Alaska arts agency: 'We're closing today'

Alaskans pay final respects to arts agency that is being closed by the state government. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Tiny but powerful Alaska arts agency comes to an end after governor singled it out as the only state agency to get its entire budget axed

Dozens of Alaskans came to say farewell Monday evening to the Alaska State Council on the Arts.  The agency is closed after 53 years of service.

The council’s offices are in a colorfully painted building in Fairview, an Anchorage neighborhood with more than its fair share of drug dealers and homeless people.

Inside the offices walls are decorated with large paintings, sculptures, hand-woven baskets and other Alaska Native art, all pieces from the Contemporary Art Bank, which loaned art to qualifying organizations. It hasn’t been decided where the 600-piece collection will go.

The area where staff used to prepare art for shipping now is full of boxes and packing materials for packing up the office.

Andrea Noble-Pelant, executive director of the council, said the agency’s four-person staff is devastated. She said, “We’re closing. Today.” Then she was overcome with emotion and walked away, saying, “And I can’t even say it. I can’t, Joaqlin. I’m crying, and I just can’t do it.”

Outside in the parking lot, musicians performed while supporters and artists wrote and drew messages on the asphalt. Bouquets had been laid around an Alaska flag with a handful of farewell notes. One woman wore a 1950s style black dress with a black lace veil and carried a single red rose.

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Shelley Laws, Tlingit, said: “I’m here because what the state is doing is wrong … I had to come.” (Photo by Joaqlin Estus.)

Fourth generation weaver Shelley Laws, Tlingit, wore a Chilkat robe she made years ago. She said: “I’m here because what the state is doing is wrong … I had to come.”

She said arts council's reach extended into every corner of the state.

“The state council has done a lot for Native artists, for emerging artists, for long-time artists. They’re a conduit for outside dollars into the state. I don’t know what’s going to happen without them,” said Laws. Sixty percent of council's expenditures were grants to communities, schools, organizations and individuals. 

The council also administered the Silver Hands program, which guaranteed consumers that an article bearing the program’s tag is an original work of art created by an Alaska Native resident.

The arts council is closing because Governor Mike Dunleavy singled it out as the only state agency to get its entire budget axed. The governor also prevented the council from receiving more than $1 million in donations that would have been passed to other arts organizations or artists.

Supporters argued that the money the arts council brought into Alaska more than made up for its cost.

The state put in 27 percent of the arts council's fiscal year 2019 budget. The National Endowment for the Arts matched the state’s $700,000. The remaining 44 percent came from private foundations.

Laws says critics who see the arts as unnecessary are wrong.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, what good do you get from art.’ I think if we just were focused on function and not form and beauty and art, the world’s not going to a good place. There’s not going to be joy.” She says art also fosters creativity that carries into other fields.

Laws credits the arts with her daughters’ success. She said they learned how to play music, weave, and make art at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in southeast Alaska.

“I think because of the work that they did and time they spent with art, it helped them develop to where they both went to Stanford and they both became engineers.”

The arts council's closure leaves Alaska as the only state in the nation without a state-funded arts organization.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a longtime Alaska journalist.

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