After backlash over new sign, town hopeful Inuvik artists will get involved in future projects

The Town of Inuvik is questioning how it can get more local artists involved in projects, after none applied to help design the community’s new welcome sign.

Town criticized for hiring Nova Scotia design firm to make new welcome sign

A photo of the new sign for Inuvik, N.W.T., designed by Fathom Studio. Town officials are questioning how Inuvik can get more local artists involved in projects, after none applied to help design the community's new sign. (Fathom Studio/Town of Inuvik)

The Town of Inuvik is questioning how it can get more local artists involved in projects, after none applied to help design the community's new sign.

"What is a better way to reach artists?" said Jackie Challis, Inuvik's director of economic development and tourism.

"There seems to be a gap from people saying they didn't hear of opportunities — that they didn't know we were looking for this. They felt like they might not be part of the process."

The town came under criticism after a CBC article published Saturday on the town's choice to hire a design firm from Nova Scotia called Fathom Studio.

Mayor Natasha Kulikowski said town council first started talking about getting a new sign about four years ago. 

The request for proposals — a formal government bidding process — for the sign went out in September, she said.

We do have a volunteer and participation problem in Inuvik.- Tony Devlin, Great Northern Arts Festival acting chair

Kulikowski said it was advertised widely on the town's website, on its Facebook page, in the Inuvik Drum newspaper, on TV, and on printed posters. It was also discussed during town council and tourism meetings.

No local artist submitted a bid, although one N.W.T. organization did apply, said Kulikowski.

"We went with the best firm that we felt could do the best job," said Challis.

Challis said Fathom Studio said they would consult community members in their proposal, which was an important factor in selecting the company.

Technical process a barrier for local artists

However, acting chair of the Great Northern Arts Festival Tony Devlin said the town's bidding process made it difficult for local artists to apply.

He was interested until he looked at the requirements. Devlin said the tender was very technical with a small element about design in the package.   

He said he felt like it was too big of a job for a local artist, especially in the short window of time to get a proposal completed.

"I think you were asking local artists to do a lot of professional work that none of us have a background in."

Tony Devlin, acting chair for the Great Northern Arts Festival, says the town's technical bidding process made it difficult for local artists to apply. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

He added that residents in town can be complacent.

"We do have a volunteer and participation problem in Inuvik," said Devlin.

However, Devlin said the Great Northern Arts Festival wasn't approached by either Fathom Studio or the town for consultations after the project was awarded.

Personal attacks despite consultation efforts

Challis said the town contacted the Great Northern Arts Festival organizers for consultation. She also said the public consultation process on the sign's design was widely advertised.

She said the town also contacted about 150 organizations and individuals to do one-on-one interviews for feedback, including regional MLAs, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Artists Hub, Gwich'in Tribal Council, and the Arts, Crafts & Technology Micro-manufacturing Centre.

There were two public engagement sessions, Challis said. A booth was set up at the Christmas craft fair for residents to give feedback, she added.

The town also had an online survey in November where people could see the three proposed concepts from Fathom Studio.

This old community sign was designed and painted in 1992. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC )

But none of this has spared Challis from what she describes as personal attacks.

"Sadly in the community, it did become a personal thing and I have received personal messages and personal attacks," said Challis.

"People were calling for me to be let go from the town because of this … I was personally yelled at in stores, and it's become quite upsetting."

Challis said this isn't the first time the town received no response from local artists.

She gave an example of one notable piece of artwork done last year at the community kiosk at Chief Jim Koe Park. After the town's call out for artists was unsuccessful two times, it eventually teamed up with the Inuvik Youth Centre.

The centre ended up bringing in artists from Yukon to do the mural.

Local artist says town gives him opportunities

Inuvialuit photographer Kristian Binder, who runs Eighty One Images, said although the town missed the mark with the sign, he feels that the town has given him lots of opportunities as an artist.

"In other areas, they have been great in involving local artists … I just feel like this situation could've been handled better."

Binder suggested the town contacts artists directly with a specific request for a project.

A mock-up of the winning design for Inuvik's new town sign, produced by Nova Scotia's Fathom Studio. (Submitted by Fathom Studio)

His other suggestion is to get more online feedback. He pointed out that when residents were able to vote online on naming a local road recently, it got lots of response.

But Binder acknowledged that Inuvik residents sometimes stay silent and make a big deal out of a decision after the fact.

"I do wish people would be more vocal beforehand."

Inuvik's economic development and tourism director Challis said the town is going to continue to have opportunities for community art projects.

She is hopeful that going forward, the town can find a way to get more locals to apply on opportunities.

"It just takes partnering, it takes coming to the table, being proactive, and not just all of us sitting at home and typing on [Facebook's] rant and rave."


Mackenzie Scott is a CBC North reporter based in Inuvik.