Edwards School of Business students are now enjoying the addition of unique Inuit sculptures in their college’s atrium, thanks to a donation from alumnus Sam Schwartz.

Seeing the potential within: economics alumnus inspires students through Inuit art sculptures

You wouldn’t typically associate a business school with fine art, but alumnus Sam Schwartz saw a fitting connection. He has donated the largest Inuit and First Nations sculpture collection in the university’s history, in memory of his wife and avid art collector, Margaret Lois Schwartz. He hopes it will inspire students in the Edwards School of Business, the college that he graduated from in 1950.

The collection of nearly 100 pieces, which includes Inuit sculptures, Alaskan carvings and north-west coast figures made from argillite, a black slate stone indigenous to Haida Gwaii, BC, had been carefully acquired by the couple over a span of nearly 40 years, Sam explains.  Margaret was the driving force behind the collection. As a nurse and artist, with a great interest in human and animal anatomy, Sam says she was impressed with the beauty and realism of Inuit art, and how faithfully the artists would execute their carvings.

While acquiring the significant collection, one important characteristic to the couple was that most pieces were hand-crafted no later than the mid-1900s. Sam explains, "In doing so, we recognized we were looking at carvings that must have required extraordinary creativity and dedication by the artist.  As there was no electric power in the north during the time they were created, people had to remain indoors, their lighting by lamps — likely fueled with whale oil. In that dim light, they would take a block of stone and study it, and suddenly see in that block the figure that had been trapped inside. It might be an animal or a shaman — the mission of the artist was to free it from its surroundings."

Schwartz sees this process of discovering a piece's potential as the most intriguing aspect of the artists' work, and wants students in the Edwards School of Business who view the art to be encouraged in their own lives. "I recognized that these were pieces by people working under considerable disadvantage and hardship. They demonstrated creativity and dedication."

Schwartz uncovered his own potential while studying at the University of Saskatchewan. A native of Moose Jaw, SK, he originally enrolled in the College of Arts and Science to pursue his B.A. in Chemistry. Once completed, he changed direction to reveal his true passion — economics — and switched to the College of Commerce (now Edwards School of Business) to complete his second undergraduate degree.

Since then, he's had a successful career with the energy company Conoco in a variety of roles, including leading international operations to expand the company's reach across Europe and in Libya. Before retiring in 1988 he concluded his career as an Executive Vice President of Conoco and as a Senior Vice President of DuPont. Now, Schwartz says, it's time to give back.

Daphne Taras, Dean of the Edwards School of Business, is thrilled that her students will benefit from this generous donation, and says it helps reinforce the relationship between business and art. "It's completely appropriate for a business school to celebrate artistry," she says.  She hopes that the placement of the collection, in a well-lit atrium on the main floor of the college, will help motivate students in their studies.

"The art inspired us to turn what was a very rundown but beautiful atrium…..into a living gallery," Taras says.  Renovations to the space included installing large, glass display cubes placed intermittently through the atrium to house the various pieces, between comfortable new lounge chairs where business students spend time studying and socializing. She says, "I wanted students to be sitting among the art, so that it's alive within the building. Now, students sit within a foot or two of what is among the most beautiful art in Canada."

Sam Schwartz says this placement fits perfectly with his vision and is pleased with his decision to donate the incredible collection to his alma mater, rather than a museum, because he wanted visitors to have more interaction with the art.  He says, "I wanted something inspirational for students — that they could see without the reverence of a museum."

Kent Archer, director and curator for the university's art galleries, says that the university's collection did not previously contain anything similar that would rival the scale of this donation. However, he says the artwork complements the university's collection quite nicely.  "This donation develops our Inuit and First Nations art collections considerably, in both breadth and scope. It contributes important examples of north-west coast art previously not represented in the university collection." He added the argillite pieces are particularly interesting as they are unique examples of work.

Because of the distinctive nature and scope of the collection, Archer worked with a local, independent curator with an expertise in Inuit art, Norman Zepp, in the acquisition process. Zepp and Archer visited Naples, Florida to first assess and catalogue the collection in Schwartz' home and were both immediately intrigued. Zepp, who was previously the Curator of Inuit Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, notes, "When I saw it, I immediately thought this collection was significant. It's a first-rate collection with very fine examples of sculptures by best known Inuit artists, and some of their finest examples."

Already, the majority of the collection is displayed in the permanent installation, with plans to rotate in new pieces at regular intervals, including Schwartz' personal favourite — the Drum Dancer — a carving of a shaman.  The piece is fitting for those looking to achieve more, as Sam says it represents maximum effort. He says, "Seek the counsel of this piece. If you want stimulation to do more…you just look up at him!"

Schwartz will make the trip back to Canada to visit the collection in its new home, and be honoured at the official collection launch event, this spring.

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