Donating Her Inuit Art Collection

I was headed to my mother’s condo, where the family would assemble for the trip to Guelph. On the way, I passed Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, and thought about how unusual it was for a church to be named for a mortal individual, and more broadly about the ways we strive to be remembered by future generations.

Those who have the energy and cleverness to amass wealth sooner or later face the question of what to do with it. If the wealth is liquid, once a decision is made, it is relatively easy to implement. If the wealth is illiquid, implementation becomes much more complicated.

In the seventies, my parents established a store that sold weavings, wall hangings, and other items for interior design. Some things, like clumpy weavings, macrame, and marimekko fabric, were very seventies. But my mother became interested in Inuit art, and over the years, she began to focus on Inuit sculpture, prints, and graphics. I’m not exactly sure why: I think it was out of respect for the Innu artists’ ability to represent the challenges of their way of life. My mother felt a responsibility (and opportunity) to make their art available in this large metropolis. After a while, the Pareto rule began to assert itself: Twenty percent of the items – the Inuit art – were responsible for eighty percent of the business.

My parents retired from the business in 1984, but my mother retained and deepened her interest in Inuit art. She continued to buy from wholesalers and sell from her house to loyal customers. Almost every summer she went north on a buying trip, adding exceptional pieces to her inventory. Ultimately, her personal collection grew to several hundred pieces, one of the major private Inuit art collections in Canada. Along the way, she made some major donations, for example to the Mount Sinai and Baycrest hospitals and to the Rotman School of Management. When she moved from a house to a 1500 square foot condo about a decade ago, the pieces she took with filled several rooms.

My siblings and I have some interest in Inuit art, but do not share her passion. The question we faced as a family is what to do about the majority of the collection that the three of her children were not interested in inheriting. This became a family preoccupation for several years. There was far too much to attempt to sell. Donations were also a possibility.

In the last half-century Inuit art has achieved iconic status as Canadian art. The primitivism of the stone carving – its absence of detail and ornamentation –fits well with “Canadian school” of public architecture, with its blending of stone, wood, glass, and natural light. The problem with donating Inuit art to display in these buildings is that the art is part of the building, in effect a sort of accent. And there are limits on the amount of accenting any building can use. Thus, the Borins donation to the Rotman School shows both the strength and limits of this approach.

My mother began to look for a place that wanted the entire collection for its artistic value. Through the good offices of Inuit art consultant Heather Beecroft, the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre (MSAC) at the University of Guelph contacted my mother. The MSAC has a fine collection of Inuit wall hangings and graphics, but less sculpture. So a donation that is primarily sculpture would complement their collection very nicely.

My mother had three large display shelves in different places in her condo. She gave the MSAC the shelves, and they now cover an entire wall in a small lecture room. The cases display a variety of pieces, some large works in stone and others tiny ivories. In addition, my mother donated a number of large pieces carved of white quartzite. One, a tall sedna, or ocean spirit, will be displayed in the university’s arboretum, and others in the gallery.

Finally, my mother gave the museum an amautiq – a woman’s parka with a large hood for carrying an infant – that she had made. The amautiq, a replica of one in the ROM, is of heavy wool, with 2000 small beads that she added herself. The amautiq required enormous perseverance and discipline.

We attended the reception at which the gift was unveiled last week. My mother was interviewed by MSAC’s director and curator Judith Nasby, and spoke about some of the pieces and how she acquired them. I realized, then, that each piece has at least three stories – the story it tells itself, the story the artist tells about how (s)he came to make it, and the story the owner tells about how (s)he acquired it. Our thanks go to Judith Nasby, curator of contemporary art Dawn Owen, and coordinator of education and development Aidan Ware for organizing the event.

I greatly admire my mother for the role Inuit art has assumed in her life, in terms of both her passion to gather a fine and deep collection, and her finding a new home for the collection that will preserve it and use it to further the appreciation and study of Inuit art.

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