Stepping out

Sybil Davis enters last months as executive director of JAHC

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2004

Last November, well into her eighth season as the executive director of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, Sybil Davis had an epiphany.

"I realized that my energy was lagging and that I was not going to be able to sustain giving the organization all my time and energy and enthusiasm for an indefinite period of time," Davis said. "So I said to myself, 'By your next birthday (Nov. 3), you should probably resign.'"

In December, Davis notified the council's 13-member board of her decision. This November, she will step out, as Karen Lechner, the business manager for the nonprofit Armstrong-Keta fish hatchery, steps in.

As the executive director since 1996 and a staff member since 1993, Davis has turned a spare storage room into the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council's gallery, expanded the council's educational outreach program into a student concert series, developed outreach programs in Cedar Parks and Geneva Woods, increased the number of programs in the performing arts concerts series, greatly increased the council's financial nest egg, instituted the popular Wearable Arts fund-raiser and applied for and received more corporate support for JAHC projects.

In her first year as head of the arts council, the organization hosted three or four main concerts. For the 2003-2004 season, JAHC is planning eight.

"Sybil's really been invaluable," said Katie Corbus, president of the JAHC board. "She's expanded the art awareness in this community, and she's honored and supported the cultural diversities that we have here in Juneau. You couldn't find a stronger supporter for the arts in Juneau."

Davis started working at the Arts Council in 1993 as the administrative assistant to Natalee Rothaus. She applied for executive director and was hired after Rothaus stepped down in 1996.

When Davis took over, the current JAHC gallery was a storage room that had formerly been rented out for a weekly meeting of bridge players. The idea of a gallery had been discussed, but not acted upon.

Davis secured donated paint from Don Abel's and rounded up volunteers to paint the walls and clean up the room. Now, it hosts one or two different artists a month, and the Arts Council has a gallery committee that picks artists from submissions. She hopes the gallery will evolve to include more artists from around the state. She is also hoping to replace the room's incandescent bulbs with halogen.

Davis taught for 10 years, and that's inspired her commitment toward educational outreach programs. It's also turned into the grant-funded outreach program at Cedar Parks and Geneva Woods, two low-income housing centers. The program employs local artist and holds hands-on art classes two days a week with a maximum 10-to-1 student-to-artist ratio.

"When I first started working here, the organizations in town were working well, and we still work well," Davis said. "Juneau is kind of unique in that regard. We share things and we network because united we stand, and we all know that."

Davis is a member of the Mayor's Task Force for the Development of a Performing Arts Center, and has been a vocal proponent of the need for a new space for arts organizations. The Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium is the lone viable space in town for the JAHC's major productions. But the paucity of venues and the abundance of arts organizations has created a bottleneck in the number of people who are trying to book the auditorium. The arts council wanted to bring a juggling group, The Passing Zone, in January and a dance company with Romanian gymnasts at another point in the year. In both cases, the high school was booked.

"The drama department and music department is using that space, and rightly so," she said. "They deserve that space so they can do their very best themselves.

"We have all these organizations that do wonderful shows, and they need to be showcased in the right venue," she said. "Theatre in the Rough, they transform McPhetres Hall. They do a fabulous job. But wouldn't it be nice to see them and sit in a comfortable seat?

"I am going to predict that this thing is going to be built in six years," she said.

Davis has an endless list of ideas for the future. They include:

• A university and/or high school course called "Introduction to the Fine Arts"

"The requirement of the course would be that the student goes out and volunteers and works a different event and writes an evaluation and research paper after attending," she said. "They would write about what they saw as the performing arts presentation of the piece."

• Establishing more literary programs for writers

"There are people who would really appreciate something like the Sitka Writers' Institute," she said. "That's a whole area of the arts that's not being met very satisfactorily right now."

• Hosting an orchestral institute in Juneau

"When the Moscow Chamber Orchestra was here, I talked with (concertmaster) Constantine Orbelian, and he was explaining that there aren't many places for high school students to get training in orchestration," she said. "If we could figure out a way to host an orchestral institute in Juneau and advertise it nationally, it would be full. It would cost about $80,000."

• Hosting a large film festival

"It's just a matter of finding manpower and the right time to promote it," she said. "We could have directors up here, especially of indie films. 20th Century, Nickelodeon, Glacier Cinemas, The Back Room, they'd all work together, because it's good for everybody."

• Hosting a statewide dance festival

"A long time ago, this happened and Juneau did host a statewide dance festival," she said. "It's possible, and it's long overdue, and I think it's going to happen."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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