Yukon’s history as art

The jumbled metal sculpture perched on a plinth near the Yukon Arts Centre tells a colourful territorial story.

The jumbled metal sculpture perched on a plinth near the Yukon Arts Centre tells a colourful territorial story.

It’s about an industrious adventurer who carefully ported 40 dozen eggs over the Chilkoot Trail, then sold them off at profiteering prices to the miners in Dawson.

But, of course, after the long journey they were all rotten.

Egg-starved Dawsonites were so angry they “tarred and feathered him, although we’re not sure that’s what they really did,” says Yukon art curator Ruth McCullough with a laugh.

The sculpture is called A Thousand Dozen by Alyx Jones, and it’s part of the Yukon government’s permanent collection.

The collection is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Behind it all is McCullough and a group of committed patrons called the Friends of the Gallery, or FOG.

When McCullough began the job in 1981, the territory owned nine pieces.

Today it has 284 works including all mediums from paintings to plates, mitts to mukluks and carvings to quilts — about 85 per cent is local.

They say you can tell a culture through its art.

And the Yukon is palpable in the territorial collection.

Piece by piece it chronicles our history.

And after 25 years on the job, McCullough knows the stories behind each one.

There’s a series of roughhewn figures carved by local sculptor Kitty Smith in the 1930s when women weren’t supposed to carve.

“So she’d do it on the side,” explains McCullough.

There’s Allen Edzerza’s carved sculpture that was dedicated to his mother and which cracked in two pieces on the day she died.

Some pieces in the collection are on permanent display, like the Thousand Dozen.

Others are on rotation display in spots around Whitehorse —  such as the airport, the hospital, the foyer of the government building on Second Avenue — and in Mayo, Faro, Teslin and Dawson.

The rest of the pieces wait in storage at the arts centre for their turn to hang on walls or be displayed in glass cases.

In the summer of 2005, more than 100 works were pulled from the vaults and put on display at the Yukon Arts Centre’s gallery.

Works can be displayed in government buildings but only under three conditions, says McCullough.

“You would have to recognize the wall is going to get ruined; you have no choice over what’s put up (because the collection rotates), and if you complain about it we take it down and you don’t get anything more.

“It’s the peoples’ collection and everyone has the right to have their work displayed,” she says.

FOG gets an annual $10,000 contribution agreement from the territory to purchase works.

But $10,000 doesn’t go very far in the art world.

“In 1983, that was a lot of money; we would have been able to purchase many works, but now we can, maybe, purchase two or three depending on prices,” says McCullough.

The money is spent two months after it’s given out.

So the group fundraises, and applies for grants and programs to supplement the stipend.

And many pieces are donated.

There are a few ways the group acquires art.

Artists can approach the Friends with a piece to sell or donate.

The Friends may commission a piece.

Or, the group may go out to shows and galleries to find works to collect.

McCullough remembers a time in the mid-1990s when there was a rush to purchase art in the territory.

“When one gallery had exhibition openings, people would line up to purchase works of art, believe it or not,” says McCullough.

The Friends would get to preview the shows and would scoop up the works for the collection before members of the public had their chance.

“It used to get people really mad,” she says.

Now things are different.

Many of those people who once lined up to buy already have homes full of art, she says.

At Wednesday’s AGM, McCullough expects three of FOG’s nine board members to step down.

The small amount of funding is frustrating, as is the lack of space for storing the art.

So the Friends will have to re-evaluate its game plan, says McCullough.

“Nobody wants to see the collection stop growing because it would stagnate and that’s not a good thing.

“But we have to address the challenges.”

McCullough knows a few people who will step forward to sit on the board, but the group is always looking for new faces.

FOG’s annual general meeting is Wednesday at the Whitehorse library at 7 p.m. The public is invited to attend.