Artists call on Legislature to fund state arts council

Juneau artists hold up their work at a demonstration outside the Walter Soboleff Building protesting the budget cuts to the Alaska State Council on the Arts on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO)

Unless 45 lawmakers vote to override Governor Dunleavy’s veto by Friday, the Alaska State Council on the Arts will be completely defunded. Artists gathered in Juneau last night to protest the cut.

Around 5 p.m. on Tuesday, amidst cruise ship passengers and Juneauites leaving work, a few dozen people dressed all in black assembled in front of the Walter Soboleff Building. They carried with them tools of their trade and pieces of their work: paintings, weavings, books of poetry.

The gathering was a show of support for the Alaska State Council on the Arts, which provides grants to groups and individuals across the state and supports public arts events. If the veto stands, the council will run out of funds on Monday, July 15th. That would make Alaska the only state in the U.S. without an arts organization.

Master Chilkat Weaver Lily Hope holds her daughter at the peaceful demonstration. Hope helped organize the event, which covered the totems with black fabric to create a public art “black out.” Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO.

Lily Hope, who coordinated the event, says she doesn’t like to think about that.

“You know, we’re talking about like, people losing jobs at the university, the arts organizations, the artists themselves,” Hope said. “It’s trickling down into so many things, arts education, I mean, you name it, it’s going to go down bad.”

As protests go, it was pretty quiet. Hope said that was by design. She wanted to demonstrate what the community would look and sound like without art. With permission from the institute, the three bronze totem poles that stand in front were covered with black cloth. The artists stood silent for a few moments, then turned around completely, their backs to the street and the onlookers who’d gathered on the sidewalk. A few tourists took pictures.

There was some music, though: a Yup’ik prayer song, sung by Stephen Qacung Blanchett.

Juneau Arts and Humanities Council Education Director Stephen Qacung Blanchett of the band Pamyua shares a prayer song next to Ishmael Hope at the demonstration. (Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO)

Blanchett is an award-winning musician and dancer and the new education director at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. He’s also a teaching artist, traveling to schools across Alaska through a state arts council program that would be eliminated by the budget cut.

He says he’s seen first-hand that bringing artists into communities can have long-lasting effects, reviving cultural traditions and empowering young people to make their own art. 

He points to Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, a community he’s been working in for a decade along with other artists, all with the support of the state arts council. When he first visited, he says, the community had no songs or dances.

“Now they have drum makers in their village. They have mast makers, they have song makers, they have tradition bearers, and they have people who create ceremony. That never would have happened without that support,” Blanchett said.

The Legislature has until Friday to override the governor’s vetoes, a move that requires three-quarters of both houses. A vote to override all of Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes together failed on Wednesday.

Christianne Carrillo, who showed up to the protest with a self-portrait she recently painted, hopes the state will find a way to fund the council. Without support for the arts, she says, “There’d be no music. There’d be nothing colorful. It’d just be a deadzone, I feel like, it’d just be gray.”

If state arts council closes on Monday, a spokesperson says it will reopen. It’s just a matter of when. Even if the Legislature does not override the veto, they could still fund the council through the capital budget.

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