Last month, Heather Igloliorte looked around the room at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) — a rare gathering of First Nations, Métis and Inuit gathered in a circle from across Canada, Manitoba and the North — when the significance of the moment struck her.
"It was exciting," Igloliorte said. "When you realize you’re living through something that’s going to change things. When I’m at executive conferences or exhibition openings or forums — anything in southern Canada — I’m usually the only Inuk in the room. So to be in a space with so many smart, creative thinkers who are involved in the arts and want to see us move forward in a new way, it’s very inspiring."
Igloliorte was referring to the first-ever meeting of the WAG’s Indigenous Advisory Circle, a group of up to 24 representatives from all four regions of Inuit Nunangat; Inuit communities in the Arctic, such as Alaska and Greenland; along with First Nations and Métis from Manitoba and two national members working in the arts field.
Their new role in the WAG is in many ways historic — a groundbreaking effort to "decolonize" a century-old gallery that has for decades held a special place for Indigenous and Inuit art.
Now, however, the goal of the advisory circle is to shape just how that art is curated, interpreted and presented from the inside. From the beginning.
"I think it was sort of a shock to some of the people there that they were going to have their input before the building was even built," said Igloliorte, co-chairwoman of the advisory circle and assistant professor of Aboriginal art history at Concordia University in Montreal. "It’s unusual. It’s exciting because definitely museums don’t usually work that way.
"In fact, we’re thinking about dropping the word ‘advisory’ from the title because... it doesn’t do it justice," she added. "People have more power than that in this circle."
In a nutshell, the advisory circle will have input on everything from exhibitions and curating to staffing and training. They will even have influence on the design of the proposed $65-million Inuit Arts Centre, a four-storey, 40,000-square-foot gallery set to begin construction — if an additional $15 million in provincial funding can be secured — this October.
Advisory circle co-chair Julie Nagam said such Indigenous bodies are lacking in colonial institutions, if not non-existent.
Art galleries and museums have been no different.
"There’s a huge gap, and that gap is partly because we’re in a settler-colonial situation," said Nagam, who also serves as Chair in the History of Indigenous Art in North America, a joint appointment by the WAG and University of Winnipeg. "These institutions reflect our larger understanding of the Canadian genetic makeup, right? So it’s not just Indigenous people. There’s a lot of racialized groups that don’t end up getting a lot of space in different institutions.
"So what art is collected, what art becomes valuable, what artists become important, all of that is dictated by the larger culture. So if we look at how Indigenous people have been pushed out of that narrative, or pushed aside, that makes a big difference in how museums and galleries are seen.
"We’re kind of starting to see a shift," Nagam added. "For us, Winnipeg has one of the largest and fastest-growing Indigenous populations in Canada. That’s why I think it’s important the WAG takes the advisory circle on.
"It’s about a culture, not by a culture. You have to think of those kinds of terms. Why have an Inuit Art Centre or Indigenous content in the gallery if there isn’t strong Indigenous people leading that charge?"
Advisory circle member Jesse Tungilik, executive director of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, said one goal of the group is to increase the number of Indigenous administrators and curators in the arts field, whom he called "under-represented."
"More Inuit need to become involved and get trained to become curators, to become arts managers," Tungilik said from Iqaluit. "If that happens, Inuit will be in a better position to tell our stories and express ourselves in institutions such as the WAG. That would be a huge step forward.
"It basically provides the lens where art is shown and presented and understood by the public at large."
"It’s so easy to fall into stereotypes and clichés when it comes to Indigenous and Inuit art," Tungilik, 32, added. "It’s important for the public to realize that our stories are complex. We really do live in a modern world and our stories are changing, and our art is starting to reflect that."
To that end, one of the WAG’s next major exhibits, INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE — which opens on Sept. 22 and runs until April 2018 — will focus on both leading and emerging Indigenous artists from across the country.
The 10,000-square-foot exhibit will feature both indoor and outdoor installations, from commissioned artworks to tattooing, fashion, sculpture and new media.
WAG director and CEO Stephen Borys said the Indigenous Advisory Circle is already having a fundamental impact on the gallery. "It’s not just lip service," he said.
"All these people have challenged us and pushed us in terms of what we’re doing here," Borys said. "Not only has it changed the design of the centre, but it’s really changed the focus of the WAG. It tells me we’re on the right track.
"It’s interesting that a new centre that’s not even built yet is changing how we do business. And it tells me it’s not just about the building, but the people we serve and the voices that will be heard. It’s kind of amazing."
Igloliorte said the group could also serve as a reconciliation model both in and outside the arts community.
"What does a decolonizing institution look like in the 21st century?" she asked, referring to hiring policies and the makeup of boards. "Can an institution change its own internal structures to better reflect the diverse audiences that are coming in the future?
"It’s not just about the exhibition, it’s really about looking at institutions in Canada in general and thinking through how they might function differently."