How Alaska’s capital, Juneau, is becoming a hub for Native art

It may be only a tenth the size of Anchorage by population and completely cut off from North America’s main road network, but Alaska’s state capital, Juneau, is currently enjoying an artistic renaissance spearheaded by three main coastal Indigenous groups – Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian.

Most visitors to the city arrive on cruise ships before embarking on glacier tours or visiting bear sanctuaries, but lurking in the foreground is Alaska Native art, arguably the city’s best attraction.

While Northwest Coast art has been practiced for thousands of years, recent projects have helped raise its national profile, including the opening of a revitalized Northwest Coast Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in May 2022.

“After decades of suppression of Indigenous art by missionaries who believed that Natives worshiped idols, Indigenous organizations and tribes embarked on a rough road to reclaim their art,” says Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (SHI) is an indigenous non-profit organization founded in 1980 to promote Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian culture.

Tsimshian clan house front by father and son artists David A. Boxley and David R. Boxley in the foyer of the Walter Soboleff Building of the Sealaska Heritage Institute Art courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute, photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Juneau’s artistic renaissance gained traction in 2015 when SHI opened a new downtown and gallery in Walter Soboleff.
Building. A work of art in its own right and costing nearly $20 million, the structure was designed to resemble a decorative wooden box long used by Indigenous people for storage, cooking and burial.

The massive exterior panels were designed by Haida artist Robert.
Based on Davidson and his painting the biggest repercussion (2014), the façade of the massive Tsimshian clan house that dominates the foyer was carved and painted by Tsimshian artist David A. Boxley and his son, David R. Boxley.

In June, SHI was added An arts campus to the current site as the second phase of its stated mission to make Juneau the “Northwest Coast arts capital of the world.” The surrounding area features a large open plaza and performance pavilion that are free for aspiring artists to use. The campus opened during Juneau’s biennial Indigenous arts and culture festival and is back in town after a four-year hiatus.

Ambitious plans, unequal funding

“The Institute’s goals for the campus are to expand Alaska Native and Northwest Coast arts programming to ensure that ancient art practices are sustained, which includes some practices that are unique in the world and that are endangered,” Worl says. “In 2021, SHI secured A $2.9 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to commission the first ten totem poles for 30 people that will form part of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí (Totem Pole Trail) on the waterfront of downtown Juneau.”

The first ten pillars carved by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists are scheduled for completion next year, with storyboards describing their clans and coats of arms. They will join a unique 360-degree totem pole, the work of Haida engraver TJ Young, that opened in front of the Walter Soboleff building in June. pole piece Faces of AlaskaA monumental art installation featuring bronze masks from Alaska’s seven main Native groups will be installed over the next few years.

A view from the new Sealaska Heritage Institute arts campus in Juneau Photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Art funds in Alaska have had a bumpy ride over the past five years. Republican state senator Lisa Murkowski has been generally supportive, opposing the Trump administration’s move to eliminate federal funds for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2017. Conversely, in 2019, Alaska’s Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, temporarily vetoed funds for the State of Alaska. The Arts Council is effectively shutting it down. After much downtime, he was able to reopen two months later when funding was restored.

Federal money for the arts in the state comes primarily from grants from the NEA (about $8 million over the past five years), but funding is also generated through other sources. The $12.7 million for SHI’s new arts campus included donations from the NEA, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Park Service, as well as contributions from more than 700 private donors.

Indigenous art on the national stage

“SHI is doing some great work,” says John Hagen, curator of Indigenous arts and initiatives at the Anchorage Museum.. “They aim to be a hub for Alaska Native art in the state. There are others though.” notes the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center Fairbanks, Alutiiq Museum At the Kodiak and Anchorage Museum as major incubation centers for Native art in Alaska.

Meanwhile, numerous Alaska Native artists are producing ambitious new works. “Rico Worl and Crystal Worl are powerhouses right now,” says Hagen. “Rico Worl has just designed a postage stamp. Crystal Worl is doing large-scale art projects and is currently painting a building-size mural in downtown Anchorage.” (Sisters Rico and Crystal are descendants of current SHI president Rosita Worl.)

Another Alaskan Native artist with a significant moment is glass artist Preston Singletary, who pushed boundaries in an unknown setting in the Pacific Northwest in pre-contact times. The magnificent glass screen surrounded by two house pillars inside the Walter Soboleff Building is the largest of its kind in the world. (His biggest solo exhibition It runs through January 29, 2023 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.)

Glass display by Preston Singletary inside the Sealaska Heritage Institute Photo courtesy of the artist and Sealaska Heritage Institute, photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Hagen and Rosita Worl touch on the importance of artist-musician Nicholas Galanin on the national stage. It showcases many of his works, including the Anchorage Museum. White Noise, American Prayer Rug (2018) featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Galanin, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, was commissioned to create a piece for Juneau’s new totem trail and multi-site work. Water Moves Life (2022), a collection of bronze water jugs is now on display outside both the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska State Museum, a longtime stronghold of Northwest culture located in downtown Juneau.

“Art and artists have always been here,” says Hagen. “There are now much more visible ways to showcase and grow this art and the Indigenous culture connected to it.”

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