Juneau’s artistic and cultural strength was recently affirmed with the award of a National Medal for Museum &Library Service to the Alaska Department of Education &Early Development (DEED). This annual award celebrates ten top museums and libraries nationally, a well-deserved honor for Alaska. It took many years to plan the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff (APK) State Library, Archives & Museum Building, funded over of legislative process and built on schedule and under budget. The APK Building is the shining new face of DEED’s library, museum and archival programs. Juneau residents and all Alaskans can be proud of the APK Building as an example of prudent public investment in the arts.
The National Medal for Museum &Library Service is bestowed by the Institute of Museum &Library Services (IMLS), the federal agency that supports cultural and educational institutions nationally. Small but essential IMLS state grants help ensure all Americans can access libraries and museums. With funding from IMLS, DEED is able to reach out from Alaska’s capital city to all corners of the Great Land to bolster museum and library experiences for all Alaskans.
IMLS doesn’t fund capital projects; the APK Building was paid for by the State through the capital budget, which has shrunk to little more than federal transportation matching dollars since the onset of the fiscal crisis. Just a few years ago the capital budget contained specific grants to support local arts infrastructure projects. If such funds existed today, Juneau could hope for support for the proposed New Juneau Arts &Culture Center (JACC). Capital budget money for the New JACC is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future; the same is likely true in the federal context. Juneau’s success in building the New JACC will have to rely on local and non-governmental sources of funding, requiring more effort to generate.
Years ago, I served on the Juneau Performing Arts Center Commission, which forwarded an analysis of the need (and ways to pay) for a performing arts center. Since then, devoted Juneau residents have remained committed to the idea of building community-friendly arts space on the site currently occupied by the JACC. With a smaller, leaner project, efforts have moved forward, but a steep fundraising journey lies ahead. While it may be possible to build the New JACC without public funding, such funds would have made the project much likelier to happen significantly sooner. Having performed onstage in the current JACC, and participated in many events there, I can personally attest to the need for a new facility.
The new Skip Wallen breaching whale sculpture is another unmissable, striking addition to the Capital City’s artistic infrastructure. It is a beautiful piece, but its placement may undermine its capacity to be enjoyed by the optimum number of people. Had the whale been erected closer to downtown more people could see it without walking so far, and both residents and visitors would be able to enjoy this great piece of art.
Many are concerned about the cost of the walkway and island being built to access the whale in its remote location. Some $10 million dollars that might have been used for the New JACC are being spent on an elaborate seawalk to a sculpture located farther than ideal for viewing audiences. The New JACC has great potential to be home to performances shows in summer targeted primarily at visitors, like The Lady Lou Review was for many years. The New JACC will have gallery space that visitors and locals would enjoy, generating more positive economic arts activity. The walkway to the whale simply can’t be expected to do this.
To disclose that this affects me personally, I live at Parkshore Condominiums, and the man-made island that has been created in Gastineau Channel obstructs a previously more enjoyable natural vista. Blue herons once wandered about in the tidelands and are no longer to be seen since the ersatz island came into being. This island is much larger than expected, and has tree trunks stuck into its gravel surface suggesting the era of blue heron habitation is over.
Whatever else happens, it appears enough work has been done on the walkway to the whale and its accoutrements that the project is here to stay. Still, there is a lesson to be learned. The cruise ship passenger fee money that has been spent of the walkway project would have been more wisely used to support a New JACC, which will be used by countless more Juneau residents and visitors once eventually built. No one could reasonably challenge the nexus between a New JACC and the visitors coming to Juneau, or its benefits to Alaskans year-round.
As Alaska deals with straightened budgets, and we focus on fair allocation of scarce public resources, let’s celebrate the APK’s national museum medal. It is unlikely the expensive walkway to the whale by the bridge will ever receive any such accolade.
• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan and attorney who lives in Juneau.