Judith Varney Burch '58

Inuit art expert
October 1, 2008
Judith Varney Burch '58

Raoul Manuel Schnell

A recurrent theme in Inuit art is the relationship between humans and the wilderness of North America's Arctic edge. From colorful tapestries depicting fantastic scenes of shamanism to whale vertebrae carved into totems, the artwork blurs boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Judith Burch fell in love with Inuit art more than two decades ago. Today, she owns and operates galleries in Nova Scotia and Virginia; curates exhibits at museums, universities, and embassies around the world; leads educational workshops for children and adults on Inuit people, culture, and artwork; and serves as a research collaborator for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

After growing up in a small town in Illinois, she arrived at Duke eager to expand her horizons. She majored in sociology, minored in religion, and grew committed to service as president of the YWCA. She credits Duke for fostering her interest in creating links that bridge cultures.

"I was an activist," says Burch. "I remember going to meetings about black-white relations and desegregation." While their children were still young, Burch and her husband bought a second home in Stonehurst, Nova Scotia. Burch became interested in Inuit art work on display around town. She began collecting pieces here and there and learning all she could about the people who produced them. In the ensuing years, she's crisscrossed the Canadian Arctic, sharing conversation and caribou sandwiches with artists who have become friends. She now serves on a planning body identifying public-policy priorities for the arts of Canada's Nunavut Territory.

Burch is particularly proud of a traveling educational exhibit she organized called "Culture on Cloth" that features artists from a tiny town in the Nunavut Territory. The exhibit began in Washington, then headed to locations in Mongolia, China, India, Mexico, Latvia, Russia, Japan, Korea, and Mexico. It was scheduled to open in Paris in September and at venues in Germany and England next year. In addition to giving lectures, Burch occasionally conducts workshops with local children, who craft their own culturally specific art after viewing and learning about the Nunavut artists.

Creating direct connections through art is what matters to her most, she says. She acknowledges that she sometimes turns down buyers who seem more interested in the art as an investment than in its meaning as a living symbol of the Inuit people. Her collections have been used for university core curricula, and she hopes to inspire others to preserve works of art as educational resources. "I would rather sell collections to museums, where they can be on view for many years and for many people to see."