Magazine article Humanities

Alaskan Aesthetics: 3,200 PIECES OF ART FIND A NEW HOME

Magazine article Humanities

Alaskan Aesthetics: 3,200 PIECES OF ART FIND A NEW HOME

Article excerpt

FOR MOST IN THE LOWER forty-eight, Alaska represents the indomitable: endless stretches of graceful white, the bellow of whales as they sink beneath the water's dark surface, terrifying creaks as glaciers break and tectonic plates furrow the brow of the earth.

The new building of the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks evokes all of these. It was director Aldona Jonaitis's brainchild of the mid 1990s, when visitorship dropped sharply from 146,000 to 86,000 annually, due in large part to two touring companies dropping the stop at the museum in favor of a local mining theme park.

Jonaitis got an idea from the success of Bilbao's Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim. "Everything's pretty much a box up here," she says. "The only way we were going to get people back was for them to complain to the tour companies that they hadn't been taken to that great museum that they heard so much about." The museum needed a signature building. For this, they needed financial support, including a grant from NEH.

In 1917, the territorial legislature mandated that the newly founded university include a museum. The university archaeologist had a collection of specimens, but didn't have anywhere to put it, so he exhibited in a corner of the university president's office. It took more than sixty years for money to be appropriated for an actual museum, and even then they received one-quarter less than needed. At its opening in 1980, the structure was already too small.

Totaling more than 3,200 pieces of art, with a focus on Alaskan work, the collection includes local artists such as Ted Lambert, Kivetoruk Moses, and Sydney Laurence. The fine arts section of the museum had been able to keep only fifty or so of these pieces on view. Though it seems odd in a state with the third lowest population and the highest land area by more than 300,000 square miles, the curators had a serious dearth of elbow room. …

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