My Turn: Horror and amazement in the arts

The month of June has seen some amazing arts-related happenings in Alaska’s capital city, some delightful and some horrifying, but all worth noting as we move forward into summer. For many years, efforts have been underway to build a new Alaska State Museum. Back in 1967, the good people of Juneau chose to tax themselves a certain additional amount in order to provide the funds to build the old Alaska State Museum on a fine piece of land in Whittier Street. This small but charming facility served Alaskans and visitors from around the world quite well for almost half a century.

 

I had visited the state museum first in my youth, but came to appreciate it greatly upon moving back to Juneau after law school in 2001. I served on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Alaska State Museum for a couple of years thereafter, and I recall one of the most interesting things the board was working on at the time was the planned creation of a new museum, then designated the State Library, Archives and Museum (SLAM) Project. At that time, the land which previously accommodated the Delta Western tank farm had just been acquired from its former owners, setting out a clear future for this unique parcel of land. What wasn’t so clear was how long it might take to make this vision a reality.

While I didn’t continue to serve on the Friends Board, I continued to monitor the progress of this project, trying all along to make sure elected officials knew the import of the SLAM project. Over the ensuing years, incremental progress was made as members of Juneau’s legislative delegation persisted in advocating for the funds necessary to plan, design and ultimately build the new state museum. Toward the end of this process, as the sums totaling $139 million were sought, it became more challenging to convince legislators that the SLAM was not a Juneau, or even a Southeast, project but one of statewide importance and deserving of statewide support. Fortunately, these efforts paid off, thank also to advocates from other parts of Alaska, particularly Sen. Johnny Ellis of Anchorage. The final tranche of funding was approved a few years ago (with Rep. Cathy Muñoz serving on the House Finance Committee) just before the price of oil plummeted and Alaska’s fiscal situation descended into full crisis mode.

Last Saturday, there was a special preview reception of the new facility, which has been named after Father Andrew P. Kasheveroff. This event was a fundraiser for the Friends of the State Library, Archives and Museum (FoSLAM). More Juneau residents should know about FoSLAM, a wonderful organization that provides essential services to the state-run SLAM. Especially in these times of great budgetary challenges, this independent, nonprofit entity will be crucial to ensure that the SLAM lives up to its potential. Huge numbers of visitors to Alaska will enjoy the SLAM this summer and in future, but its most important audience is Alaskans. Juneau residents should consider joining FoSLAM, not only to learn more about the entity and help spread the word about its wonderful collections, but also to take advantage of the perk of unlimited free admission. More information is available at http://foslam.org/membership.

As the construction work at the SLAM winds down, one wonders what all the workers who have so expertly and diligently constructed it will do next. As fate would have it, there is a shovel-ready project that could start any day if and when approved to move forward. The Lynn Canal Highway, also known as the Juneau Access Project, would employ a huge number of people and also link the capital city much closer to the North American road system. This would lead to many more visitors to the SLAM, thus making it more economically viable and providing a greater return on the state’s investment of these capital budget dollars.

In other arts-related news, a horrific event that took place this month is the break-in at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center (JACC) which shocked the capital city. Whatever the motivations of the criminals who chose to violate this important community space, they have caused a great deal of pain and suffering across the community. They not only stole a great deal of unique artwork and jewelery (which one presumes will be difficult for them to sell) and a safe with cash and other valuables, but they cruelly inflicted senseless physical damage on this beloved community facility. Juneau residents rose to the occasion and helped to clean up the damage, also donating generously to cover the losses. But the full course of healing will require that those responsible be apprehended and made to face the full consequences of their evil deeds. This process may also require community involvement, and all Juneau residents should keep their eyes and ears open for any clues that may help bring the perpetrators to justice.

The Juneau Arts & Humanities Council (JAHC) is the main resident of the JACC, and it is seeking to build a different arts facility on the site where the JACC currently sits. This concept is known as the Willoughby Arts Complex, and it is in the early stages of being planned and designed. I served on the Performing Arts Center Commission over a decade ago, and am familiar with this idea, which is laudable, but which strikes some as unrealistic at this point in Juneau and Alaska’s history. While the fiscal challenges facing Alaska make financing a new performing arts center difficult, that’s no reason to abandon the plan. At the same time, this goal is wisely approached with a realistic perspective, so that overly ambitious timetables or budgets don’t frustrate the long-term goal. It was a long-term vision and patient approach that allowed the SLAM to become a reality. Again, building the Lynn Canal Highway is one more way to ensure maximum use and success of the Willoughby Arts Complex.

The arts continue to play an integral role in Alaskans’ quality of life, nowhere more than in the capital city. Now is a great time to be grateful for all that we have accomplished to date, while regrouping and thinking of the best ways to move forward realistically and sensibly. Taking into account the need to improve access to the capital city is one further way in which Juneau residents who are passionate about the arts can help move toward fulfilment of our long-term goals.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan, and an attorney living in Juneau. He serves on the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission and is chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

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