Governor's Award profile: Nancy DeCherney

Three things you might not know about Nancy DeCherney:

 

• She moved to Wrangell as a toddler and grew up in Haines.

• She’s a professional chef who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

• She applied to be the executive director of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council in 2004 (her dream job) and didn’t get it.

“I had always wanted this job and I applied for it and they gave it to Karen Lechner,” DeCherney recalled in an interview last week. “It was devastating, really.”

When Lechner left the position two years later, DeCherney was asked to step in and promptly agreed. And now, after 10 years as the JAHC’s executive director, she is being honored with a Governor’s Award for Arts Advocacy for her role there.

DeCherney, who is consistently modest about her accomplishments and quick to praise her collaborators, said the arts council’s impact in the community really began to take off after the council moved into its current location in 2008.

“Who knew all the things that would happen when we opened this building? We said yes and everyone said yes along with us ... and it’s been gratifying to see what the building has turned out to be,” she said.

DeCherney will be honored with one of eight governor’s awards Thursday in Juneau (fittingly, in the JACC) along with fellow Juneauites Steve Henrikson and Vicki Soboleff, as well as recipients June Rogers of Fairbanks, Pat Garley of Palmer, Cyrano’s Theatre Company of Anchorage, Lucy (Ahvaiyak) Richards of Barrow, and Marc Swanson of Seward. Hosted by the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Alaska Humanities Forum, the ceremony is open to the public (see www.akhf.org/)

 

‘PART OF EVERYBODY’S GROWING UP’ IN HAINES

DeCherney’s involvement in the arts had no real starting point; rather, it was an integral part of her childhood in Haines. Her parents, Nicki and Harold Hopper, were involved in the Lynn Canal Community Players and other groups; she danced with the Chilkat Indian Dancers; and vividly remembers attending concerts organized by Maxim Schapiro’s “Alaska Music Trails” series.

“I wasn’t thinking about it as ‘the arts,’ I was just thinking about it as, that’s what people do — people put on plays, they go to dances,” she said. “My mother was a painter and my dad was my art teacher even though he didn’t know how to paint — it was just part of everybody’s growing up, as far as I could tell. I guess I just never really thought of art as a separate thing.”

That sense of art as being integral to community health and vibrancy is something she still strongly believes and supports in her position with the arts council.

“The reason why I do this sort of stuff is I feel like it holds promise for the whole community,” DeCherney said. “We’re going through tough times — financially and, I think, psychically .... I feel hopeful that the arts can help people with this downturn. We’re going to build up. And we’re going to have fun doing it.” She laughed.

DeCherney held a wide range of jobs before coming to the arts council. A graduate of the University of Oregon, and, later, the Culinary Institute of America in New York (where she met her husband, John), she worked at the Fiddlehead Restaurant in Juneau for many years as well as the Governor’s House, where she was the chef for eight years. After she became a mother to two children, she sought out a job she could do partly from home, and took a position with the Juneau Symphony and then Juneau Jazz and Classics.

There she was introduced to June Rogers, executive director of the arts council in Fairbanks and the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts, who helped DeCherney hone skills she was later able to put to use as Rogers’ counterpart in Juneau.

 

TWO GOALS, BOTH FULFILLED

When DeCherney started at the council in 2006, following a job with the University of Alaska Southeast, she was given two big directives from the council’s board of directors: increase the council’s presence in town, and find a new location for the office, which at that time was located in a basement on North Franklin Street. Working closely with then-mayor Bruce Botelho and others, DeCherney and her team convinced the board and the Assembly to take the risk of turning the run-down, 1960s-era armory building on Egan Drive into an arts center. More than 200 volunteers pitched in to help fix it up, and it opened in October 2008.

“I feel like what happened when we moved into the JACC was that that gave the arts council a great deal of visibility,” she said. “It’s become a really lively place; people are in and out all the time. The awareness is there now, where it didn’t used to be. ... The building is a physical (confirmation of) ‘Wow, things are happening in the arts!’”

DeCherney said she sees the JACC and other arts facilities as helping to create a strong economic and social base for locals and visitors in Juneau.

“The idea that Sealaska Heritage (Institute) wants to make Juneau an arts center for the Northwest Coast, I feel like we can do that, and that it can build our economy,” she said. “I think this particular structure (the JACC) augments the SLAM and the Soboleff Building and the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall -- the whole quadrant here is hopeful for our community. It could attract things that we haven’t thought of yet.”

 

REACHING OUT

Shannon Daut, executive director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, said DeCherney’s role in strengthening and expanding the arts in Juneau is “incredibly impressive” — and it doesn’t stop there.

“Not only is her local work laudable, she is also a valuable arts leader both statewide and nationally,” Daut said. “She is so deserving of the Governor’s Award for the Arts.”

The JAHC’s national projects include Poetry Out Loud and the Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child program, both of which reflect its emphasis on arts education. The council’s diverse programs also include an annual concert series, Wearable Art, Poetry Omnibus and Music on the Fly, as well as multiple scholarship opportunities, artist training programs, and coordination of the Willoughby Arts Complex project; all reflect its mission to help create a community “where creativity and innovation thrive.”

DeCherney said the council’s name also points to a less obvious role, one that grounds its work in a fundamental aspect of the arts in general.

“It’s the arts and humanities council, and the humanities is named that because it’s what gives us our human nature, I think. So I feel like this organization is called on to — and should — help people process tragedy, and happiness, and everything else. That is what the arts can do.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect three corrections. Nancy DeCherney's mother's name is Nicki, not Nikki, Hopper. Nancy moved to Wrangell when she was 2 years old. And Karen Lechner didn't leave town in 2006, just the JAHC. The writer regrets these inaccurracies.

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