Seeguapik of Povungnetuk trims the stone between arm and face, 1956. Peter Murdoch
HBC's interest in Inuit art goes back to the 1930s when the Company tried to develop a market for Inuit handicrafts. The effort was a valiant one, but the economic downturn of the Great Depression proved to be a stumbling block. Things grew more positive for the Inuit art market in the 1940s. It was the determination of one man in particular, James Houston, which inspired a surge of interest in Inuit carving. In 1948 Houston visited the Canadian Arctic and was overwhelmed by the beauty he saw in Inuit carvings. He began collecting samples of Inuit carvings made of stone, ivory and bone with the help of Norman Ross, who was Post Manager in Inukjuak, formerly Port Harrison. Houston brought back many works to be exhibited at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in November, 1949 in Montreal.
The success of the exhibition drew the attention of what was then called the federal Department of Mines and Resources. Encouraged by what it saw, the ministry provided a grant to support Houston on further buying expeditions. Using Hudson's Bay Company airplanes, Houston traveled into Arctic Québec (Nunavik) and Nunavut on behalf of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. He furthered the Guild's mandate to encourage, revive, and develop Canadian handicraft and art industries throughout the entire country as well as to find markets, both in Canada and abroad, for the products of skilled craft workers. Hudson's Bay Company assisted the Guild by placing certain of the Company's facilities in the North at their disposal. In 1953 Hudson's Bay Company became the supplier of Inuit art to the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, since it had both the funds to acquire large quantities of carvings and a means of transporting and warehousing them. Eventually, carving became a major source of income for many Inuit people and for entire regions, particularly Povungnituk and Inukjuak.
James Houston, 1960
James Houston was also instrumental in bringing the art of Japanese printmaking to the Inuit. They adopted the art form with exceptional ease and made it their own. The Inuit printmakers had tremendous success selling their work to a public interested in learning more about the Inuit culture and imagination.
By the mid-1960s three groups were busily involved in developing the native art business. In 1965, the Co-operative Union of Canada (CUC) helped establish Canadian Arctic Producers (CAP) Co-op to assist northern people in controlling the marketing of their own products. The Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec (FCNQ) was established in 1967 to serve as an engine for economic development controlled by the people of Nunavik themselves. Among the areas the FCNQ concentrated on was that of the burgeoning native art market in which it functioned as the largest wholesaler (The cooperative movement in northern Québec was founded in the late 1950s by Oblate Father André Steinmann and former HBC Manager Peter Murdoch). Meanwhile, Hudson's Bay Company had also developed a wholesale marketing agency for Inuit art. Formerly located at the Montreal Merchandise Centre on Hymus Boulevard, Pointe Claire, Québec, this division of the Company moved to 195 Place Frontenac, Pointe Claire in 1979, operating under the name of Hudson's Bay Company, Arts and Crafts.
Animal Acrobats by Jamasie Teevee, engraving, 1971. Reproduced with the permission of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Ltd., Cape Dorset, Nunavut.
Its customers were primarily galleries but also included museums, fine craft stores, boutiques and department stores across Canada, the US and Europe. The Managers of HBC's Northern Stores in the carving producing communities bought art directly from the Inuit carvers. To help them with their purchases, representatives from the Hudson's Bay, Arts and Crafts organization would travel to Arctic stores explaining what to look for when buying Inuit carvings and how to come up with a fair price. James Houston, then described as "Arctic Representative for the Canadian Handicrafts Guild," also wrote a handbook for buying Inuit art entitled: Eskimo Handicrafts - A Private Guide for the Hudson's Bay Company Manager. This internal publication provided instructions on what to look for, how to assess quality, what sort of prices to pay and how to market Inuit art.
In 1981 Hudson's Bay Company opened a distribution centre and showroom in Toronto for Inuit art, located in the new HBC Fur Sales Building on Skyway Avenue near the airport. Jackie Findlay, then Marketing Manager of the Hudson's Bay Company Arts and Crafts Centre in Montreal, moved from Québec to run the Toronto showroom. The Montreal showroom remained open and there was a small stock in Winnipeg. In 1983 Quintin Finlay, then Assistant General Manager, Central Division of the HBC's Northern Stores Division and based in Winnipeg, joined the operation as the Director of Marketing. It soon became apparent that Toronto had become the centre of the Inuit art market, so operations were consolidated there. This involved moving all stock - a huge inventory - from Montreal and Winnipeg to Toronto. About the same time the business was renamed the Inuit Art Marketing Service (IAMS), to better reflect its nature. Carving purchases were more closely supervised to ensure consistent quality. Dealers from across North America and Europe contacted IAMS for Inuit carvings. In 1987 HBC sold off the Northern Stores Division to a group of investors including a number of employees. The IAMS became part of the new company, which began operating as The North West Company in 1990.