State legislators are considering spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money to support an arts and cultural center in New York City that its founder describes as an embassy devoted to increasing awareness of Alaska.
The nonprofit, Alaska House New York, opened in September 2008, in a 3,000-square-foot space in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. Until now, it has been privately financed by founder Alice Rogoff, a wealthy advocate of Alaska Native art. She describes it as an effort to promote the state's business and culture as well as sell art.
"I did this because I thought it was really important, not just for the state in the big picture but for the sake of village life and subsistence and Native people whose livelihoods are dependent on so much of this state's economy continuing to flourish," Rogoff said in an interview. "Well, I can't afford to keep New York open anymore so we're either going to close it or we're going to find funding for it."
She has proposed various amounts of state support in recent months. Rogoff and other representatives of Alaska House met with a special assistant to Gov. Sean Parnell on Thursday and presented a request for a $600,000 appropriation for "public relations and economic development marketing." Alaska House also has a request for money pending before the Legislative Council, a panel that spends money between legislative sessions.
Rogoff originally sought $875,000 from the council but said last week she's not proposing a specific dollar figure at this point. She said she just wants to talk with the state and figure out how to keep the facility open, even if the operation has to be scaled back.
House Speaker Mike Chenault said it's unusual for lawmakers to be asked to fund a nonprofit out of state. He said he's not sure if it's a good use of public money.
"If all we're doing is providing a job or two for somebody in New York I'm not really interested in it," said the Republican from Nikiski. "But if a lot of artisans and others are being able to utilize that service to sell their products in New York then, for what Alaskans are receiving, is that a good investment for that kind of money?"
Alaska House was to be on the agenda at the Legislative Council's meeting on Oct. 28, but was pulled because lawmakers who wanted it discussed were unable to attend. One was the president of the Senate, Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens.
"It's a great venue for Alaskan artists and discussions and debates on Alaska to help people in New York understand what Alaska is all about," he said. "The question is, should there be state money and if so, how much?"
Stevens said he was impressed by an Alaska House event he attended in September at the invitation of University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Fran Ulmer. Stevens, who was reimbursed $1,928 by the state for his travel and expenses, spoke as part of a panel that included Ulmer and Cook Inlet Region Inc. CEO Margie Brown. Others at the "State of the State of Alaska" talk were Pulitzer Prize winning author and oil expert Daniel Yergin as well as David Rubenstein, Rogoff's husband and co-founder of The Carlyle Group, one of the world's top private equity firms.
Rubenstein has a net worth of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which ranked him in September as the 123rd richest American. The New York Times profiled Rubenstein recently as a leading philanthropist after he donated $10 million to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.
Rogoff, herself a former chief financial officer for U.S. News and World Report, said she was enthralled by Alaska during her first visit in 2001. She said it was her first awareness of village Alaska and the indigenous people who continue living off ancestral lands. It's a fact not well known outside of the state, she said. "To me, it was becoming aware of the greatest, historical, cultural, human treasure, in my own country that I could ever have imagined," Rogoff said.
In subsequent visits here, she said, she met people in villages selling arts and crafts from their coat pockets because there wasn't much of an organized market and the retail shops that did exist gave too much of the profits to the merchants and middlemen. That inspired the creation of the nonprofit Alaska Native Arts Foundation to buy and sell arts, said Rogoff. She co-founded and chairs the organization.
Earlier this year Rogoff became majority owner of the Alaska Dispatch, an online news site, and she is also involved in other nonprofits, including the Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership and an effort to build a Native arts center in Nome. Rogoff, who has a home in Anchorage and is registered to vote here, said she opened Alaska House New York after seeing a fundamental lack of understanding about the state.
"If you live in my shoes and commute between these two worlds, which I do sometimes every week, you begin to see there is a Chinese wall of ignorance at the border of this state. And it is to the detriment of this state's economy," she said.
Rogoff declined to specify how much she has put into Alaska House, saying her personal finances are private. She said she never intended to carry the operation herself and that her plan was to raise around $1 million a year for its operations, "I thought fairly easily," from the money managers who have made enormous fees managing the assets of the Alaska Permanent Fund. But the same day Alaska House opened, Rogoff said, the investment services company Lehman Brothers went under, and the financial industry imploded. She said she's had a problem even locating the managers to solicit.
Rogoff said her "Plan B" had been grants from charitable foundations, but they are hurting badly.
Alaska House requested a $1.5 million federal appropriation from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in February, according to Murkowski's office. But Murkowski, who sits on the Appropriations committee, chose to not submit it to Congress.
Rogoff said she's also pursuing private partnerships for Alaska House, which has a staff of six. If Alaska House stays open it might be through a public-private effort or an annual state appropriation, she said. She suggested there could be business expositions or the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute might use the space to show the difference between farmed and wild salmon, for example.
Alaska House hosted a series of programs during the past year on Alaska issues and arts, with Native art for sale in the gallery. Its proposal for next year includes regular "Alaska Nights" with films, performers, athletes and others from the state.
An Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute event at Alaska House in May drew coverage in the New Yorker magazine and on the New York Times dining blog. Then-Gov. Sarah Palin had been scheduled to attend and her husband, Todd, filled in when she canceled because of Interior floods. Five state legislators also attended the luncheon promoting a program that provides canned salmon to poor countries. The state paid much of the expense of the legislators' visit, which also included an event discussing natural gas and a meeting with media, although Anchorage Sen. Lesil McGuire reported a $658 gift of lodging paid for by Alaska House.
Legislative Council Chairman John Harris, a Valdez Republican who was on that trip, said he's watching to see if Parnell advocates state help for Alaska House. Harris said he's not excited about the council giving an emergency cash infusion to Alaska House without a sign the state wants to do what it takes to keep it going.
"There's a lot of skepticism about it," he said. "It's not a slam dunk by any means."
Perry Eaton, an Alutiiq artist and leader from Kodiak who is on the board of Alaska House, said he's spoken to legislators and sees the difficulty. It's coming up on an election year and there's a tight economy.
"It's a bit of a struggle for our current political group. If the governor comes forward and says this is really a good thing, he's really sending money outside the state when fuel bills in rural Alaska are astronomical," he said. "Is it politically acceptable is the real question. Economically, from a conceptual standpoint, it makes really great sense."
He said it's a proven venue that showcases Alaska in a critical market, particularly through indigenous art.
"It's not an idea, it's fact. Which is a little reversed to how we do things normally up here," he said.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Alaska Dispatch Publishing