world. The market had not yet fully recovered from the recession several years earlier and artists and distributors were struggling. The unfortunate closing of Sandra Barz’s Arts and Culture of the North after 26 issues in 1984 was a particular blow and left Inuit art enthusiasts with few options for information on the art form. At the same time, the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CEAC) was nearing the end of its tenure as an advisory body, primarily known for adjudicating Inuit prints.
In response, the Arts and Crafts Liaison Committee of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND; now Indigenous and Northern Affairs, or INAC) commissioned two studies: one in 1984, at the request of Canadian Arctic Producers by Roy MacSkimming on the feasibility of launching an Inuit art newsletter and one in 1985, at the request of Tuttavik  by Marybelle Mitchell (then Myers) on the feasibility of an Inuit art-focused foundation. In October 1985, DIAND provided $50,000 in seed money to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative’s trading partner Kinngait Press to launch the Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ) in April 1986. The inaugural issue’s success and clear importance resulted in further investments to facilitate its publishing.
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In order to sustain the IAQ and respond to the needs outlined in Mitchell’s study, she and the inaugural Editorial Board incorporated the Inuit Art Foundation in 1987. With the closure of the CEAC in 1989, the IAF became a core-funded organization with INAC and, its future now secure, began to establish strategic priorities. In the initial years, these were primarily around promoting Inuit art to a southern audience.
However, a meeting of Inuit artists in Ottawa, ON, in 1990 proved to be a key turning point in the IAF’s history: after this needs-based assessment, the IAF quickly began expanding its programming to include extensive professional development workshops and providing “kickstart” grants for the purchasing of tools or assistance in obtaining quarrying stone through the newly-formed Inuit Artists’ College; training Inuit in arts administration and curation through the Cultural Industries Training Program, starting in 1995; and organizing live events, exhibitions and artistic exchanges to provide a unique forum for artists to meet, exchange ideas and promote themselves. The IAF filled critical gaps for Inuit throughout Canada: one of the first programming investments the Foundation made was to canvas artists throughout Nunatsiavut on their needs and organize a carving workshop in Nain in response, which had long been neglected by the rest of the Inuit art world.
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Similarly, the IAF focused on providing critical health and safety training for artists. The Sananguaqatiit comic book series, as well as many articles in the Inuit Artist Supplement to the IAQ focused on ensuring artists were no longer unwittingly sacrificing their health for their careers. Though supporting carvers was a key focus of the IAF’s early programming, the scope of the IAF’s support extended to women’s sewing groups, printmakers and many other disciplines. In 2000, the IAF organized two artist residencies for Nunavik artists at Kinngait Studios in Kinnagit (Cape Dorset), NU, while the IAF showcased Arctic fashions, film, performance and other media at its first Qaggiq in 1995.
The Foundation’s focus shifted in the mid-2000s based on a large-scale survey of 100 artists from across Inuit Nunangat, coupled with a fluctuating funding landscape that made such large-scale events and extensive travel impossible. Instead, the IAF focused on investing its resources into leveraging the emerging opportunities afforded by the internet to reach as many people as possible. The Inuit Artist’s College was succeeded by the National Inuit Artists’ College, which published a wide variety of artist resources on a centralized website, and the IAF began producing virtual exhibitions of Inuit art to ensure the public’s access. Through it all, the IAQ continued to be the only constant resource for Inuit artists’ work and voices, as well as a site that nurtured thoughtful criticism about the art form and championed new artists and media.
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Despite these important activities, the IAF’s unstable funding had become untenable enough that it announced its unexpected closure on March 2, 2012. The blow was felt so profoundly among artists, collectors, curators, gallerists and other supporters that an emergency meeting of 31 stakeholders was called on April 16 to discuss options for saving the organization. Thanks to the extraordinary support from the field, the IAF Board formally voted to resume operations in December of that year.
Since then, the IAF has renewed its focus on advocating for the needs of artists throughout Inuit Nunangat and Southern Canada, informed by an extensive stakeholder consultation tour. In addition to the beloved IAQ, the IAF has also taken responsibility for administering the Igloo Tag Trademark to provide market support and protections for artists, assists with copyright and is proud to launch its Inuit Artist Database, as well as running the Virginia J. Watt and Dorothy Stillwell Award, Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Fund and numerous other professional development activities.
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In researching our rich archive in preparation for this issue, I have been continually struck by how far-reaching, profound and personal the Foundation’s programs have been over the years. Here, we provide a glimpse into some of the most exciting, fun and significant moments from the past. Although there is no way to encapsulate the IAF’s true reach and impact in the space of a few pages, I hope you enjoy reliving these memories with us and look forward, as I do, to our next thirty years.
1 Tuttavik was a collaborative art wholesaling partnership between ArcticCo-operatives Limited and La Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec, located in Mississauga, ON.
This Feature first appeared in the Fall 2017 Anniversary issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly. Alysa Procida is the Executive Director of the Inuit Art Foundation and Publisher of the Inuit Art Quarterly.