The art scene of central Kenai Peninsula received a boost in the past year with the establishment of Soldotna-based ARTSpace, Inc. The mission of the recently formed group is to promote a broad-based public art program intended to identify and assist artists, connect art and economic development and beautify local communities.

In a short time they've racked up some ambitious achievements, including the installation of several "minimurals" in the Kenai-Soldotna area, and they're making plans for much more.

The foremost goal of the non-profit group is to display work by emerging Alaska artists in highly visible locations that are always accessible and free to the public. The Rotary Club of Soldotna helps fund acquisitions, the City of Soldotna provides no-cost facilities in high visibility locations and the art faculty at Kenai Peninsula College supplies curatorial expertise. ARTSpace itself has no paid employees and no outside contracts.

The most visible results of their efforts to date is probably the permanent outdoor exhibit area at Soldotna Creek Park, dedicated last October. Four large display cases on wood posts display high school and college artwork near the playground. The art in the displays is selected through an adjudication process and can be changed from time to time. But the emphasis is on the permanence of the cases. Long term costs are minimal, which is one of the parameters of the organization's mission.

The outdoor minimural program raises funds and brightens up the community by selling 4- by 8-foot aluminum panels to area businesses. Eight were put up last year. As with the exhibit cases at the park, the intention is that these murals last a long time with little maintenance.

"The 2015 batch of murals originated as entrants in the Rotary Club of Soldotna's 2013 mural contest," said Joe Kashi, a Soldotna attorney and fine art photographer. The winning entry, "La Belle Kenai" by Fannie Ryland, was recently mounted at the Kenai Municipal Airport. But Kashi took photos of all the entries which were then offered to local businesses and government offices. Only one minimural reproduction of each entry was allowed.

The murals cost the businesses $1,500 and should last a decade or more, Kashi said. After the cost of production was covered, each artist received $400, and $400 was used to help fund the Emerging Artists Festival.

Other practical ARTSpace programs include art display drawers at the Soldotna Library, showcasing a year-long exhibit for up to 10 paintings or drawings in a more compact presentation than would be possible if the art were hung on walls. The library also has an area where artists can photograph work for their portfolios and create high-quality reproductions in a large format with up-to-date printing technology. The equipment is provided and training is offered from time to time.

ARTSpace facilitates the statewide Alaska Emerging Artists Festival on Memorial Day weekend and photo contests, all with cash prizes. They even sponsor a "Satiric Art Criticism Contest," lampooning the elitist attitude that often permeates the more refined levels of the art world and which the ARTSpace folks find to be at odds with a more democratically-oriented community art program. The rules state, "We seek the most plausibly pretentious, tongue-in-cheek art writing that satirizes pompous attribution of personal projections about mundane, abstract-appearing images" (examples are shown) "as if they were the artist's own intent and meaning."

Other activities include an annual invitational no-fee, no-commission art sale, free workshops, critique sessions, artist gatherings and flash galleries.

More can be learned at artspacealaska.org.