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Can Walker’s Take Inuit Art Mainstream?

May 2013
Joe Talirunili's most-expensive piece of Inuit art. Stunning, but why does it have to carry the whole genre? Photo courtesy of Joyner/Waddington's

Joe Talirunili’s most-expensive piece of Inuit art. Stunning, but why does it have to carry the whole genre? Photo courtesy of Joyner/Waddington’s

During the past seven years, Joe Talirunili has been the only Inuit artist to generate big headlines in Canada’s mainstream media. He did it exactly twice: once in 2006 when one of his migration-boat sculptures sold at auction for $278,000 and again last year when another boat went for $290,000. He died in 1976, never knowing how popular he’d become.

During that stretch Inuit art has had lots of coverage, but there’s nothing sexier for an editor than an artist setting price records, unless it’s Justin Beiber revealing his narcissism to victims of the Nazis.

Inuit art has never been hyped because the market is stable, it has only a small, rabid group of big-time collectors and remains, surprisingly, a relatively unsexy part of Canadian art.

This week a third headline was available and would have been splashed widely if the genre had been Canadian painters or film distributors.

It would have explained how Ottawa’s Walker’s Fine Art and Estate Auctions was now the world’s undisputed champion of the Inuit resale market, having outdone venerable incumbent Waddington’s for the third time in a row. The final piece fell into place May 12th with auction sales of about $600,000; six days earlier a similar Waddington’s sale didn’t break $400,000. The story behind this shift is familiar to any first-year business student.

To call the art market fickle is to believe that a good night’s sleep solves a lot of problems. Right now Quebec painters are hot but to think that the Richard Doyon acrylic you bought at the Masson flea market for $100 last year is now worth $1,500 (the estimate at a local auction three weeks ago) is not dealing with reality.

Waddington’s got caught up in this. Five years ago it hit $3 million from two auctions and had no real competition in the market. The company rested on its laurels, diluted its supply chain, inflated value estimates and began to believe its own hype. By 2010, sales figures were static.

In 2011 Jeff Walker got access to a divesting collection (John and Mary Robertson), hired one of Canada’s top experts (Ingo Hessel) and staged Walker’s first Inuit event. Since then it has been outselling Waddington’s with better pieces and more-realistic price estimates.

Waddington’s fell into the “brand-equity trap,” where a company thinks it knows more than the market.  It even somehow managed to get the uber-rich-reader Economist magazine to run a full-page story on Inuit art just days before the May 6 sale. The story’s highlight was a 1959 Cape Dorset graphics collection that Waddington’s valued at $400,000 – $450,000 (last bought in 2001 for $160,000). The lot didn’t even sell.

It’s a common mistake and highlights why Inuit art has never really taken off. Its  promoters have been stand-offish, and they still live in the 1970s.

Buyers obtain pieces because they love them, rarely as an investment for later resale, which dilutes market hype. Hessel estimates there are only a few hundred top-level collectors around the world, and Walker sees a changing of the guard. “The significant collectors of the past 20-40 years have stopped buying. What they have are now estates,” he says.

He believes there are enough new (young) buyers coming into the market to compensate, citing his auction’s 743 registered online bidders from 10 provinces, 49 states and a few dozen other countries. Very few pieces sold online, although “electronic” interest creates optimism. But Inuit art is not likely to become mainstream unless it truly pulls itself out of the past.

Huge promotional spending by the Canadian government from the 1950s to the 1970s dragged Inuit art out of a few frozen northern villages and into Canadian minds. But that marketing was traditional – print, radio and TV. To get a new breed interested, sellers can’t just create a Website and think they’ve joined the 21st Century market. For better or worse they have to adapt to new rules.

“I still feel like a missionary. I just want people to realize what a great part of Canadian heritage it is,” says Hessel. But in the next sentence he ponders whether Walker’s should do a workshop for beginning collectors and adds that the Inuit Art Quarterly magazine will start publishing again in September.

I’m not so sure. The magazine was as stodgy a piece of publishing (great pics though) as I’ve ever seen in arts, and workshops are usually taken by hobbyists, not potential collectors. This isn’t to criticize Hessel; he’s not a marketer. But Walker’s now has a chance to take Inuit art into the mainstream by understanding and redefining how the genre fits into today’s culture.

This is something Waddington’s tried and failed at. Compare it to the Inuit Art Enthusiasts, an organization with $43 in revenues and $325 in expenses last year, but which also held an Inuit Road Show at the Art Gallery of Alberta in January, attracting national media attention.

Inuit art is still inexpensive in the art world, but not enough people find it desirable. Walker sidled up to the value proposition in a roundabout way. “It’s completely culturally acceptable to enter the (art) market. Have you ever been to the galleries in (New York’s) Soho. They’re selling $15,000 – $20,000 pieces to first-time collectors.”

Canadians (and Americans and Europeans) are not New Yorkers, but they do have lots of disposable income and they do accumulate things they attach value to. Establishing that value is the next frontier for Inuit art, and the job can no longer rest on Joe Talirunili’s shoulders alone.

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