Gallery moves online after 40 years in Yellowknife

After efforts to branch out and sell northern souvenirs saw little profit, Northern Images will be closing its doors and will dedicate more time and resources to managing an online store.

Northern Images cites a decline in travel and profits during the pandemic

A photo of the Northern Images gallery store front. The gallery made the decision to move online after seeing a decline in travel and not making enough money during the pandemic. (Eden Maury/CBC)

The co-operatively owned Northern Images is closing its doors after over 40 years of selling Indigenous art and supporting Northern artists across the three territories.

"It just became apparent that the blow of COVID-19 was probably the straw that broke the camel's back," said Duane Wilson, vice president of stakeholder relations for Arctic Co-operatives Limited.

"We don't have a clear line of sight of when travel is going to return to normal. Even if it did, how is the overall economy going to be impacted with respect to people spending [and] the discretionary income that they have on what are usually considered luxury items, like art?"

Wilson said the gallery tried to branch out and sell souvenirs as a way to up sales, but it was not enough.

"The financial results of Northern Images impact co-op members across the North because they co-own [it] through their ownership of their local co-op," he said. "It was really just the responsible decision to make for their financial benefit." 

He credits the North's community spirit and diversity for keeping the store open this long.

"Co-ops are about people. They exist to meet people's needs," he said.

That desire to drive and support community is likely what kept the business running a bricks-and-mortar operation for the last couple of years, he said. 

More time and resources can now be dedicated to selling art on an online platform instead of trying to cover the cost of a building, which Wilson said could lead to more money being put back into other member co-operatives around the North.

"Now we've got the ability to focus and direct those efforts into improving other ways in which art can be marketed and sold," he said.

He believes this could result in the sale of more art, which will be positive for artisans and craftspeople in the communities they procure art from, potentially being "more successful in generating that economic transfer from South to North."

'Always a community-based kind of place'

Antoine Mountain was an artist in residence at Northern Images for about five years. He remembers the gallery to be ‘a pretty lively place’. (submitted by Antoine Mountain)

Antoine Mountain was an artist in residence at Northern Images for roughly five years and described the atmosphere of the gallery to be "a pretty lively place."

"I'm going to miss seeing Northern Images right there on Franklin," the artist said.

"It was always a community-based kind of a place," said Mountain. "It had a lot of representation from all, even people who were just beginning to show their artworks or carving. They knew they had a place to go. So in that sense, it's really going to be missed in the community of Yellowknife."

Reflecting on his time painting in the gallery, Mountain remembers witnessing many humorous events like customers trying to swindle better deals for cars out of one artist in residence who also worked as an automotive salesman or the time an art collector from Ontario shocked Mountain's dad during a conversation about the value of Mountain's paintings. 

Following the tide of a shift online

Wilson sees this shift as a part of a greater wave seen around the world, with more artists and businesses moving to online platforms.

Even then, he does not see any other co-op businesses at risk of closure any time soon.

All of the art will be distributed to local galleries that have taken pieces to sell at their stores. The Yellowknife Co-op will have a few pieces for sale too. The rest will be repatriated to Arctic Cooperative Limited's wholesale warehouse in Mississauga, Ont.