Alaska arts groups celebrate more than $1 million in grants

Mike Dunham

The Alaska Native Heritage Center celebrated the news that it was the recipient of a $295,000 grant by presenting an ancient and unusual Yup'ik Eskimo dance performed with an enormous mask on Tuesday. The Center was one of four Alaska art groups that will receive over $1 million from the national ArtPlace initiative.

The Anchorage Museum, Out North Contemporary Art House and the Sitka Arts Campus were also among the 47 organizations from around the country to share in $15.4 million in grants.

ArtPlace is a collaborative effort by 11 large foundations, including the Rasmuson Foundation, several federal agencies and six banks. It was started in June of last year and selected 34 groups to receive the first round of grants in September.

"The awards announced today are the first to be selected through an open application process," said Tim Hulber, ArtPlace spokesman. Nearly 2,200 art groups from around America inquired or applied for the latest round of grants.

Heritage Center President Annette Evans Smith followed a noon performance by dancers for an audience of visitors, most from out of state, to deliver the "amazing news."

The visitors were told that the center was celebrating with a rare masked dance -- and not just any mask. The mask being danced for the first time was a 4-foot tall oval made from wood by Phillip Charette two years ago. It was adorned with two bone labret forms with faces and 10 feathers around its edge. On the inside, a bone mouthpiece helped the performer steady the heavy piece.

Two center staff members, Paul Asicksik and Ed Bourgeois used a long pole with a hook to keep the mask suspended in front of dancer Dan Willie, joined by other dancers from the center, as Mattox Metcalf drummed and sang "Pulling from Within."

Cameras clicked constantly as the surprised tourists realized that this experience was not part of the usual lineup.

"It's very rarely done," said Bourgeois.

The stated purpose of the awards is support the "use of the arts to improve quality of place and transform their communities."

The center's ImagiNative Alaska Experience "will rebrand Anchorage as a center of Native arts by embedding it throughout the city through permanent and temporary interventions," read a written statement from ArtPlace.

Bourgeois said the center, located at the northeast edge of Anchorage, would use the grant for "creative place-making, creating community through the arts. We're a little bit out in the woods here. Over the next 12 to 18 months we'll be taking what we have downtown and into the community."

He mentioned outside-the-Center activities ranging from art markets to flash mobs to movies projected on ice walls.

Smith had her own ideas. "Imagine a big community mural of Phillip Charette's mask in town square and the public invited to take part in creating it," she said.

Other Alaska grants will go to these groups for specific projects:

• Alaska Arts Southeast, Inc., Sitka. The group will receive $350,000 to help transform the former Sheldon Jackson College into the Sitka Arts Campus. A town-wide effort is underway to restore the old school for classes, a music camp, concerts and "a multidimensional arts campus, bringing new life to rural Southeast Alaska."

• Out North Contemporary Arts House, Anchorage, $250,000. The group is known as a showcase for visual and performance art by artists outside the mainstream. Its Art House Resident Program will seek to create a "collaborative, dynamic community space where a dozen resident groups can create, present, produce, teach, and reach out through art, music, education and journalism to build community pride, resilience and resolve."

• Anchorage Museum, $199,960. The museum's Northern Initiative "will use art to spark conversation about how to leverage the distinctiveness of place and position Anchorage as a pivotal city in the Circumpolar North." In addition to exhibitions, the museum will "bring together artists, scientists, historians, anthropologists and community leaders to address the challenges of living in the north and to develop creative solutions." An example is the upcoming North Symposium to be held Sept. 5-9.

More information about ArtPlace and a complete list of recipients is available at

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News