Q&A: Preparing to sell the Gallery of the Midnight Sun
Lisa Seagrave is ready to sell the Gallery of the Midnight Sun, but she may not be ready for the gallery to actually, well, sell.
Seagrave says now is the time to place the gallery on the market, after nearly 25 years running a major Yellowknife destination for tourists and buyers of northern art.
But she admits her own plans, once the gallery sells, are a mystery even to her. “I’ll figure it out when the time comes,” she said on Tuesday.
The gallery is on the market for just under $800,000, although purchasing its inventory will cost extra on top. Seagrave says she is prepared to stay on as the gallery’s manager to help any new owner train a replacement.
“I think there’s a bright future for Yellowknife and the arts, and for tourism as well,” she said, urging the NWT government to take the tourism sector more seriously and drawing comparisons with tourism in the Yukon.
“For years they’ve recognized the value of the tourism industry. I think we’ve been very slow to come to that,” said Seagrave. “But I’m hoping that the government is starting to see the light on that.”
The 58-year-old also hopes for a revival in some of the arts and crafts for which the North’s peoples are famous, such as sewing and hide tanning.
“It hurts me to see such a decline in the amount of that work that’s being produced,” she said, acknowledging that she understood why such a change might be taking place.
“At one time, when you walked into the gallery, all you could smell was the smell of tanned moosehide. It was overwhelming … and it’s not like that any more.
“It’s everywhere, not just in the Indigenous community. It’s a very precise skill, you need a lot of patience for it and, frankly, you don’t get paid a lot for it. I certainly understand it. I think it’s the way of the world, and it’s very sad.”
Below, read an interview with Seagrave about her time at the gallery.
This interview was recorded on January 3, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: How did you come to the decision to sell the Gallery of the Midnight Sun?
Lisa Seagrave: It’s been 25 years, next year. And really, we’ve been thinking about it for a while – we recognize it’s a business that probably isn’t going to sell overnight. I’m 58 and I’m getting to be the age where I’m starting to think about the next step. Recognizing that it could take a few years to actually sell the business, we decided now was the time. We waited until things were coming back to normality and that seems to be happening now.
What’s business been like during the pandemic?
My goal from the beginning was just to keep my full-time staff employed and be standing at the end of it without a ton of debt. And we’ve managed to do that, with help, certainly, from the federal government in particular. We’re very grateful for that. I’m very happy that I live in the country that I do, because we wouldn’t be if we hadn’t had that help. We’ve made it through and I’m thrilled about that, because I know many businesses didn’t.
What are you most proud of that you and the gallery have done?
It’s been such a good business to me. From the first chance I had to take it over, I’ve never looked back. I’ve never had one regret. I love what I do. I love dealing with the artists and seeing the amazing talent in the North. I’ve been lucky enough to have been one of the people involved in creating the Old Town Ramble & Ride festival, which has been incredibly rewarding and a big part of our business. My dad actually recently passed away but he was the one who came up with the name for the Old Town Ramble & Ride. So it’s very close to my heart. That’ll be hard to step away from but we’ve mentored some younger generations to step in and we’re hoping that it’ll continue on. And certainly as long as the gallery is here, even if I’m not here, I’m assuming they will be a big part of the Old Town Ramble & Ride in the future.
How would you describe the role that the gallery plays in northern arts?
The thing that’s always been close to my heart is the ladies who sew. Over the years, I’ve met so many wonderful women who are so talented – and, I think, undervalued overall for the work they do – but incredibly talented seamstresses. I’ve seen many come and unfortunately I’ve seen many go. It hurts me to see such a decline in the amount of that work that’s being produced. At one time, when you walked into the gallery, all you could smell was the smell of tanned moosehide. It was overwhelming. People would come in and you could see them breathe it in and go, “Ohh.” And it’s not like that any more. We’d have an entire length of cabinet at Christmastime filled with tanned hide beaded moccasins, beautiful moccasins, and now we have one cabinet.
Why do you think that is?
Tanned hides in particular, it’s not a fun thing to do. It’s very arduous work. It’s hard work and you don’t get paid very much for it. And, you know, I’m no different. My grandmother taught me how to knit but do I knit anything any more? No. There are so many of those skills that our mothers and grandmothers use that are just going by the wayside. And I think that’s everywhere, not just in the Indigenous community. It’s a very precise skill, you need a lot of patience for it and, frankly, you don’t get paid a lot for it. I certainly understand it. I think it’s the way of the world, and it’s very sad.
For an owner taking on the gallery, what do you think some of the opportunities are?
I think there’s still lots going on in the arts and Yellowknife. There are new artists all the time that come in and are extremely talented. I think there’s a bright future for Yellowknife and the arts, and for tourism as well. I think it is going to take a little while for tourism to rebound but it’s coming back. We have a really bright future for tourism, and one of the really gratifying things about being in the gallery is that,in any particular day, I’ll hear Japanese, I’ll hear Korean. I’ll hear Australian accents and South African accents and people from all over the world – European, French – and I don’t think there are very many places where you can walk down the street or be in a gallery and hear all of those different languages and see that mix of culture. I think that’s just going to grow in Yellowknife.
I hope that the government starts taking the tourism industry a little more seriously. You know, in the Yukon, for years they’ve recognized the value of the tourism industry. I think we’ve been very slow to come to that. But I’m hoping that the government is starting to see the light on that.
What makes you think a sale might take years?
It’s quite a specialized type of business and Yellowknife is a pretty small population base. I don’t have anything concrete to go on for that, I guess I don’t have high expectations that it’s going to turn over quickly. And that’s OK with me. I still feel like I’ve got enough energy to put into the business to keep it going. And even if somebody wanted to keep me on as a manager to train someone in the future, I’m more than happy to do that. I’m just looking for the longer term.
Speaking of that longer term, what do you want to do in life after the gallery?
My friend said that to me. She said, “What if it sells tomorrow? What are you going to do?” And honestly, I don’t know. I suppose I should have figured that out beforehand! But I really don’t know at this point. I haven’t gotten my head around that yet. Okay. I figure I’ll figure it out when the time comes.