Around 50 local artists met at the corner of Front and Seward streets in downtown Juneau to shroud three Alaska Native house posts in black cloth on a busy Tuesday afternoon. They dressed in black, with solemn faces carrying various pieces of their art.
Lily Hope was among them. She’s an Alaska Native artist who organized the event to symbolize what life would be like without public art and urge the Legislature to override one of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $440 million line-item vetoes which eliminates funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA).
If the $2.8 million line-item veto is not overridden by lawmakers, Alaska will become the only state in the country without a council for the arts. ASCA represents, supports and advances the creative endeavors of individuals, organizations and agencies throughout Alaska, according to their website.
DJ DeRego, a poet attending the protest, said the council is crucial in maintaining art throughout remote places in Alaska that cannot afford to bring artists to town on their own.
“To think of the (community) diminishing and dwindling and the youth who won’t have the opportunities that I had, to see themselves away from trauma and onto a broader stage, and have the community lift them up, we just need to do that for each other,” DeRego said in an interview.
He’s a member of the Woosh Kinaadeiyí poetry nonprofit in Juneau and said ASCA has been crucial in helping fund and provide venues for workshops in villages around the state.
“The workshops have been a huge tool in bridging the understanding of what it even means to live in subsistence Alaska,” he said. But without funding for ASCA he said it would be hard to get people to participate in the same way.
Unlike protests earlier this week, this one was smaller, but the message was just as clear.
“Save our arts,” the group chanted, as passerby tourists and locals wondered aloud what was going on.
One tourist from Davis, California who was watching the display said she had read about the budget issue in Alaska.
“I feel it’s so wrong,” said Julie Haney. “Shutting down school funding, art funding, I mean (the governor) has taken away the soul of the community by doing that. How do you expect to have future generations of amazing people if you take those things away?”
Emily Mesch has only lived in Juneau for four months, but before that the artist lived in Skagway and was on the council for the arts.
“The art council gives people something to do when there isn’t anything to do, especially in the winter in Skagway,” Mesch said. “If you grew up in a small town, you’re not exposed to anything outside of your town.”
The short chant and prayer song ended with a response from the spectator side of the street.
“We hear you,” cried Rosita Worl, the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute. “Without art there is no spirit… we admire you, we support you… you bring wealth to our state. The state should realize, the governor should realize, the Legislature should realize all that you bring to our lives. … Thank you all for all the things that you have done for us and we know that we will persevere. We know that we can change the hearts of those people who at this time seem to have turned their backs on our arts. We are with you.”
• Mollie Barnes is a freelance reporter in Juneau.