When I made the documentary ‘Everything was Carved’ with some members of the Haida Nation during their visit to the Pitt Rivers museum, I came to learn and appreciate the complex relationship between museums and what in this field are called ‘source communities’. Whilst the Haida expressed their wish to have their objects back (although the attribution of who made what and what belongs to whom is not always straightforward), they were also aware that museums had helped to increase the fame of their Nation. Haida objects, like those of other Nations in the Pacific Northwest, have come to be collected by countless museums and private collections across the world since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. This has meant that the art of this region, albeit having different styles to the more trained eye, is quickly recognisable and known the world over. Northwest coast art has become a highly prized collectible for museums and the international art market.
A visit to downtown Vancouver by the water front is a good demonstration of the value the art of the Northwest coast has acquired. This upscale neighbourhood is lined with galleries and boutiques attracting tourists and art buyers. As Rocque conveyed to us, the art of the Northwest coast is the most valuable in the indigenous fine art world with the market worth an estimated one billion dollars a year. This high demand for the art of this region has meant that opportunities and financial rewards have been achieved by some talented artists. We saw a number of pieces from such artists at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery where we were shown around by a gallery worker whose love for the art of this region was evident as he showed us some of his favourite pieces. Here we saw intricately beautiful sculptures and masks made by instructors and former students from the Freda Diesing School, alongside the work of other famous Northwest coast artists. Some of these pieces were selling for thousands of dollars and the works of desirable artists did not stay long in the Gallery before being bought up.
The Spirit Wrestler Gallery has a close connection to the School, with the director of the Gallery lecturing there once a year and the students having their degree show at the Gallery. As the gallery worker explained to us, the degree show is a big deal for students and their families who come all the way down to Vancouver from northern B.C. After graduating, a number of students carry on trying to make it as artists. Some obtain commissions or win competitions and manage to make a living. Others have gone back to their communities and become art teachers or taken on other professions. Some former students have stayed on in Terrace and stared, according to Dempsey, a Northwest coast art scene in town.
If they do manage to break into the fine art market how these artists will negotiate the two worlds of art they live in, that of art as a part of a living culture and that of art as a set of objects for contemplation and highly valued commodities, remains to be seen. The instructors at the School, Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Ken seem to have found some kind of balance on this matter and their concern for their art and their communities is clearly seen in their work as teachers.
Institutions like the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver have also managed to find some accommodation between the world of objects as part of a museum and the world of objects as part of a living culture.
What is interesting in both of these cases is to see how the same object, whether a mask, sculpture or totem pole, can have such different meanings and values and serve different functions depending on the set of institutions and cultural practices that surround it.
An endnote that would take a great deal of work and further research to understand and give full justice to, but which is important to say anyway. The world of First Nations art, of billion dollar art markets, of beautifully made objects of interactive museums lives within a broader context of the continuing problems faced by First Nations communities in terms of poverty, the break up of families and communities, violence and drugs, unemployment and health issues. As was pointed out to us by different people, the gallery zone in downtown Vancouver is next to what is supposed to be the poorest neighbourhood in the whole of Canada and one where many First Nations peoples live – which lies just a few blocks to the east.