Museum of History receives important gift of Inuit art from estate of Margaret Hess

This is one of the works of art by Inuit collected by Margaret Hess. Courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History

The Alberta scientist and academic Margaret Perkins Hess was an adventurer and a collector. 

When she died her estate started passing on the artifacts and the art that she had gathered over a lifetime. Now the Canadian Museum of History has received a gift of almost 1,000 works by Inuit artists.

Hess travelled extensively in Canada’s North, and assembled an historically important collection of sculptures, prints and other artifacts.

“(Dr. Hess) was a great supporter of Canadian culture and a champion of Indigenous artists. Her commitment to the North and to its people resulted in a collection of exceptional breadth and quality that we look forward to sharing with new audiences,” said Mark O’Neill, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History, in a media release.

Hess was an internationally recognized art historian and lecturer. She was also a business person, rancher and a philanthropist. She was born in Calgary in 1916 and studied in Toronto in the mid-1930s where she met and befriended members of the Group of Seven.

Dr. Margaret Hess. Courtesy Alberta Order of Excellence.

They in turn, fuelled her passion for art and the wilderness. Those interests led her north where she met Inuit artists and often bought works directly from them. In 1970, she opened Calgary Galleries Ltd., to promote Indigenous art.

This gift includes more than 750 contemporary sculptures, 120 works on paper and 25 examples of historical material collected from 30 northern communities — including Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake) and Inujjuaq (Inujjuaq/Port Harrison), as well as Talurjuaq (Taloyoak/Spence Bay), Naujaat (Repulse Bay) and Kugluktuk (Coppermine).

The works will strengthen the museum’s existing collections. Hess also kept detailed records of the art works that will aid scholarship, the museum said. 

Hess was an officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence and a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. In 1988, the federal government named an  archaeological site on Ekkalluk River after her. 

The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery has also received a thousands of works by artists such as Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and Alex Janvier. And a large collection of West Coast art, including early works by Bill Reid, was given to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

This is not the first donation to the Museum of History by Hess. She previously helped fund the Mercury book series, donated two sculptures by Inuit artists from the Puvirnituq and commissioned Robert Davidson’s gold-on-bronze sculpture, Raven Bringing Light to the World, on display in the Grand Hall.

The museum said in the release that it intends to create a travelling exhibition of Inuit art from the Hess collection.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.