Compass: Alaska's artists could do wonders with a little more support

Are arts really thriving in Alaska? Alaska does have a remarkable number of arts organizations for our population and geography. We benefit from the incredible talent of Alaska's artists. The range of artistic practice we see, from contemporary visual and performing artists, to classical forms, to new media, to folk and traditional arts, is broad and vibrant.

But the current economics of the arts sector are worth a closer look. Over the past two years, Rasmuson Foundation has evaluated the arts and culture sector, with a keen interest in the impact of the recession upon organizations in Alaska.

In 2010, an independent study by Helicon Collaborative on the economic downturn's impact on Alaska arts and culture organizations found the following:

• The arts and culture field is severely under-resourced.

• Cultural leaders are shifting to more "commercial" programming, taking fewer artistic risks and cutting the scope of services.

• As a whole, endowments have decreased, and organizations relying on them are questioning how they will fill the gap.

• Two-thirds of organizations reported decreases in income from at least one significant source.

The study also showed that the balance sheets of Alaska-based arts organizations are mixed. In FY09, about one-third of organizations reported a deficit, another one-third showed modest surpluses, and the other one-third broke even.

An online survey earlier this year of more than 400 Alaska artists and arts organizations found similar results: the biggest challenges facing arts organizations center on funding, primarily the inability to secure unrestricted income. Artists reported a decline in the number of galleries and a resulting decline in sales. Technology is changing, both positively and negatively, how artists interact and find support for their work.

Last summer the foundation hosted conversations with more than 200 individuals in 12 communities that yielded important findings. There is a consistent lack of "community" space for making and viewing art, hosting performances and displaying artifacts. Communities mourn the decline in arts education in schools. Some felt that a decline in cultural literacy and traditional cultural practice will hurt young peopleh.

Rural communities talked about their struggle with "connectivity," not only low Internet band-width, but also connections with other communities and artists. Community-level disconnects were also discussed, and some pointed to weak bonds between business and arts communities.

Yet another way to gauge the health of the arts sector is through the Creative Vitality™ Index (CVI), which measures the relative economic health of geography's "creative economy" over time. The national baseline is 1.0. Anchorage's CVI in 2010 was 1.03, while the CVI for the state was 1.0. Not a bad measure, but it shows that Alaska still has great potential. The CVI for New York City in 2008 was 16.68. Not a fair comparison, but it shows a range of what is possible.

The CVI data also shed light on the arts' economic impact. Nearly $96 million in gallery or artist sales were recorded in Alaska in 2010, and nonprofit arts organizations reported $28 million in revenues. While these numbers are impressive and show a significant return on investment for arts funding, the CVI for arts and creative jobs is only 0.893, illustrating a need to strengthen infrastructure for our arts organizations.

These findings portray a mixed perspective on the current "state of the arts" in Alaska. There is great promise in what artists and cultural institutions bring to our state. There remains a great deal of energy and innovation in today's cultural leaders. Glance at a calendar of arts events to see the multitude of opportunities that exist. Artists are organizing in highly innovative ways, creating new methods for commissioning art events in public spaces, spurring local artist residency programs, and launching "arts incubators."

The arts are important to the quality of life in all of Alaska's communities and are, in fact, an important economic engine. When the arts thrive, communities thrive. Rasmuson Foundation's mission is focused on "improving the quality of life for Alaskans," and we remain committed to fulfilling that promise through continued investment in arts and culture.

Jayson Smart is a program officer at the Rasmuson Foundation.