How the Alaskan capital of Juneau is becoming a hub for native arts – 71Bait

It may be a tenth the population of Anchorage and completely cut off from North America’s main road network, but Alaska’s state capital, Juneau, is experiencing an artistic renaissance, led by three main Coastal Indigenous groups – the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian.

Most visitors to the city arrive on cruise ships before heading out on glacier tours or bear sanctuaries, but arguably lurking in the foreground is the city’s biggest attraction, Alaskan Native art.

While art has been practiced on the Northwest Coast for thousands of years, recent projects, including the May 2022 opening of a revitalized Northwest Coast Hall at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, have helped raise its national profile.

“After decades of suppressing Aboriginal art by missionaries who believed Aboriginal people worshiped idols, Aboriginal organizations and tribes began the arduous journey of reclaiming their arts,” says Rosita Worl, President of the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a local non-profit organization founded in 1980 to support Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian culture.

Tsimshian clan home front by father and son artists David A. Boxley and David R. Boxley in the foyer of the Walter Soboleff Building of the Sealaska Heritage Institute Art courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute, photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Juneau’s artistic renaissance gained momentum in 2015 when SHI opened a new downtown headquarters and gallery at the Walter Soboleff
Building. The structure, which cost around $20 million, is a work of art in itself and was designed to resemble a decorative bentwood chest, a vessel long used by Native Americans for storage, cooking and burial.

The massive exterior panels were designed by Haida artist Robert
Davidson and based on his painting Biggest Echo (2014), while the huge Tsimshian clan housefront dominating the foyer was carved and painted by Tsimshian artist David A. Boxley and his son David R. Boxley.

In June, the GKV added an arts campus on the existing site as the second phase of its stated mission to make Juneau the “Arts Capital of the World’s Northwest Coast.” The surrounding space features a large open space and a performance pavilion, which is available free of charge to budding artists. The campus was dedicated during the biannual Juneau Festival of Native American Arts and Culture, which was returning to the city after a four-year hiatus.

Ambitious plans, unequal funding

“The institute’s goals for the campus are to expand the arts program of Alaskan and Northwest Coast Native peoples to ensure the maintenance of ancient art practices that are unique in the world and include some practices that are in danger of extinction,” says Worl. “2021 secured the GKV a $2.9 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to commission the first ten of an estimated 30 totem poles that will form part of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí (Totem Pole Walk) along the waterfront in downtown Juneau.”

The first ten poles, carved by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists, are due for completion next year, with storyboards explaining their clan and crests. You will join a unique 360-degree totem pole unveiled in June in front of the Walter Soboleff Building, the work of Haida carver TJ Young. The pole is part Faces of Alaskaa monumental art installation featuring bronze masks of Alaska’s seven major Native American groups to be installed over the next few years.

A view of the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s new arts campus in Juneau Photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Arts funding in Alaska has had a bumpy ride over the past five years. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was generally supportive and opposed the Trump administration’s move to remove federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2017. Conversely, in 2019, Alaska’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy temporarily vetoed funds for the State of Alaska’s Council on the Arts, effectively shutting it down. After many interruptions, it was able to reopen two months later when funding was restored.

Federal funding for arts in the state comes primarily from grants from the NEA — nearly $8 million over the past five years — but funding is also generated from other sources. The $12.7 million for SHI’s new arts campus included donations from the NEA, the US Department of Education and the National Park Service, as well as contributions from more than 700 private donors.

Local art on the national stage

“The SHI is doing an amazing job,” says John Hagen, Curator of Indigenous Arts and Initiatives at the Anchorage Museum. “They have a goal to become a center for Alaskan Native art in the state. But there are others.” He notices the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in Fairbanks, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and the Anchorage Museum as important incubators for Alaskan indigenous art.

Meanwhile, numerous Alaska Native artists are producing ambitious new works. “Rico World and Crystal World are powerhouses right now,” says Hagen. “Rico World just designed a postage stamp. Crystal Worl has developed large-scale art projects and is currently creating a building-sized mural in downtown Anchorage.” (Siblings Rico and Crystal are grandsons of current GKV President Rosita Worl.)

Another Alaskan Native artist experiencing a big moment is glass artist Preston Singletary, who is pushing the boundaries in a medium unknown in the Pacific Northwest in pre-Contact times. Its magnificent glass wall flanked by two pillars inside the Walter Soboleff building is the largest of its kind in the world. (His major solo exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, through January 29, 2023.)

Glass panel from Preston Singletary at the Sealaska Heritage Institute Art courtesy of the artist and the Sealaska Heritage Institute, photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Hagen and Rosita Worl both cite artist and musician Nicholas Galanin’s importance on the national stage. The Anchorage Museum features several of his works, including White Noise, American Prayer Rug (2018), shown at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Galanin, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, was commissioned to create a piece for Juneau’s new totem path and his work in multiple locations Water moves life (2022), a collection of bronze water jugs, is currently on display in front of both the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska State Museum, the latter a long-standing bastion of Northwestern culture in downtown Juneau.

“Art and artists have always been here,” says Hagen. “Now there are some much more visible ways to showcase and spread this art and the indigenous culture that goes with it.”

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