Art Works Blog

Postcard from Alaska, Part One

A 2004 performance of

Julie Jensen’s play Wait! at Perseverance Theatre, an NEA grantee in Douglas, Alaska. Rocco caught up with Perseverance's executive artistic director, Art Rotch, during his whirlwind tour of Alaska. Photo courtesy of Perseverance Theatre

Last week I was in Alaska as part of the Rasmuson Foundation’s annual Grantmakers Tour. It was quite a trip, both exhaustive and exhausting. We had non-stop 12-hour days, which allowed us to learn and see a lot. We were exposed to every conceivable aspect of Alaska, particularly the Native cultures there. It was really a total education and immersion into their culture, their situation, and their issues.

The first thing we did when we arrived in Anchorage was go to the Alaska Native Medical Center Campus, which is designed to treat Native Americans and indigenous Alaskans. If you are used to clinics in New York City or Washington DC, this was a revelation. It’s the most welcoming, open, and friendly medical facility I’ve ever seen. They view their patients as shareholder owners and clients and their bosses; there aren’t the normal hierarchical distinctions that you get between doctors and patients. It’s a new facility, with lots of glass and light and art. Examinations are done in a comfortable, welcoming space that doesn’t feel at all like a doctor’s office. Everyone comes together as equals, and the patient is the center of attention.

The tour was given by Dr. Doug Eby, who happens to be on the Rasmuson Foundation Board, and Katherine Gottlieb. Dr. Eby does a tremendous job of capturing the spirit of the place. He’s obviously dedicated; the people there are passionate about what they’re doing and totally engaged in the health of the people they’re serving. It was a great lesson to take back. This was one of the highlights and high points of the trip for everybody.

We went from the Medical Center to a lunch at the Rasmuson Foundation that was hosted by Ed Rasmuson himself. The Rasmuson story is a fascinating one. His father built the National Bank of Alaska and was a great creator of personal wealth. Now, the decision has been made to really return much of that wealth to the people of Alaska through the Rasmuson Foundation. Ed Rasmuson is an amazing guy; I thought I recognized him from the Midwest. He’s very direct, very unedited in terms of what he says---he’s a guy without any kind of pretense or falseness. I’m looking forward to getting to know him a lot better. He was really an amazing presence.

Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, was at this lunch. There was some very interesting and stimulating discussion about natural resources and the role of federal government in Alaska. It was a great back and forth at lunch with everybody, and lots of questions were asked.

We went from there to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. This is a very neat, very eclectic museum. There are a lot of exhibits relating to Native cultures, as well as a contemporary section. A new wing has been built for it which has a sense of expansiveness and light and welcoming. When we were there, there was a Smithsonian exhibit relating to art from Native cultures, which was great. I think the Anchorage Museum is one of the more interesting museums that I’ve seen on my travels.

We then went to a session with Randy Hagenstein, who’s the state director of The Nature Conservancy’s Alaska program, for an interesting discussion. During the Q & A, there was again an interesting back and forth again about the tension that you are always going to have in a place like Alaska between what they call the resource community and the conservationists. He was very good at talking about some of those issues, and about the work that The Nature Conservancy is doing in Alaska.

Later in the afternoon we went over to the Native radio station KNBA, which is run by the Koahnic Broadcast Corporation. KNBA is the nation’s only urban, Native station. It’s a significant station in Anchorage, and its programming, its audience---everything about it---has to do with the Native culture and Native people. The idea is to bring Native voices to Alaska and the rest of the nation, which they do; their programming gets picked up all over the country, especially on Indian reservations and other areas with strong Native communities.

By a stroke of amazing coincidence, the chief operating officer of the station, a woman named Carol Schatz, is married to my cousin Jeremy Landesman. His dad and my dad were first cousins. Jeremy and I had grown up a block away from each other in St. Louis and hadn’t seen each other in over 50 years. I got to talk with Carol at the station, and encountered Jeremy the next day on a railroad tour. This had been a reunion that was really well over 50 years in the making, so that was amazing.

After the radio station, we toured Mountain View, which is a neighborhood of Anchorage. We did the tour with Senator Mark Begich, the Democratic senator from Alaska. He had been mayor of Anchorage, so he knows this territory very well. While he was mayor, he was very engaged in the promotion of the arts. He expanded the Anchorage Museums of History and Art, and really gets its about the importance of arts in a city. He was very proud of the Mountain View area, which offers new housing for low-income people. It’s a very culturally diverse neighborhood, the housing is very tasteful, and you really see how block by block, house by house, they are bringing back a very difficult neighborhood. I think they’ve learned a lot from what they’ve done there, and I think in a way, it’s a national example of how to build back a very tough and challenging neighborhood.

Dinner that night was at the home of Ed and Cathy Rasmuson. It was a wonderful affair. My good friend, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, was there. It was a wonderful collection of who’s who in contemporary Anchorage and Alaska. I sat next to Will Anderson who runs Koniag, Inc. on Kodiak Island. The company was one of the 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement of 1971. These are for-profit Alaska corporations that benefit the Alaskan Native population. They are very successful economic entities that make dividends and dividend distributions to their shareholders, who are Native Alaskans. The ownership and staff of these corporations are also Native. But these companies also very philanthropically-minded themselves. It’s not just that they’re making money, they’re doing it in a way that is very socially-conscious and committed. It was very heartening to see the work that they do, and the importance of the Settlements Act. The catalyst for the Settlements Act was the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay; Natives tribes had claims on that land, so this was a big settlement with the federal government and the state of Alaska.

Also at that dinner was the Rasmusen’s daughter, Natasha von Imhof.  She is very committed to the arts and aware of the arts. The Rasmusons have a great art collection, mostly by Native Alaskans, in their home. Natasha was a total delight, and is totally committed to Alaska. It’s great to see a new generation of Rasmusons getting engaged and excited about the region.

Now all that was just day one! I told you, it was an exhaustive and exhausting trip. I'll fill you in on the rest of the trip later this week in a second post.

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