The National Endowment for the Arts is a federal agency poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary next month, and Alaska is fortunate to have had a very special visitor on the eve of that celebration. The NEA was created by Congress in 1965 with a mission to expand and enhance the creative and artistic lives of all Americans. The NEA has since invested over $5 billion of funds appropriated by Congress to partner with state arts agencies, federal agencies, philanthropic foundations and others to ensure that the range of opportunities for Americans to create, enjoy and participate in the arts continues to grow and diversity. This strategic investment continues to provide tremendous benefits to Americans’ lives.
The main partners of the NEA are state arts agencies, and the Alaska State Council on the Arts (of which I serve as chairman) has a long and productive history of collaborating with the NEA to make life more artistically rich and rewarding for people and communities across the Last Frontier. ASCA receives a modest but crucial appropriation from the Alaska Legislature, which makes a statutorily-mandated match for the federal funds received from the NEA. The NEA is structured so as to insist that states meet the challenge of matching federal funds dollar-for-dollar, which has the immediate effect of leveraging the federal money to create more potential positive impacts.
The NEA has a variety of strong grants and other programs administered by an experienced staff in our nation’s capital. Its leader, Jane Chu, became the 11th American to take the helm of the NEA in June 2014, and has since eagerly embraced her work after confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Part of the work of the NEA chair is to connect with the agency’s partners across the land to see first-hand what they are doing, and Jane Chu is making these connections upon invitation by partners. ASCA was proactive about inviting Chu to come to Alaska, and she is visiting the great land as the Alaskan summer winds down this year.
Chu was able to visit one of the newest public performing arts spaces in Alaska on Friday, the Glenn Massay Theatre at the Matanuska-Susitna campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Former Alaska attorney general and current Mat-Su College Director Talis Colberg assembled the leadership of UAA to welcome the NEA chairman and to engage in a dialogue with Mat-Su residents about how the arts are making life better and people more productive in the fastest growing community in the state.
On Friday afternoon, Chu visited several artistically important places in downtown Anchorage, including the Anchorage Museum of History & Art at the Rasmuson Center. The chairwoman took in the temporary and permanent exhibits and met with the museum’s leadership. A town hall meeting was held at the museum, allowing Alaskans to converse directly with the chairwoman and ASCA Executive Director Shannon Daut about their concerns: levels of support for the arts and how to keep artistic expression vibrant and energetic. Chu also met with philanthropic leaders and visiting the Alaska Native Heritage Center while in Anchorage.
Southeast Alaska welcoming Chu this week. She first visited with people in Juneau on Tuesday and met with arts organizations that have received grants from the NEA, including Sealaska Heritage Institute and Perseverance Theatre. These meetings allowed for direct observations by the highest level of NEA leadership of how these significant and time-sensitive investments have worked out. The Juneau Arts & Humanities Council hosted a community reception for Chu on Tuesday evening.
Chairman Chu will round out her first visit to Alaska by traveling to Sitka, where she will meet with Teri Rofkar, an immensely talented weaver who has received the Governor’s Awards for the Arts and was named in 2009 an NEA National Heritage Fellow. The chairwoman will see the great work being done by the Sitka Fine Arts Camp located on the former — and now essentially entirely transformed and reborn — Sheldon Jackson College campus. Also housed on the Sitka Fine Arts Camp compound are the Sitka Summer Music Festival, the Island Institute and the Alaska State Museum’s Sheldon Jackson Museum, allowing Chu to take in these important cultural entities as well.
Alaskans who had the chance to meet the NEA chairman on this visit to Alaska no doubt were struck by her articulate expression of the importance of the arts and potential for effecting positive changes, and her energetic and empathic appreciation for Alaska. One way she has expressed hope for Alaskans to participate in the 50th Anniversary of the NEA is to share stories about how the arts have affected their lives. It is easy to do by going to the NEA’s website at arts.gov, and clicking on the impossible-to-miss tab that says “Share Your Arts Story for our 50th.”
Alaskans no doubt have many things to celebrate with the rest of the land about arts on the Last Frontier, so we ought not to miss this opportunity to share.
• Ben Brown, an attorney living in Juneau, is chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts.