How Alaska’s Capital City of Juneau Is Becoming a Hub for Native Art

It may be only one-tenth the size of Anchorage per population and completely disconnected from North America’s main road network, but Alaska’s state capital, Juneau, is currently enjoying an artistic renaissance led by three major coastal indigenous groups – the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian.

Most visitors to the city arrive by cruise ship before embarking on glacier tours or visiting bear sanctuaries, but lurking in the foreground is arguably the city’s best attraction, Alaska Native art.

While Northwest Coast art has been practiced for thousands of years, recent projects, including the opening of a revitalized Northwest Coast Hall at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in May 2022, have helped raise its national profile.

“After decades of suppression of Native art by missionaries, who believed Natives worshiped idols, Native organizations and tribes began the arduous path of reclaiming their arts,” says Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (SHI), a Native nonprofit organization founded in 1980 to support Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian culture.

In front of the Tsimshian Tribe House by father and son artists David A. Boxley and David R. Boxley, in the foyer of the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Building Art courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute, photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Juneau’s art renaissance gained traction in 2015 when SHI opened a new downtown headquarters and gallery at Walter Soboleff
Building. A work of art in itself, the structure, which cost around $20 million, was designed to resemble a decorative bentwood box, a vessel long used by indigenous people for storage, cooking and burials.

The massive exterior panels were designed by Haida artist Robert
Davidson and based on his painting The biggest echo (2014), while the massive Tsimshian tribal facade that dominates the foyer was carved and painted by Tsimshian artist David A. Boxley and his son, David R. Boxley.

In June, he added SHI an arts campus at the existing site as the second phase of its stated mission to make Juneau the “Northwest Coast Arts Capital of the World.” The surrounding area features a large open square and a performance pavilion that is free for aspiring artists. The campus opened during Juneau’s biennial Native Arts and Culture Festival, which returned to the city after a four-year hiatus.

Ambitious plans, uneven funding

“The institute’s goals for the campus are to expand art programming in Alaska Native and Northwest Coast to ensure the perpetuation of ancient art practices, which are unique in the world and include some at-risk practices,” says Worl. “In 2021, SHI secured a $2.9 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to commission the first ten totem poles of an anticipated 30 that will comprise part of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí (Totem Pole Trail) along the waterfront in downtown Juneau.”

The original ten poles, carved by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists, are scheduled to be completed next year, with storyboards explaining their tribe and peaks. They will join a unique 360-degree totem pole unveiled in front of the Walter Soboleff Building in June, the work of Haida carver TJ Young. The pole is part of it Faces of Alaskaa monumental art installation of bronze masks from seven major Alaska Native groups, to be installed over the next two years.

View of the new Sealaska Heritage Institute arts campus in Juneau Photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Arts funding in Alaska has been uneven over the past five years. Republican state Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been generally supportive, speaking out against the Trump administration’s move to end federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2017. In contrast, in 2019, Alaska Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy temporarily vetoed funds for the Alaska State Council on the Arts, effectively shutting it down. After much disruption, it was able to reopen two months later when funding was restored.

Federal money for the arts in the state comes primarily from grants from the NEA—nearly $8 million over the past five years—but funding is also generated through other sources. The $12.7 million for SHI’s new arts campus included donations from the NEA, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Park Service, plus contributions from more than 700 private donors.

Native art on the national scene

“SHI is doing amazing work,” says John Hagen, the curator of Indigenous arts and initiatives at the Anchorage Museum.. “They aim to be a hub for Alaska Native art in the state. But there are others.” Notes the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and the Anchorage Museum as important nurseries for Alaska Native art.

Meanwhile, many Alaska Native artists are producing ambitious new works. “Rico Worl and Crystal Worl are strong stations right now,” says Hagen. “Rico Worl just designed a stamp. Crystal Worl has created large-scale artwork and is currently creating a building-sized mural in downtown Anchorage.” (Siblings Rico and Crystal are grandchildren of current SHI president Rosita Worl.)

Another Alaska Native artist having a major moment is glass artist Preston Singletary, who is pushing boundaries in a medium unknown in the Pacific Northwest in pre-contact times. His magnificent glass screen framed by two pillars inside the Walter Soboleff Building is the largest of its kind in the world. (His major solo exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., continues through January 29, 2023.)

Glass display by Preston Singletary inside the Sealaska Heritage Institute Art courtesy of the artist and the Sealaska Heritage Institute, photo by Brendan Sainsbury

Hagen and Rosita Worl both mention the importance of artist-musician Nicholas Galanin on the national scene. The Anchorage Museum displays several of his works, including White Noise, American prayer rug (2018), which was presented at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Galanin, who is based in Sitka, Alaska, has commissioned a piece for Juneau’s new totem trail and his multi-site project Water moves life (2022), a collection of bronze water jugs, is currently on display outside both the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska State Museum, the latter a longtime bastion of Northwest culture located in downtown Juneau.

“Art and artists have always been here,” says Hagen. “Now there are some much more visible ways to highlight and grow this art and the indigenous culture that is connected to it.”

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