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Stunning traveling exhibit highlights Alaska art purchased with Rasmuson grants

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published November 27, 2015

For a browser who has paid attention to local artists and art shows over the past 10 years or so, the "Living Alaska" exhibit that opened at the Anchorage Museum this month feels like a homecoming. Or maybe an aesthetic version of the triumphant processions that honored conquering heroes of antiquity.

Among the 73 pieces in the spaciously displayed show are several key works by important creative people that we haven't seen for a while. There are also many from Fairbanks or Southeast collections that may seem like something the Anchorage-bound viewer thinks we may have seen, but are in fact new to us.

Rachelle Dowdy's large and quirky sculpture "Hollowed Search: Crane Woman Hunts," for instance, has been in storage since shortly after it was created in 2004 -- likewise, the mysterious, fragile Scotch tape and projected media construction by Kat Tomka. Earl Atchak's imaginative "The Shaman is Almost a Seal" was displayed in a case as part of the museum's catch-all "new acquisitions" exhibit in 2012, but in this show it is more properly mounted on a wall with impressive effect. Susan Joy Share's big, bright "Talking Sticks" has not been displayed at the museum before.

Rebecca Lyon's sculpture "Plastic Death," on the other hand, was prominently featured in the museum's "Gyre" exhibit last year. Mark Wedekind's "Little Sue" has been displayed regularly since winning an award in the Earth, Fire and Fibre competition in 2006.

Subtitled "A Decade of Collecting Contemporary Art for Alaska Museums," the show celebrates and showcases artwork purchased with grants from the Rasmuson Foundation. In the forward of the show's catalogue, foundation President Diane Kaplan recalls the genesis of the program in 2002 at the suggestion of then-Sen. Ted Stevens.

"Support for individual artists in America was dwindling as the National Endowment for the Arts and state arts councils withdrew grant support for artists in the wake of the 'culture wars' of the late 1990s," Kaplan writes. "No federal funds for such a purpose were available." If the foundation were to step in, Stevens thought, it would help support Alaska artists and also help Alaska museums increase their holdings of contemporary art.

"By the time the (Rasmuson) Art Acquisition Fund was announced, most Alaskan museums were not actively collecting contemporary Alaskan art," writes catalogue contributor Scott Carrlee of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. He gives as an example the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, the oldest museum in the state. It had "one of the world's premier collections of Alaska Native artifacts," he said, but little that was created after statehood in 1959. It had become a time capsule of the past rather than a venue for exploring the present.

"Visitors were accustomed to seeing mainly historical Native objects on display … without considering the continuity, resilience and innovative contemporary growth of these traditions," Carrlee writes.

But with the new grants, new work was obtained from living artists, expanding their vision and technique in the here and now.

In the 10 years since it began, the Rasmuson Art Acquisition Fund has made 173 grants, totaling about $2 million. The money has enabled 33 Alaska museums to purchase more than 1,000 works from 436 artists, numbers that keep increasing. Catalogue co-editors Sven Haakanson, Jr. and Amy Steffian wrote "the fund has fundamentally changed the way Alaskan arts are preserved and shared."

Haakanson is also the curator, tasked with selecting 25 pieces that serve as the core of the traveling show. The pieces come from 11 institutions, including the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the Alaska State Museum and the Anchorage Museum, but also smaller facilities in Kodiak, Homer and Southeast.

Haakanson divided his selections into three categories: "Artwork Inspired by Alaska's Environment" are works evoking landscape, animals and lifestyles; "Alaska Native Art," includes traditional forms given the contemporary touch, like a salmon skin bowl by Audrey Armstrong and the wildly modernist take on Northwest Indian formline art, "Logic Board," a painting by Donald Varnell. The third category, "Contemporary Alaskan Art," is the most open-ended of the three divisions, with work as diverse as Sonya Kelliher-Combs' abstract polymer and mixed media "Blue Beaded Secret" and John Svenson's realistic portrait of a fishing boat, "High and Dry."

In addition to the core exhibit of 25 pieces, each museum where "Living Alaska" will be shown will add pieces from its own collection acquired with Rasmuson grants. In the case of the inaugural exhibit in Anchorage, the effect is impressive.

Anchorage Museum curator Angela Demma selected an additional 48 pieces for the opening show. "I followed Sven's guidelines with the three categories," she said. "It was pretty hard to select them and really hard to know when to stop."

Demma said she wanted to show work that hadn't been seen too much in previous years and work from artists who hadn't been shown too much, to "share what we haven't shared."

She also wanted to keep her picks to one piece per artist. Only one item in the display is technically a pair. Space was an issue that limited her choices (a matter that may be resolved somewhat with the construction of additional space at the museum next year). But the show was also an opportunity to display some of the larger works that have stayed in storage because of their size, like Share's and Dowdy's pieces.

Bringing work out of the basement involved a high degree of conservatorship, cleaning, dusting and repairing. But seeing some of the pieces from the All-Alaska Juried Art Show and Earth, Fire and Fibre competitions of the past is like running into old friends one hasn't seen for a long time.

The Anchorage contributions include work by Don Mohr, Wanda Seamster, Annie Aude, Jack Abraham, Fran Reed, Lisa Gray, James Behlke and Margo Klass.

In all, "Living Alaska" is a remarkable assembly of the best Alaska art dating from this millennium and a testament to what the Art Acquisition Fund has been able to achieve. It can be difficult to see the impact of one or two purchases as they slowly join the rest of a large museum's many holdings. But taken in toto -- and remembering that "Living Alaska" is a small peek at the spectrum of paintings, sculptures and other work acquired through the Rasmuson program -- one begins to recognize that our small state is producing a significant body of high art and, along with it, venues worthy of showcasing such art.

At least one out-of-state visitor seems to have thought so: Raymond Teller, who toured the museum in early November. Teller is best known as the less talkative half of the comedy/magic duo Penn & Teller, but he broke his silence when he saw Dowdy's "Crane Woman."

"My favorite thing @AnchorageMuseum," he said in a Twitter message accompanied by a photo of the sculpture. "This place is a world class treasure of art, history and technology."

LIVING ALASKA will be on display through Feb. 7 at the Anchorage Museum. It will then travel to other Alaska museums, each of which will augment the core exhibit of 25 works with additional works from their own collections, as follows:

Feb.-April 2016, Pratt Museum, Homer

May-Sept. 2016, Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum, Juneau

Oct.-Dec. 2016, University of Alaska Museum of the North, Fairbanks

Jan.-March 2017, Alutiiq Museum and Archeological Repository, Kodiak

April-June 2017, Museum of the Aleutians, Unalaska

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