Known for its vast landscapes and wealth of natural resources, Alaska is also remarkable for its indigenous tribes who have called this area home for 10,000 years. Two hundred and twenty-seven tribes, designated by village location, speak a total of 20 distinct languages. For generations, these people have drawn their livelihood from the land and sea, relying on hunting, fishing and other subsistence activities for income. Bound up with this way of life is traditional art.
The Alaska State Council on the Arts' Native Arts Program assists artists in becoming entrepreneurs, helping them expand markets for their work and increase their self-sufficiency.
Dolly Spencer is one of eight Native Alaskan artists who have won a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship Award. Her craft of Eskimo dollmaking, recognized as among the best, is rooted in her mother's sewing lessons, which taught her how to piece together animal skins into parkas, pants, mukluks and other clothing. Sewing for survival as well as for exhibit at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art is a path shared by many Native Alaskans, who create cultural objects from bark, fur, hide and other materials of rural Alaska life.
Today, Alaska Native people make up 16 to 19 percent of the state's population, depending upon the definition of Alaska Native. Native people have experienced dramatic changes in the last century. Within the span of several generations, tribes have gone from an economy based on subsistence and trade to one based on cash. This transition has resulted in an adaptive melding of economies and created a need for education in business practices that help Native artists reach new audiences and expand markets.
Workshops Hone Artists' Business Skills
The Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA) Native Arts Program was created a year after the agency was established in 1967. In part this is a recognition of the value of the state's Native Alaskans and their indigenous cultural products. The program assists communities in developing their cultural assets through services, grants and projects. Representing the voice of the community is a Native Arts Advisory Panel, which collaborates with council staff and other organizations in promoting preservation, creativity and innovation in Native art. In 2002, the NEA awarded the arts council a Challenge America grant to expand and strengthen its Native Arts Program.
These federal funds allowed the arts council to forge a partnership with the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rural Extension Program to support three workshops in Kotzebue, Bethel and Nome. These three rural trading hubs were ideal locations for attracting artists from outlying communities for business courses in quality issues, cost analysis and pricing, as well as federal and state regulatory programs. The curriculum for each of these conferences was based on ASCA's Native arts marketing handbook, which describes an approach to marketing and includes worksheets for artists to update their skills. The conference trainers focused on local efforts supporting Native artists; assisting artists in reaching larger markets; increasing awareness of funding opportunities; and strengthening a growing network of rural artists.
A participant in the Bethel workshop says, "I learned that there are many doors of opportunity, and that I must expect success by pursuing it." Observes a Kotzebue attendee, "I learned what is happening for artists in the region and was able to learn who the artists are and gain the confidence to grow my business."
As important as business skills are to Native artists, so is strengthening local institutions such as culture centers and museums. Culture centers range from the Alaska Native Heritage Center with its multimillion-dollar budget to the more typical ones located in remote villages that serve dual and often multiple functions. Some contain small collections. Some are meeting places where artists produce and/or sell their work, and others are multiuse settings used by various groups.
Since 1999, the arts council has nurtured this network of organizations through the Culture Center and Museums Consortium. Not only has ASCA expanded the group from five to more than 30, it has given them a public face and voice for the work they do and the vital place they hold in the Alaska Native community. Using NEA funds, the arts council brought together representatives of this consortium to focus on strategic planning issues as part of the annual Museums Alaska conference.
Says ASCA Native Arts Director Saunders McNeill, "Over the last 20 years, younger community members have abandoned their original home places for the opportunities in larger urban centers. Planning addresses the underlying issues that result in out-migration and separation from place by improving these organizations' ability to respond to and be a forum for community discussion and decision making that builds healthy, dynamic living places."
Executive Director Charlotte Fox adds, "In this far-flung state, where you can't fly from one end of the state to another in a day, offering professional development opportunities is difficult. Through the Native Arts marketing workshops and strong partnerships ASCA forges, we are able to expand opportunities, give artists tools to reach new markets and strengthen the community centers and museums that support these artists."