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Happy 40th birthday to a great artistic tradition

Posted: June 30, 2013 - 12:11am

This summer a very special birthday is occurring in Southeast Alaska. The party turning 40 is over on Baranof Island, in the lovely town of Sitka. The former capital of Russian America boasts many alluring attractions, from its Russian Orthodox Cathedral to Mount Edgecombe. One of Sitka’s assets that projects its beneficial reach across Alaska and around the world is unique and getting better all the time. The Sitka Fine Arts Camp is an arts education program on a par with other similar programs nationally (indeed, internationally) so it’s good to know what great work its leadership and staff are doing, and how you might get directly involved.

In 1973 some faculty at Sheldon Jackson College started the Fine Arts Camp to help more Alaskan youth directly experience and learn the arts. The first students were Sitkans and other young Alaskans from communities with little or no art curriculum. In 1975 Alaska Arts Southeast incorporated as a non-profit and has since run the Fine Arts Camp, with a mission to “build community in Alaska by providing opportunities in arts, culture and recreation in an inclusive, educational and inspirational environment.” There are undoubtedly vastly more artistic opportunities for Alaskan children in schools across the Last Frontier than there were in the mid-70s when I was at elementary school. But Sitka Fine Arts Camp still serves a vital and indispensable role in Alaska’s arts and culture infrastructure.

Generations of Alaskan artists have enriched and improved themselves by coming to learn in Sitka. From small beginnings, Sitka Fine Arts Camp is now a truly formidable institution. Last year’s attendance exceeded 700 students from 37 Alaska towns and cities, 22 other states, and many international locales. The camp includes arts performance and exposure opportunities for students in addition to classroom and one-on-one instruction. Acquisition of a permanent and sizable physical plant on which to conduct business has pleasantly allowed Sitka Fine Arts Camp to deliver more and expand fruitfully.

Sitka Fine Arts Camp continues to refurbish, remodel, and revitalize the old Sheldon Jackson College campus, which it inherited in 2011. It is a tremendous challenge to take a large parcel of property dotted with magnificent architectural specimens — all in dire need of costly repair — and through purposeful fundraising and a massive volunteer labor effort of some 25,000 (and counting) hours, thus transfigure the institution. Building-by-building, floor-by-floor, room-by-room Sitka Fine Arts Camp’s campus is becoming more handsome and functional by the day. For example, just recently an anonymous donor pledged $150,000 for the renovation of Allen Memorial Hall and the Odess Theater. (Even better, the same donor has apparently promised to donate a dollar-for-dollar match for up to $100,000 through the end of the summer.) You can learn more about the status of repairs on various buildings and how to support the effort at fineartscamp.org.

Successful organizations tend to have a perpetual base purpose, and Sitka Fine Arts Camp has managed to continue to educate young Alaskans and other youth while expanding programming to all ages of students. Last year five new summer youth camp formats were launched, including Alaska Native jazz and musical theatre. Sitka Fine Arts camp was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and partners in 2011 with an Art Place Award, given out to nationally exceptional successes in creative place making.

Adult Fine Arts Camp this summer happened earlier in June over five days, with classes ranging from acting, animation, and ceramic sculpture to painting and poetry. Housing is available on campus. Since 2001 Alaska Arts Southeast has presented public concerts to Sitka residents and visitors and now has a full Performing Arts Series. It provides year-round after school arts education, and in collaboration with the Alaska State Council on the Arts makes artist residencies happen.

This month Sitka Fine Arts Camp and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska hosted a Basic Arts Institute with the Alaska Arts Education Consortium. The Basic Arts Institutes were started in Juneau years ago, and due to their immense popularity with Alaskan teachers and the clear benefits to school districts, are now happening all over Alaska. Basic Arts Institutes train teachers with the most critical skills to infuse arts into all aspects of classroom education, and it makes perfect sense for Sitka Fine Arts camp to serve as venue.

After 40 years, Sitka Fine Arts Camp promises to continue to meet a critical need and play an outstanding role in ensuring that Alaskans of all ages and generations have access to the best arts education possible.

Ben Brown serves as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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