Nunavut arts and crafts industry enduring ... for now

Nunavut’s Inuit art scene is still in decent shape in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But those who help bring the artwork to market in the $33 million industry warn the bubble may soon burst.

'If I could sum it up in one word: disaster,' says Iqaluit-based art dealer

Qavavau Manumee works on a stonecut print at the the Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop in Kinngait, Nunavut. Print-makers there are still hard at work during the pandemic, finalizing this year's renowned Kinngait print collection. (Joemee Takpaungai/Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop)

Nunavut's Inuit art scene is still in decent shape in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but those who help bring the artwork to market in the $33 million industry warn the bubble may soon burst.

"Some people are still business as usual and are able to continue to create art and to sell it," said Janet Brewster, the executive director of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association.

"We're seeing a lot more sales going through social media and I think artists have really been proactive in that."

Inuit-made art sits on display at Bryan Helwig's Northern Collectibles store in Iqaluit. Sales have dissipated since public health orders were issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Nick Murray/CBC News)

Similarly in Kinngait, printmakers are still hard at work on the prestigious Kinngait Studios print collection for later this year.

"The printers here are working daily. They have lots of work to do. They're pretty busy," said Joemee Takpaungai, the assistant studio manager at the Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop.

Although the studio is still buying art from carvers, the shop has seen a 95 per cent drop in sales over the last six weeks with all non-essential travel in Nunavut halted.

"People visiting or people coming up to work with other government departments, they're our main source of customers. Nobody is buying," Takpaungai said.

Money running out as bottleneck forms

One of the biggest players in moving Inuit artwork to southern markets is the Nunavut Development Corporation — a crown corporation of the Nunavut Government.

The corporation partners with buyers in Nunavut to go into the communities to buy from artists. Those buyers then sell it to the NDC — whose offices are in Ontario — to be wholesaled in the South. On average, the NDC will buy $60,000 worth of art a month.

One of the NDC's main buyers is Iqaluit's Bryan Hellwig, who also sells art through his Northern Collectibles store.

Hellwig has still been buying up art for the NDC in recent weeks. But with the Ontario government ordering all non-essential businesses to close, the NDC hasn't been able to receive any of the art he's bought, or pay him for it.

"If I could sum it up in one word: disaster. Inuit art has taken a leap off a cliff in the last month or so. It's been rough for sure," said Hellwig, who says he'll keep up the pace until the money runs out.

"There's still a bit of retail [sales] still going on from dedicated customers who just want to support the galleries. But it's certainly nowhere near a normal level."

Bryan Hellwig stands beside more than $42,000-worth of Inuit artwork destined for the Nunavut Development Corporation in Ontario. With a province-wide closure of all non-essential businesses, he can't ship it to them, nor can they pay him for the order. He says he'll keep supporting local artists during the pandemic by buying artwork "until the money runs out." (Nick Murray/CBC News)

Complicating matters is the bottleneck forming by not being able to move artwork. Both because the NDC can't get to its offices to accept shipments from Nunavut, but also because its clients — galleries, for instance — are also closed and dealing with their own financial constraints amid the pandemic.

"As the shutdowns continue, our clients are going to be affected hugely, which in the long term will affect artists and the whole art industry because the flow of art has stopped," said Yusun Ha, the general manager of the NDC's sales division.

"But if this goes on for two more months, our buyers are eventually going to run out of money, and that means they can't purchase art anymore."

Financial support available, GN says

For its part, the Nunavut Government pointed to a few pre-existing programs to help small businesses in the territory.

Namely the government's Small Business Support Program gives up to $5,000 to help with short-term capital costs — although applicants must be a registered business entity, which many artists are not.

There's also the Community Tourism & Cultural Industries Program which helps with art-related supplies and equipment.

The showroom at the Nunavut Development Corporation in Mississauga, Ont., sits filled with Inuit art. With all non-essential businesses in Ontario ordered closed, the NDC can't sell its artwork to galleries, thus creating a potential supply logjam for artists in the Nunavut. (Yusun Ha/Nunavut Development Corporation)

Still, the Nunavut Arts and Craft Association say more needs to be done.

"Aside from being concerned about feeding their families, people are asking whether there's any way for artists to have some sort of a baseline income through this pandemic," Brewster said.

While Nunavut's department of economic development and transportation says there aren't any plans for guaranteed income programs, artists can reach out to their community economic development officers for help.

"Our best advice to artists right now is try to understand what those supports are," said deputy minister Bernie MacIsaac.

"Even talking about our small business support and the rationale behind that, that's there to help people get through this. It's not there to supplement or replace their income. It's there to help them will bills. We're basically in that mode for everybody. We'll help you get through this."

About the Author

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.