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Arctic art has changed, gallery owner says

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Mark London runs Montreal’s only gallery exclusively devoted to Inuit carvings, tapestries and limited edition prints ELCA LONDON GALLERY PHOTO
Mark London runs Montreal’s only gallery exclusively devoted to Inuit carvings, tapestries and limited edition prints ELCA LONDON GALLERY PHOTO

MONTREAL – Mark London grew up in the Elca London Gallery, of which he has been director for the past 25 years.

“The gallery and I were conceived at the same time,” says London, son of Jonas London, an office manager and McGill University commerce graduate, and Elca London, who held a master’s degree in psychology from McGill and worked at psychiatric hospitals. His mother’s means of earning a living was about to take a creative turn when Mark was in utero.

“When school was out for the summer, my late mom would take my sister and late brother to the Maritimes where she was from,” he says.

“One year, it was decided that a number of Saint John [N.B.] artists would send some artworks to my mom, who would either try to find buyers for them here or find a gallery to represent them. A truck showed up at the house with a crate so big it wouldn’t fit through the front door.”

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The attempt to borrow the tools to dismantle the crate became a neighbourhood block party, and a number of sales were made to the fascinated helpers.

“There were packing slips, and my mom found the prices for everything and remitted the money to the artists. She got a phone call shortly thereafter asking why she had taken no commission and she said, ‘What do you mean? I didn’t do this for money!’ They insisted and the light bulb went on.

“She had two young children and one on the way, and she decided that it might be easier making a living from her own home than dealing with the criminally insane.”

By 1960, the gallery found such success in the Londons’ basement that when diners at the nearby Ruby Foo’s restaurant began phoning for appointments to see the art after their meals, it was time to move to a public space.

In years to come, the gallery hopped from quarters on Lucerne Road to Sherbrooke at Guy streets, then, after his mother passed away in 1991, down the street to the Alcan building, and finally to its present location in Old Montreal at 224 St. Paul St. W.

Through the years, the ever-appealing Inuit art took over from Canadian and American painters.

Though Inuit sculptures have remained more traditional, the new generation of artists up north in the legendary Cape Dorset printmaking collective is turning away from the familiar images. There are few mythological birds and scenes of the old way of life that were popular since the 1959 inception of the annual Cape Dorset collection.

This is inevitable given the amount of contact with the south and how the Inuit now live in settlements that usurped their nomadic relationship with the land.  Planes, snowmobiles, even spools of thread have become the new imagery.

“The young artists have grown up with television. They live in houses, not igloos. We see artists like Annie Pootoogook, who won the Sobey Art Award doing drawings of conjugal violence and drug addiction. It’s not your father’s Inuit art. Societal problems make for some very poignant images, but do they belong in your home?” says London, who also recognizes that “if we have new artists on the Inuit side, we have to have new collectors on the buyers’ side.”

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This imbalance is headed for its own tipping point.

Older collectors are dying off or downsizing. Young people are buying smaller living spaces with little room to hang art.

London still finds treasures in the secondary market, acquiring rare older prints and selling them to museums or to those wishing to crown their collections with works they couldn’t find earlier. Sculptures are still the main draw for corporate gift-giving.

“You can’t turn away any business these days but I’ve resisted thus far selling maple syrup,” London says