The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) is uniquely positioned as a cultural hub for art and art making in one of Canada's major cities. In 2021, we opened the doors to Qaumajuq, an innovative museum dedicated to Inuit art and culture. This first-of-its-kind centre is connected to the original WAG building on all levels, providing a platform for Inuit voices through exhibitions, research, education, and art making. Together, the two buildings form WAG-Qaumajuq.
WAG-Qaumajuq embraces a vision of the future that elevates Inuit voices through a purpose-built space dedicated to exhibitions, research, education, and art making, located in Treaty 1, the original lands of Anishinaabe, Ininiwak, Anishininiwak, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. Qaumajuq is reshaping the museum model, placing relationships and reconciliation at the heart of the institution. WAG-Qaumajuq is a more than two buildings, it is a public space that provides a platform for artists and embraces the community.
The idea for a space dedicated to Inuit art and artists has grown naturally over the course of the WAGrs"s history. Founded in 1912, the Winnipeg Art Gallery is one of Canada's first civic art galleries, housed in an iconic modernist building in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. Through a focused collecting policy and donations from private collectors, the Gallery amassed a world-class collection of Inuit art, thanks in part to the early presence of the Hudson's Bay Company and the Handicrafts Guild in Winnipeg, where early private collections were formed. As the Gallery's collection grew, the idea for a purpose-built centre for the exhibition of these works began to ruminate. Currently, WAG-Qaumajuq holds in trust close to 14,000 pieces in its growing collection of Inuit art and cares for an additional 7,400+ artworks on loan from the Government of Nunavut, with more than 2,000 Inuit artists from many of the communities of Inuit Nunangat (the four regions of Inuit homeland in Canada) represented in the permanent collection.
As part of the commitment to a decolonial process, an Indigenous Language Keeper Circle was convened to name the Inuit art centre building and the spaces within in a spirit of reconciliation and respect for the original peoples of Canada. Theresie Tungilik, a member of the Indigenous Advisory Circle from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, spoke the centrers"s new name publicly for the first time: Quamajuq, meaning "it is bright, it is lit" in Inuktitut. The name was chosen in response to the beautiful light that fills the spaces of Qaumajuq, and to signify the hope that has always been present amongst Indigenous Peoples and cultures.
The Inuit art centre project was a 10-year-long effort that honoured and centred Inuit and Indigenous voices throughout the process. Woven into the details of design, program, and space was the influence of the Indigenous Advisory Circle, made up of representatives from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat, urban Inuit, and circumpolar Inuit communities such as Alaska and Greenland, and First Nations and Métis members from Manitoba and across the country.
Through an international architectural competition, Michael Maltzan Architecture was selected as the designer of the new Inuit art centre. The building was informed by careful study and site visits to world-class museums and galleries, focusing on examples of recent building projects involving large art and artefact holdings, and the incorporation of visible vaults. This exploratory phase was followed by an essential trip to Nunavut to visit Inuit communities and active artistsrs" studios. The expedition provided a unique opportunity for the project team to experience the ephemeral qualities of Northern environments that celebrate historic and contemporary Inuit art and culture. At that stage, Maltzan made the critical decision to go back to the drawing board to create a new design for the centre – one that could only have been envisioned after this trip North.
Qaumajuq transforms the southern face of the Gallery. Undulating white stone hovers above the ground, lifted to create an entrance hall that is visible from the street. Its abstract quality recalls the scale and carved forms of the North as well as the artwork housed within its walls. The open ground plane affords views into and out of the building and supports connections between the museum and the downtown Winnipeg. The building's design features a three-story glass vault, the world's largest for Inuit art, visible even from the street. In the interactive theatre Ilipvik, state-of-the-art technology virtually connects students, teachers, curators, artists, elders, and community members—from North to South. Qilak, meaning sky in Inuktitut, is the main exhibition gallery on the building's third level. The monumental, sculptural walls, rise thirty feet, evoking the immense geographic features that are the background of many Inuit towns and inlets of the North, the setting in which much of the art is created, and providing unique opportunities for exhibition design. Twenty-two skylights allow curators to play with natural light, an unprecedented factor in most gallery spaces. The inaugural exhibition in this space, INUA, was curated by an all-Inuit team of four curators, with an exhibition design that utilized the unique vertical space in the gallery, populated by shapes based on Inuit tattooing.
Process became important early in the art centre project. The Winnipeg Art Gallery is a colonial institution, and the vision for WAG-Qaumajuq as a place for Inuit art meant that WAG-Qaumajuq also had to be a place for Inuit. WAG-Qaumajuq is a cornerstone for building capacity among emerging Inuit arts and heritage professionals, a place for mentorship, learning, and intercultural dialogue. By amplifying the voices of the artists and promoting cultural understanding, we work to support reconciliation between settler and Indigenous communities. This has meant confronting the reality of colonialism and challenging the structures that our organization has unthinkingly endorsed over the course of our history, a process that will continue for some time as we deconstruct and reconstruct our ways of working and being. Qaumajuq has become a guidepost towards reconciliation, holding the staff and leadership of WAG-Qaumajuq to a higher standard as we work to advance good relations with Indigenous Peoples within the arts. This place serves as both a model and reminder of what can be accomplished together as we centre relationships and community.
After two years of operation, WAG-Qaumajuq is quickly becoming a model for the expanded ways that a museum can serve our communities. The dialogue, education, and wellness possibilities at WAG-Qaumajuq have the potential for huge impact in our community, and we're already starting to see that impact at the Gallery. Art reflects and shapes our experiences, it opens our hearts and minds to new ideas, and it forms and shifts our perspectives. Art heals and inspires, and it fuels understanding in a way that only this medium can. WAG-Qaumajuq is an invitation for the public to see what a museum is, what it does, and what it can be in their community.
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