A new virtual art store in Inuvik has launched, allowing customers around the world to purchase artwork from the Beaufort Delta and learn about the artists behind the pieces.
The store – called Artisan Collective – officially went live on Monday. It is run by the Town of Inuvik and sponsored by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC).
Jackie Challis, the town’s economic development officer, said the idea for the Collective came to fruition when this year’s Arctic Development Expo went virtual. The town decided to collect art from communities in the Beaufort Delta and create an online store for the two-day event.
“The intent was primarily as a pilot project, specifically targeted and exclusive only to people that had registered for that Arctic Development Expo,” Challis explained, adding that organizers then opened to store to the general public several days later.
The town purchased all the artwork outright to ensure artists were paid, whether or not their products sold online.
There are 25 artists from across the Beaufort Delta featured on the website. Products range from handcrafted slippers, sealskin mittens, and earrings to soapstone carvings, ulus, and traditional dolls.
Alongside selling artworks, the website provides artist profiles so customers can get to know who is making the creations.
“People don’t just want necessarily to buy a pair of mitts – they want to know who made them, what materials they come from,” Challis explained.
“That’s also just an important part of sharing culture, sharing knowledge, allowing the Indigenous perspective and Indigenous story to be told by the people that make the items.”
Arts and crafts are a significant sector for economic development in communities across the Beaufort Delta, Challis continued. Not only are they an important tourist attraction, but it offers residents an extra source of income.
“Arts and culture are such an integral part of life here,” she said. “It’s trying to create opportunities that have low barriers to entry, that aren’t expensive, that aren’t complicated.
“We hear from a lot of people, ‘That’s enabled me to buy gas for my boat to go to my camp, or I was able to buy more supplies, or I put that towards getting my kids school supplies.’
“When you talk about economic development, while it’s not a large industry … because it’s actual cash in the hands of residents being used … I see it as a benefit, hopefully, for people in the region.”
The town is focused on selling its current Collective inventory before it considers acquiring more. There are also plans to display pieces at the Arctic Market and in the new Visitors Centre set to be constructed this summer in Inuvik.
Should a different local organization or Indigenous government want to take on the project in future, Challis said the town will happily hand over the reins.
Reducing barriers for Gwich’in artists
Inuvik and the IRC aren’t the only groups looking to invigorate the Beaufort Delta arts sector.
The Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) has launched a research project to determine what economic barriers artists in the Gwich’in region are facing and how to address them.
Ashley Ens, a Gwich’in resident, is acting as lead researcher for the project. She told Cabin Radio she has interviewed almost a dozen artists in the area so far to learn about the obstacles they experience.
Common themes have emerged already, such as materials being inaccessible and a lack of reliable internet making online commerce difficult.
Addressing these hurdles is of the utmost importance for the Gwich’in people, Ens said.
“Thinking of arts and crafts from a social and cultural and economic lens, it provides a lot of opportunities for Northerners,” she said. “It’s a way that we can practice culture, and also pass things on through generations. It’s a way that we can be proud of the things that we create as a Gwich’in Nation.
“I think it’s just about creating meaningful opportunities to participate in this economy.”
Ens will continue to interview Gwich’in artists throughout the summer. Participants can connect with her through Zoom and are being given a $100 honorarium for their time.
Once finished compiling interviews and analyzing the results, Ens will then create a final report and action plan to present to the GTC in September.
Those interested in participating in an interview can reach Ens by phone at 587-394-7865 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.