Celebrate the wealth of local art this month

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Two weeks ago, about 35 board members and staff of local arts agencies from around Alaska came to Juneau to learn how to improve the work they are doing to promote artistic activity in their communities.

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This meeting allowed volunteer arts council members and staff from far-flung places such as Dillingham, Homer, and Talkeetna to sit down in their capital and learn what others do to stretch scarce dollars and motivate volunteers. It is truly amazing how much art Alaskans in communities of all sizes create and enjoy. Like many components of Alaskan life, arts advocacy is a task particularly well-suited to the grassroots, local level.

The conference was sponsored by the Alaska State Council on the Arts - a state agency on which I have the privilege of serving as council chairman - in conjunction with the Rasmuson Foundation and Americans for the Arts. Logistical support was provided by the capital's hardworking and beloved local arts agency, the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.

October is National Arts and Humanities Month, and there is a cornucopia of artistic activity in Juneau to celebrate. One tremendously exciting project that jumps out at me every time I walk or motor along Egan Drive is the JAHC's move from its former basement offices in North Franklin Street to the old National Guard Armory at 350 Whittier St. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a former JAHC Board member, and currently serve on the Juneau Performing Arts Center Commission. The PACC supports JAHC's agreeing to work with the city to run the old Armory as an interim community arts center because the site on which the Armory sits is perfect for the future construction of a new arts facility, where it will live alongside the cultural- and visitor-friendly facilities of KTOO, the Alaska State Museum, and Centennial Hall. The interim facility must succeed for the future vision to be realized, but I'm confident that fiscal prudence and community support will allow that to happen.

Many Juneau residents have logged hundreds of hours over the past month volunteering to clean and refurbish the old Armory and make it into a viable community arts space. The Alaska Travel Industry Association is using the space for a trade show as a component of its annual convention this week, and the Juneau Symphony will be using it for office, instrument-storage, and rehearsal space. The space will host theatrical events and a host of other exciting artistic activities, up until the time the community can come together to build the kind of facility that Alaska's arts-rich capital deserves and can support. This First Friday will be the first time that art will hang in the new gallery space in the old Armory, and I hope people will make the effort to walk over to see the works of Juneau artist Dick Benedict in his show, Solid as Dust.

For art to happen, it has to make some economic sense, either on an individual level or for a nonprofit or for-profit enterprise. Fortunately art is a vital part of the economic picture in Juneau, across Alaska, and around the world. Americans for the Arts is dedicated to helping local communities create opportunities for every American to participate in and appreciate all forms of the arts. Because demonstrating economic benefits advances this mission, AFTA has 'Creative Industries' reports, which analyze how the arts stimulate economic activity. According to AFTA's study, Juneau is home to 105 arts-related businesses that employ 330 people. We boast four museums, 14 performing arts groups, 47 visual arts and photographic entities, and four arts schools. These numbers are probably on the low side, especially when one considers all the individual artists out there, and the way their art is woven into the fabric of their economic lives. For example, Benedict, whose show is opening at JAHC this Friday, has worked as a painter, cannery worker, stablehand, school janitor, garbageman, deliveryman, construction laborer, housebuilder and landlord, all the while painting in different media. Economic stability is the crucial soil in which artistic activity can grow, and artistic activity in turn is economically beneficial.

I hope all of Juneau will celebrate the arts and what they do to enrich our lives this month. Whether it's taking in the world-premiere of Yeast Nation at Perseverance Theatre, attending Juneau Lyric Opera's production of Tosca at the Twisted Fish, or listening to local musicians jam, we have much for which to be grateful, and a lot more art to create and enjoy.

• Ben Brown is a life-long Alaskan.

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