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Art & Architecture With the Inuit Art Centre, the Winnipeg Art Gallery looks North

The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Centre, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture.

Winnipeg Art Gallery

Four regions, across four thousand kilometres. And one building to bring them together. That’s the ambitious promise of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Centre, which officially broke ground on Friday.

The $65-million addition to the gallery, with a competition-winning design by Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles, will expand the downtown Winnipeg facility by 40,000 square feet. It will also represent, in concrete form, the WAG’s expanded mission as a hub for Inuit culture and Indigenous art in Canada. “It is a game-changing, museum-changing project,” WAG director Steven Borys said in a recent interview.

The building will add a new public entrance to the gallery’s monumental 1972 building, giving the museum a highly transparent new entrance and street-level café, but also opening up into a sequence of galleries and a theatre which will house educational programs, performance and interactive exhibitions. The architecture “is set up to create different experiences of Inuit art,” says Maltzan, “and to challenge conventions of how the work has been shown.”

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Since Inuit art emerged from the North around 1950, the work – predominantly stone carvings and stone-cut printing – has generally been shown with an anthropological lens, as craft rather than as fine art. The WAG, which has the world’s largest public collection of Inuit art, is determined to challenge that, Mr. Borys says. “We’re dismantling a pedagogical construct of how we’ve looked at Inuit art,” he says. “The discussion has been very insular.”

Mr. Maltzan’s design is based on the understanding that contemporary Inuit art “is postwar, and evolving fast.” At the Inuit Art Centre ( IAC), contemporary work by Inuit artists will be a constant presence, and the centre will be curated by Inuit scholars. Heather Igloliorte, who is a co-chair of the WAG’s Indigenous Advisory Circle, will lead a team of four guest curators for the IAC’s inaugural shows in 2020. “By creating an Inuit curatorial team that represents each region of Inuit Nunangat” — the Inuit homeland, across the Canadian Arctic — “we’re really bringing four perspectives,” she says, “on how Inuit might present their work differently.”

A three-storey glass vault will showcase many of the WAG’s Inuit carvings.

Winnipeg Art Gallery

The facility is designed to accommodate work in different media and a range of curatorial approaches. A three-storey “visible vault” lined in glass will put much of the WAG’s Inuit carvings on display, hinting at the breadth of that collection. Upward from there will be an “interactive theatre,” meant for public talks, educational programs and dialogues through videoconferencing with artists, elders, and community members in the North. Education spaces will move to the top floor. The IAC will connect to each of the levels of the WAG’s current facility, weaving Inuit art into each part of the institution.

And the showpiece of the new wing will be the Inuit Gallery, a curvaceous 8,000-square-foot space whose ceilings will reach as high as 10 metres. It will be sky-lit, very tall and very open. This is radical. While contemporary Inuit artists are working in varied media and at different scales – the IAC will present a projection work by Zacharias Kunuk, for instance -- the stone carvings that have ruled Inuit art tend to be small, and curatorial convention would place small work in small space. Yet “I’ve had the sense that art looks best in buildings that closely resemble the studio in which it was made,” says Mr. Maltzan, a distinguished architect who has designed a series of museum and gallery projects, most prominently a temporary location for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But on a trip to Nunavut with WAG staff, Mr. Maltzan learned “that a lot of stone small carvings are made outside.” So the IAC “must, in some way, represent something of the landscapes of the North – with a scale and an abstraction that insinuates something of the quality of being there.”

Glass will face the street on the first two levels, with white masonry above.

Winnipeg Art Gallery

On the exterior, the new addition has the appearance of an iceberg: curving, somewhat irregular and predominantly white. Glass on the first two levels, facing the street, gives way to white masonry above. In this way it will slide onto the beloved existing WAG building by local architect Gustavo da Roza, which is wrapped in the pale Manitoba limestone known as Tyndall stone. The existing building “is basically a triangular object,” says Mr. Maltzan, “but it has a back, which is where the IAC will fit.”

The design of the IAC – on which Winnipeg’s Cibinel Architects are collaborating – has evolved since it was unveiled more than three years ago, becoming more open to the street and also more monumental. It will be an unflashy but beautiful object.

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That tone, bold but respectful, seems fitting for the WAG’s mission of outreach and engagement. “It’s not just a new building to house an Inuit art collection,” says Dr. Igloliorte. “It’s so much more than that: It’s meant to be a space where Inuit feel like they have ownership and leadership over the direction of Inuit art, and to showcase the depth and breadth of Inuit art.”

The gallery, she suggests, will become a place of deep importance to the Inuit. “There is no capital of Inuit Nunangat,” Dr. Igloliorte argues. “This is one place we can all come together.”

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