Stable economy keeps arts thriving

Thu, 10/25/2012 - 8:17pm
In this 2011 photo, Fairbanks native and world-renowned mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux is seen at her publicist’s New York home. Genaux, the daughter of a former UAF biology professor, still returns to her hometown to mentor and give performances.

For the size of its communities, Alaska’s arts scene is thriving. Anchorage and Fairbanks have their long-established and local symphony orchestras, youth symphonies, opera associations and local theater companies, all with supporters who are intensely loyal.

“You would think with a looming local energy crisis the arts would be shrinking, but they’re not. They’re growing,” said June Rogers, director of the Fairbanks Arts Association.

In theater, Out North Contemporary Art House in Anchorage and Perseverance Theatre in Juneau now have national reputations for creating and producing avante garde, even edgy, new work, says Ira Perman, long-time Alaska arts advocate and 20-year director of the Anchorage Concert Association.

Both are attracting support from well-known national arts foundations to keep that creativity going, he said. Cyrano’s, a small, intimate theater and long a downtown Anchorage fixture, is proud of its local productions that include locally-created work. Cyrano’s supports itself totally with ticket sales and local donations.

Fairbanks has a strong arts following, surprising for the small size of the community. Rogers said that highly educated faculty and research staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are strong arts supporters, and likewise are many military families that rotate in and out of bases in Interior Alaska.

“There is a constant influx of new ideas and volunteers that military families bring, and the newness of it is invigorating,” Rogers said.

The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival at the university now attracts attention in the arts community nationally, with its class and study sessions in the visual arts, music, drama and dance.

Someone who has also put Fairbanks on the arts map is Vivica Genaux, the mezzo-soprano now well known on Europe’s opera circuit who lives in Italy. Genaux was born and raised in Fairbanks and, most important, was nurtured in her early training in the Fairbanks arts environment. Her father was a biochemistry professor at UAF.

She returns regularly to her hometown to give performances and to mentor young people, Rogers said.

Perman said the big Broadway performances at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage are well-attended and are money-makers that help support smaller performances and productions as well as the Anchorage symphony, Perman says.

Broadways shows like Phantom of the Opera, which came to Alaska a few years ago, can be hugely expensive to put on, with costs ranging from $500,000 to $5 million. They make money mainly from ticket sales, Perman said.

Those corporate donors who are always thanked at the start of performances are really making contributions to the concert association to help with its expenses, he said. The direct costs of the performances are paid for by ticket buyers.

The concert association itself helps organize and market the events but the performances themselves are created by the individual arts organization, such as an out-of-state production company or, on the local level, the opera, symphony or a dance group like Alaska Dance Theatre.

Anchorage’s performing arts center is owned by the city but is operated and maintained by its own nonprofit, Alaska Center for the Performing Arts Inc., which also manages sales of tickets to events.

The users of the Performing Arts Center, the concert association or symphony, for example, basically rent space for their events, said Nancy Harbour, director of the nonprofit. There are 10 local performing arts organizations that work with the center on a regular basis.

The center itself costs about $2.5 million a year to maintain. Revenues from its events pay for about half of these costs, Harbour said.

The Fairbanks Arts Association has a relationship with the Fairbanks North Star Borough for use of the borough-owned Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts at Pioneer Park, but it is more limited than at Anchorage’s performing arts center.

The association uses space in the center for a public art gallery, which it manages, the association offices and space for local arts groups and clubs, for which there is no charge.

For larger events that use the theater in the center, and which sell tickets, organizations work through the borough and its department that manages all of Pioneer Park, which is a major center for civic activities and visitors in Fairbanks.

The arts association also works with other groups to coordinate productions and performances in local schools. The relationship with the local school district has existed since the 1980s, Rogers said.

As in Anchorage, some of Fairbanks’ local arts organizations have histories that go back decades, such as the Fairbanks Concert Association, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year.

There were thriving groups before that, too. Rogers was born and raised in Fairbanks and remembers them.

“The different cultural influences that have always existed in Fairbanks were evident then as now. I remember a lot of European influence,” she said, not only the east European origins of some prominent Fairbanks families but also the frequent exchanges with visitors from other northern regions, like Scandinavia.

Arts and culture have actually had a presence in Alaska communities since Gold Rush times. As soon as buildings replaced tents in mining towns an Opera House wpould appear alongside the churches and bars. Visiting opera singers were scarce – though there were some – but the Opera Houses were really to provide a place for local music and performance groups.

Ira Perman, in Anchorage, believes arts have always thrived in small, northern communities because people want something to do and somewhere to socialize particularly when the weather is bad.

“A lot of things happened in Anchorage after World War II when a lot of Army and Air Force wives arrived, many with European backgrounds and education, who were not particularly interested in hunting and fishing,” Perman said.

Isolation also makes one want to enjoy what’s available. “If you live on the east coast you have a huge array of choices for arts and culture” Perman said.

Today, however, there are a lot of activities including sports available year-around, but the arts continue to thrive. In Fairbanks, Rogers said that’s partly because many arts supporters are among long-time families with traditions of giving and enjoying the arts that now span generations.

The arrival of oil money in the Alaska economy provided a big spurt of support for the arts. The Alaska Repertory Theater was formed in 1976 and gave its first performance in 1977, and its supporters went on to advocate for a performing arts building in Anchorage, which was subsequently built with state grants.

In Anchorage, Perman said the strong regional economy and a solid professional middle class in the community add powerful reinforcement to local arts.

“Our per capita income is pretty high, and we have a thriving middle class,” he said.

Ticket prices for big events, like Broadway shows, are pricey but it’s common to see whole families at popular shows, Perman said. This is rare in New York where ticket prices for an event often exceed $100.

Alaska is still young enough that it doesn’t have “old money”, wealthy families that leave a lot of money to arts endowments and institutions, unlike places such as California. Also, many of Alaska’s successful business people and professionals tend to retire to warmer climates and they take their money with them.

A notable exception to this is the Rasmuson Foundation, the legacy of the banking family of Elmer Rasmuson, which provides a lot of support for local arts.

One very positive new development, however, is the arrival on the scene of Alaska Native corporations, which are now joining the large oil and gas companies, banks and telecommunications firms as large corporate sponsors.

Native corporations have always supported the arts and culture of their own regions but as they grow and prosper, and become more integrated into the main Alaska business community, the giving and support for all arts has increased.

What’s important is that this is Alaskan-owned wealth that will remain in the state, even with much of it earned from business investments outside Alaska. It could offset the fact that Alaska has, and may always have, less “old family money” to support the arts.