West Baffin Co-op is celebrating its 60th anniversary in Cape Dorset and Jimmy Manning has been there for much of it. Manning, who has worked for the Co-op for many years, recalls being a young boy peering into the print shop with his friends.
“We’d climb over to the window and see what was going on in there. There was very interesting artwork in there and a lot of fumes from ink,” Manning laughed. “We were very curious.”
It was in 1959 that the Co-op began releasing an annual Cape Dorset print collection in Stratford, Ont.
In the early 1960s, a small retail store was established that competed with the Hudson’s Bay store. A board of directors was eventually put in place to guide the venture, which is the oldest member of the Arctic Co-operative network.
“Their idea was to try and get more employment for local people because they were no longer in the outpost camps,” Manning said, noting that the fur trade industry – mostly based on foxes and seals locally – had fallen on hard times.
New Co-op members received a share in the store.
“That’s how it grew over the years,” Manning said, “because the money made from the Co-op goes back to the community and goes back to the members, if they had a successful operation.”
A small bakery was launched in the 1960s and he remembers buying breakfast – an egg, toast and coffee – for 25 cents per plate. Fresh bread was also made daily.
Manning was hired at the Co-op in 1970 and was trained to be a carving buyer. He spent many of his days in the print shop that intrigued him as a boy. He would go on to become manager of the Co-op’s Kinngait Studios.
In the mid-1980s, a marketing arm was developed in Toronto, known as Dorset Fine Arts.
“It has been very successful for the Co-op here to handle their own product through the dealership in the south,” said Manning.
Some of the artwork that the West Baffin Co-op has acquired over decades will be displayed at the Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop, named in honour of renowned artist Kenojuak Ashevak. The September official opening of that facility – co-managed by the West Baffin Co-op and the Hamlet of Cape Dorset – was the realization of a dream that began in the 1980s, Manning said.
“Now we have a wonderful, beautiful place today to house all this stuff,” he said. “(There’s been) lots of progress. Now our children, grandchildren will be able to see some of the work in future dates, and Cape Dorset is visited every summer (by people) from around the world.”
During the 2018 fiscal year, Dorset Fine Arts realized total sales of close to $2.8 million for drawings, prints and carvings while copyright and licensing fees amounted to approximately $140,000, according to William Huffman, marketing manager of Dorset Fine Arts, based in Toronto.
Co-op plans an eventful anniversary year
In conjunction with West Baffin Co-op’s 60th anniversary year, the Co-op has assembled an ambitious agenda of promoting Cape Dorset art nationally and internationally.
The history and development of Cape Dorset artwork will be discussed in Paris, France, and in Bern, Switzerland, later this month.
“We’ve always had traction in Europe… particularly when the federal government actively promoted Inuit art through its cultural diplomacy programs,” Huffman said.
The Ontario capital will be the site of the first major solo presentation of Shuvinai Ashoona’s pencil crayon and ink drawings at a public institution. The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery will exhibit the Ashoona collection from Jan. 26 to May 12.
In addition, a Kenojuak exhibition will tour the country while a Living Legacies exhibition will pass through the United States and Europe. The latter will showcase “mid-career and emerging artists” from Cape Dorset.
Huffman marvelled at the level of rich artistic talent that exists in the community of 1,400 people.
“It’s kind of extraordinary that we can do a whole program internationally with only artists from this tiny little community,” he said. “People will discover new work by artists they’ve never heard of.”
As well, a special spring print release – comprising lithographs, etchings and stonecut prints – will precede the 60th anniversary fall print collection.
Also in the fall, a delegation representing the charitable group Partners in Art is expected to visit Cape Dorset to pursue a professional development program for artists, which could involve a $25,000 contribution.