Alaska’s capital city is known for artistic acumen, the population replete with talented individual artists and the wider community served by an array of thriving arts organizations. First Fridays here are vibrant, diverse, and incredibly popular; Juneau residents often must choose between competing performing arts events, local and imported, at any given weekend. Ubiquitous artistic opportunities enhance the quality of life here in Juneau so as to attract residents and impel them to stay, and delight visitors with fond memories urging their return.
Juneau is the second community to serve as the seat of government for all of Alaska. Alesandr Baranof set up an ephemeral post in 1799 at New Archangel (later to become Sitka) which in 1808 effectively became capital of the Imperial Territory of Alaska by virtue of being the permanent headquarters for the Russian Imperial Co. For much of the 19th century Sitka was known as the Paris of the Pacific for its refinement and cultural comforts.
The complex beauty of Tlingit art and culture preceded western presence for 10,000 years, continuing strongly and proudly today. The modern City and Borough of Sitka shares with its successor Juneau the quality of having more artistic and cultural activity that any one might reasonably expert for a town of such relative smallness and extreme remoteness.
Sitka is world-renowned for the Summer Music Festival, to which thousands flock annually, coming up again this June and July for a 40th year. The town also boasts an increasingly impressive jazz gathering, and countless other treats throughout the year. The Sitkan arts activity of most import to all Alaskans is without question the Summer Fine Arts camp, begun in 1973 on the campus of Sheldon Jackson College, later moving back and forth thence to the University of Alaska Southeast and Mount Edgecumbe High School for decades.
After Sheldon Jackson College went bankrupt in 2007, the trustees started liquidating the real property assets. The state of Alaska bought the Stratton Library to create more display space for a large quantity of currently unseen treasures from the Alaska State Museum’s Sitka site. Youth Advocates of Sitka moved into the old administration building, and the Summer Music Festival bought Stevenson Hall as a place to house visiting musicians and other guests. Sitka Sound Science Center set up shop in an old science building; this left what could have remained a moribund campus, a classic academic quadrangle with 20 usable buildings and significant furnishings therein. Instead, this decaying plant was inherited by the arts camp: several structures more than 50 years old, with everything in need of significant repair and rebuilding.
Sitka Fine Arts decided to rebuild the Sheldon Jackson Campus simply.
A highly structured work plan to tackle each building on its own, ultimately rebuilding the whole campus piecemeal, called for volunteers every weekend for discrete manageable tasks. The call was answered, and an ever-increasing donation of volunteer hours, accompanied by gifts from construction and contracting professionals of labor and supplies, made what had at one point seemed like a pipe dream became a concrete and attainable goal. The project also required hard cash — no amount of volunteer sweat equity and gifts of materiel could cover all needs. The Fine Arts Camp set an ambitious goal of half a million dollars, as if the non-cash side of the equation weren’t steep enough an obstacle to surmount. As of yesterday $494,147 had been raised, an outcome one can’t help but applaud. (They’ve made it quite easy to donate online as well, and can be expected to make the goal presently.)
The Fine Arts Camp has directly touched hundreds of Juneau youth who’ve gone to learn in Sitka and then returned to blossom and grow artistically back home. This weekend the Fine Arts Camp is celebrating the opening of Allen Memorial Hall, at the center of the Sheldon Jackson Campus and probably the most difficult reconstruct/resurrection project. This unique theatrical space is three stories tall, with acres of windows. This building hadn’t been used since 1990, but if you happen to be in Sitka today you can swing by Allen Hall for the inaugural event, which reportedly features a great band and Sitkan beer.
Here in Juneau we continue to be blessed with tons of talent and things to do, but still lack the full facility capacity for arts activity, particularly in the performing arts arena. The Juneau Arts & Culture Center (JACC) operates efficiently at high capacity, and could host more events if it were larger and better suited to present demand. The proposal before the community to allocate a portion of 1 percent sales tax revenues to expand the JACC deserves some attention and thoughtful consideration; it may well be a wise investment in a public asset that has proven itself in its relatively short lifetime.
• Ben Brown serves as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and is an attorney who lives in Juneau.