Celebrating arts & culture center

Posted: Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. It is hard to believe that over a year ago the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council was still performing its duties as the official arts agency for Alaska's capital from its charming but small basement offices on North Franklin Street. A lot has happened since then, and I think we should all celebrate the progress that has been made, and redouble our efforts to make the future even brighter.

In the interests of full disclosure I am a former arts council board member, and I also served for the past several years on the Juneau Performing Arts Center Commission. The commission was a group of Juneau residents appointed by the mayor to assess the need for a new performing arts facility, scope out how much such a project might cost and how it might happen. We met monthly for years, and surveyed individual artists and arts groups in town about what their needs were, are, and will be. We recently concluded our work and turned over a comprehensive report on the potential for a performing arts center to the mayor, and the next phase will begin when the time is right.

One of the things we on the PACC decided as we deliberated over the years was that the old National Guard Armory is built on a perfect site for a new performing arts center. And when Sen. Ted Stevens helped the University of Alaska Southeast get the funds it needed to complete construction of the new joint Armory/UAS recreational facility overlooking Auke Bay, the National Guard moved out the road earlier than had been planned. This left the old armory vacant, at risk of being mothballed or torn down. We on the PACC encouraged the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council Board to look at the possibility of using the old armory as an interim performing arts space, and the results have been nothing short of miraculous.

The Juneau Arts and Humanities Council had to consider the costs and benefits of moving into the old armory to make sure it was something this small, sparingly staffed nonprofit could handle. Nancy DeCherney, the council's executive director, has done an outstanding job of marshaling limited resources and energizing the community to make the Juneau Arts & Culture Center a reality. The center has been cleaned, painted, spruced up, and made warm and inviting. Nancy managed to juggle all of her existing duties to get a workable schedule for future users into operation, and she has coordinated with Centennial Hall to make the arts center available to convention planners. All the revenues the center brings in from convention meetings make it more affordable and accessible for community groups and artists. The synergy of this project is inspiring and encouraging.

The PACC's report called for the interim use of the old armory just in the way that has come to pass. As time goes by, it will require some delicate balancing and planning to continue to make limited improvements to the center to make it user-friendly in the short run, while the community decides exactly what it may want in the way of a new performing arts center, and how such a project will be paid for and operated.

A big part of that future picture will be ensuring that Juneau's economy and population can support a new, dedicated performing arts facility. Unless the private-sector job base continues to expand, and only if we can make strides to convince Alaskans that we deserve to remain the capital, such plans will be hard to sell to the community. But I believe we can and will accomplish these goals, and I believe Juneau's appetite for top-notch performing arts will lead to a future with a performing arts center where the arts and culture center now stands.

But for the present, this afternoon to be specific, we should celebrate what the arts council has done in making the center a reality. A party with cake will begin at 4 p.m., and I hope to see the place full of my fellow Juneau residents. We have so much to celebrate as Alaskans generally, and as denizens of the capital in particular. So come by the center and thank Nancy, her board and her staff for a job incredibly well done. Who knows, you may find yourself wanting to book the center for an event you're in the process of planning. At a minimum you'll see the venue where you're likely to enjoy a concert or some other artistic delight in the near future.

• Ben Brown is a lifelong Alaska resident and chairman of the Juneau Republican Party.

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