Tom Webster, Iqaluit art dealer and developer, has died at 73

Webster was influential in connecting Inuit artists with southern markets and known for building unique and interesting buildings in the city of Iqaluit.

Webster worked to connect Inuit artists with southern markets

Tom Webster being interviewed on Focus North in December 1985 about soapstone carvings. He died on March 31 at the age of 73.

Tom Webster, an influential dealer of Inuit art and developer in the city of Iqaluit, has died.

He died March 31 from an illness. He was 73.  

Webster first flew North in August 1968 to accept a teaching position in Clyde River, where he stayed for a few years before settling in Iqaluit.

Bert Rose was on the flight up with him and years later they became neighbours.

"We were both schoolteachers at one time, Tom went on to build a business empire, and I stayed in education for all these years."

Webster's first foray into the business world was an Arctic Cat and Polaris snowmobile dealership, but he had many interests.

"Everywhere that he looks he finds something of interest," said Rose. 
Tom and Helen Webster played a significant role in starting the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

"He spoke Inuktitut, he worked with the people and he wanted to help people improve the quality of their lives."  

Webster looked at how people were trying to earn money in the communities and Rose says, as a result, put together a sewing business that one year made the parkas the Northwest Territories team wore to the Arctic Winter Games.

According to his longtime business partner Jacques Belleau, he also "almost single-handedly" brought the movie business to the North.

His first film project was arranging the logistics for the 1977 James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, which filmed its opening scene near Pangnirtung.

Champion of Inuit art

But, Webster might be best remembered for his work furthering the careers of many Inuit printers and carvers.

"He was instrumental in starting the commercialization of the fine arts that were here, and then he got into marketing it... and opened his own studio," Rose said.

He worked to bring Inuit art to southern markets, starting by carrying carvings back from communities loaded on a Ski-Doo.

"It's not like it was easy to be an art dealer, we travelled for days with carvings in order to bring them to Iqaluit and ship them South," Belleau said.

"We slept on more floors than we can remember, him and I. And we were always welcome," Belleau said. "We were looked after like friends."

Tom and his wife Helen Webster's encouragement is recognized in the text accompanying Iqaluit artist Jackoposie Oopakak's work in the National Gallery of Canada. 
The Trigram building was one of Tom Webster's development projects. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

Webster's efforts also contributed to the establishment of the museum in Iqaluit.

His artistic sensibilities were also reflected in the unique buildings he built and upgraded around town.

Anne Crawford first knew Webster as her landlord. 

"He would announce something like, 'I am going to have to build on top of you, but don't worry we're just inserting three pillars into your office'," Crawford said.

He built the Trigram and Sivumut buildings, but his interest in developing may have come from disassembling and moving the A-Frame houses across the bay by qamutiik, to build himself one of the first private homes in the city.

"He could see opportunities and find ways of putting them together," Rose said. "He loved the North and he'll be missed by a great number of people."

with files from Jane Sponagle