Yukon arts scene 'so ahead' of the N.W.T., say arts advocates and artists

·5 min read
YK ARCC board member Sarah Swan shows students the art on display in the mobile gallery in a 2020 file photo. (Avery Zingel/CBC - image credit)
YK ARCC board member Sarah Swan shows students the art on display in the mobile gallery in a 2020 file photo. (Avery Zingel/CBC - image credit)

Just a couple days ahead of the Arctic Arts Summit in Whitehorse, the Yukon arts scene seems to be thriving.

But it's not quite the case in the N.W.T., say arts advocates and artists, and some say it's largely due to insufficient support from the Northwest Territories government.

This week, the Canada Council for the Arts is visiting two N.W.T. communities, where board members can hear from local artists.

Ahead of the first meeting Thursday night, Sarah Swan, an arts advocate who helps run the mobile Art Gallery of NWT, said she is impressed by the amount of commitment that the Yukon government has put into its artists.

"The Yukon is just so ahead of us because the government started taking art seriously like 30, 40 years ago," she said. "At that time, they made a plan to build really dynamic and exciting infrastructure."

She said the Arctic Arts Summit being held in Whitehorse is "amazing" and that she hopes one day the event will come to the N.W.T.

"But I'm pretty doubtful that it could, just because we don't have the infrastructure to pull it off yet."

The art gallery Swan helps run is operated by volunteers. She said that it's the only non-commercial art gallery in the N.W.T. and it's "not even a real gallery," she said, "[it's] just a trailer."

N.W.T. fashion designer found success after moving to the Yukon 

Robyn McLeod, a fashion designer, left the N.W.T. to live in the Yukon over four years ago. After moving, she said she experienced more career opportunities. Earlier this month, her work was featured at the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival in Toronto.

McLeod said she tried making purses, earrings, and other accessories while living in the N.W.T., but she was unable to develop a real business plan.

Photography: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography
Photography: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography

"I tried to get help to do work with it, and just access programming there. And it was hard. So it felt really, really difficult to be an artist there [in the N.W.T.]."

It was also harder to get people interested in her work. "If you make art in the N.W.T. and try to bring it to a place that sells artwork, they turn a lot of people away," she said.

McLeod said she found the Yukon's funding application process easier to navigate, was able to access grant money that specifically supports Indigenous artists, and has become more respected as an artist in the Yukon.

"I found that it feels easier here [in the Yukon] to be able to sell your work in different shops. People want your work and are asking for it," said McLeod.

The Yukon distributed nearly 3 times the amount of arts funding this year 

The Yukon and N.W.T. have similar population sizes, 42,051, and 45,061 respectively, according to 2020 data.

Yet according to numbers provided by government representatives, the Yukon gave out close to three times more funding in arts council grants than the N.W.T. during the 2021 to 2022 fiscal year.

In an email, Erin Mohr, senior communication adviser for the N.W.T's Department of Education, Culture and Employment, told CBC News that N.W.T. Arts Council Grants are budgeted at $700,000 per year and the full amount was distributed for the 2021 to 2022 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Cameron Webber, communications analyst for the Yukon's Department of Tourism and Culture, provided a chart in an email to CBC showing that the Yukon had provided a total of $1,917,040 in Arts Council Grants for the same fiscal year. Specifically, $333,156 went to individuals, $93,455 went to artist collectives and $1,490,429 went to arts organizations.

Webber said there are currently seven non-profit and artist-operated galleries in the Yukon.

"Additionally, many cultural centres, museums, and other multipurpose public venues have dedicated exhibition spaces," he wrote.

Aside from territorial government support, there's also a significant difference in the amount of funding that the territories received from the Canada Council for the Arts, the federal sponsor for artists and arts organizations.

Data tables from the Canada Council's website show that the Yukon was given $2,301,325 in grant money during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, whereas the N.W.T. received $466,080. The council received 85 grant applications from the Yukon, and 32 applications from the N.W.T.

Nunavut – with a population under 40,000 – received only 22 applications. Yet the territory was still awarded a total of $2,117,997 in Canada Council funding.

Jesse Wente, the chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, said "fewer applicants" from the N.W.T. isn't "representative of the amount of actual artistic creation that occurs in the region."

Red Works 2021
Red Works 2021

'I want to hear from folks in the Northwest Territories'

The Canada Council is also co-hosting the Arctic Arts Summit alongside the Yukon government. Wente described both the gatherings and the summit as major initiatives that the council has been working on for the past couple of years.

"This is certainly the first time we've done anything like this [gathering] in my time on the board," he said.

The council is in Yellowknife Thursday night and in Inuvik Friday, where they hope to hear directly from N.W.T. artists.

"The council is in the process of developing a strategy to help artists in the North," said Wente.

"That's a commitment the council made some years ago. This [gathering] is part of that and really looking at how to better serve artists in northern communities."

Wente said that northern artists often face challenges around infrastructure and accessibility, but that it was too soon to talk about specific needs.

"I'm probably not the person to say what the Northwest Territories needs," said Wente, who is from Toronto.

"I want to hear from folks in the Northwest Territories, what they think they need, and then figure out how to support that."

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