Last May the Alaska State Council on the Arts lost its executive director when Shannon Daut, who had held the position since 2012, departed to take a job with the Cultural Affairs Division of Santa Monica, California. Her resignation left the council with a staff of four and, given the current budget straits of the state, no new hires on the immediate horizon.
One of those four, Andrea Noble-Pelant, the council's Visual and Literary Arts Program director since 2006, stepped in as acting director. As the new year begins, she officially has been given the executive director spot, which includes administration of the agency, personnel and budget management, a roster of meetings and committees dealing with everything from working on grants to designing a new license plate for arts boosters.
And she's still managing the council's Visual and Literary Arts programs, wearing two hats. She has to if the program is to continue.
Noble-Pelant lives in Eagle River with her husband Sam and two children. Her pastimes include taekwondo — she's taken part in national competitions — and working on a rock garden. She's also figure skated and played hockey. "Athletics are important too," she said.
But until now she's remained fairly unnoticed, despite being part of the local art establishment for several years. "I've been quietly working behind the scenes for some time," she said.
Andrea Noble was born and raised in a rural area of Canada near London, Ontario. Her father was a mechanic. Her grandfather was an Irish immigrant whose schooling had ended in second grade. "For that reason, I think, the family put a high importance on education," she said. "Arts education was valued because it opened other doors."
"We weren't the typical 'artistic' family" in the sense of lessons and formal training, she said. "But creativity was part of our lives. My world was filled with handmade things. My mother was very good at sewing and made elegant items that I wore. My brother and I loved to draw. We were encouraged to build things, sing, put on plays, form parades."
Language was also important, so she tried to learn French, with mixed results. (Her own children are now studying Chinese.) But she was most interested in somehow making a living in the arts. She got a bachelor's degree in visual arts from the University of Western Ontario in London, where she arranged for several exhibits, then another bachelor's degree in secondary art education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
It was her knowledge of French, however, which she admits wasn't all that good at the time, that helped land her first teaching job at Trafalgar Middle School in Nelson, British Columbia (southeast of Kamloops; not to be confused with Fort Nelson on the Alaska Highway). She also taught art and drama and worked with special needs and gifted students.
In 1998, she married Samuel in a ceremony on the Oregon coast. "He had an uncle in Eagle River, so we decided we should move to Alaska."
She quickly found work at Service High School, teaching art and language and advising students on the yearbook. She was among the educators nominated for a British Petroleum Award for Excellence in Teaching.
In 2001 Noble-Pelant worked as a grant administrator for Hope Community Resources, which supplied valuable experience in connecting with funding sources and writing grant applications. Those skills would come in handy in the years that followed when artists and agencies came to her for feedback on their own funding proposals.
From 2002-2006 she was the curator of Art Education for the Anchorage Museum, a post that had her curating the annual holiday exhibits, preparing art classes and children's programs and, to be sure, writing lots of grants.
Her visual and literary duties at the arts council have included overseeing the state writer laureate program and administering the state's Percent for Art Program. She is particularly proud of "Snow Words," an installation by Cecil Balmond at the new state crime lab, which won an award from the national Americans for the Arts organization in 2013.
She also administers the state Art Bank, which holds pieces by prominent Alaska artists like Alvin Amason, John Hoover and Fran Reed that are loaned to state officials and state offices on two-year terms. In addition to the council's own Art Bank collection of some 600 works, the program also assists other state entities that own significant artwork.
For instance, Amason's big "Welcome to My World," which was displayed at the Anchorage airport for many years, is now being stored by the council as it awaits a new location with enough room to be exhibited. The much-commented-upon painting with sculptural elements showing a staring bear, bird, fox and fish drew a good deal of derision along with praise when it was first installed in 1986.
"The airport took it down eight years ago," Noble-Pelant said. "Re-homing artwork is not always easy."
In more prosperous times, the council used to put out calls for work to be bought and added to the Art Bank. That hasn't happened for the past three years because of state budget constraints, Noble-Pelant said. "But we're looking for other ways to find the money to make purchases again. Possibly by next April."
The council's annual budget, which once topped $10 million, is now $2.5 million. Twenty-seven percent is federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts that must be matched by the state of Alaska. Another 15 percent comes from the Rasmuson Foundation. Funds for a major arts education initiative from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, amounting to $720,000, supplies 29 percent of the council's budget.
The Cargill program, known as "The Murartet Project," aims to prepare teachers in Kodiak to integrate arts into their curricula. "It's supporting teachers so they can stay in Alaska and teach through the arts," Noble-Pelant said. "The goal is to produce more successful students."
As with other agencies, reduction in state spending is a reality that the council has to deal with. Noble-Pelant would like to hire a fifth person to work the now-empty receptionist desk in the front of the offices. But in the meantime, the four remaining employees are picking up additional duties as best they can; that includes Noble-Pelant adding the executive director's workload to her responsibilities as the Visual and Literary Arts director.
"The work we're doing makes us look more like an agency double the size," she said. "But I'm confident in the work we're doing so far. We've earned credibility among the funders, and they're pleased that we're so effective."
Noble-Pelant cited the council's diverse board as one reason for the agency's effectiveness. She also credited the longevity of the remnant staff. L. Saunders McNeill, the Community and Native Arts Program director, has been with the agency for 15 years, she noted, and Arts Education Program director Laura Forbes, whose work includes managing the artists in the schools programs, has been there for six years.
"There's a perception that we don't have any money," Noble-Pelant said. "In fact we did take a large cut two years ago, but since then the funding level has been the same in terms of grants. What's different is that the needs have changed."
The council gets more requests from artists now than was the case when the economy was booming, she said.
Harder than you think
Noble-Pelant loves to meet and listen to artists, she said. "That's what's great about this job. It's highly collaborative and you're surrounded by great thinkers."
She's accustomed to hearing about their doubts and disappointments, wondering whether they can make it in the art world. "We've all been through it," she said. "I always ask to look at their work, not to criticize but to find strengths. I can see a strength in everybody's work."
It's important to "align practice with your goals," she said, and explore as many options as possible. In her own case, for instance, a marginal knowledge of French landed her in her first teaching job. "Diversity of opportunity will lead to diversity of income streams," she said.
She often repeats advice to artists she heard from a professor some years back: "It will take time and it's going to be a lot harder than you think."
But the assiduous effort is ultimately worth it, she added. Something in the human animal seems to compel us to seek aesthetic expression, even when, as with Amason's "Welcome to my World," the art draws consternation.
"Controversy isn't always controversy," she said. "Sometimes it's just making sure that the story is complete."
"Creativity doesn't have to be formal or planned," she said. "The arts are infinitely bigger than the individual. They're not done in isolation. The satisfaction comes from connectivity with people and the community.
"In our current situation, Alaskans are our best resource."