The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has announced the gift of twenty-seven textiles, sculptures and works on paper from the collection of Joyce W. and P. Frederick Sparling. Created by Inuit artists from the 1950s through the early 2000s, the collection represents the most significant donation of Inuit art in the Museum’s history.
Fred Sparling singles out the seven wallhangings made in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake) as a cornerstone of the donation. In order to carefully preserve and prevent degradation to these works on cloth, it was important that the MFA is committed to “thinking in terms of hundreds of years.” The collection also includes works by some of the most notable artists who worked in the medium including Jessie Oonark, Ruth Qaulluaryuk Nuilaalik, Miriam Qiyuk, Naomi Ityi and Marion Tuu’luq.
Among the sculptures in the collection, one particular carving by Henry Evaluardjuk, Mother and Child (1969), has continued to hold Fred Sparling’s imagination. “It looks like Italian marble, but it’s whalebone, and it’s a very unusual subject matter for the artist. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece and I think it would make a great centrepiece for the MFA’s collection as well.”
Early prints by Tudlik, Josephie Pootoogook and Niviaksiak are included alongside later works by Kenojuak Ashevak and Nuilaalik. Oonark features prominently in the collection, which includes by her prints Woman (1970) and Power of Thought (1976), as well as a rare sketchbook of drawings done in marker. Sculptures include a caribou antler carving by Luke Iksiktaaryuk and stone carvings by John Pangnark, John Kavik, Ennutsiak, Pitseolak Niviaqsi and Syollie Weetaluktuk.
The Sparlings began collecting in 1999, shortly after Nunavut was officially established as a new territory. Soon after they partook in twelve trips to the Canadian North, where they had a series of meaningful encounters with Inuit artists and Inuit art, which they relate in detail in their book North to Nunavut: An Arctic Love Affair (2011). These experiences played a crucial role in their decision to donate the artworks so that the Inuit culture is displayed prominently to the public. “We are committed to honouring Inuit culture,” says Joyce Sparling. “We want to make the skills of Inuit artists known to a wider number of people.”
In 2015, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts hired Matthew Teitelbaum as Director. Teitelbaum had previously been CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where many popular Inuit art exhibitions, including Inuit Modern and Inuit Art in Motion, were mounted under his tenure. In 2017 the MFA held its first exhibition of Inuit art, Follow the North Star: Inuit Art from the Collection of Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh.
Fred Sparling adds that the MFA’s scope and reach resonated with their desire to educate: “The MFA reaches an audience which is largely unfamiliar with Inuit art. We think the impact might be greater for a small number of pieces than were they buried among thousands at another museum. And we trust the MFA will build critical mass and make it into a strong collection.”