One of Homer’s more obscure art organizations doesn’t have an office, doesn’t have a gallery and only a staff of two. Thanks to a $265,000 Rasmuson Foundation Arts Acquisition grant, though, Homer-based Museums Alaska will make a big dent in sustaining working Alaska artists.
Run by executive director Heather Beggs, the grant is managed by projects administrator Michael Hawfield. Both are former Pratt Museum directors. Hawfield said Museums Alaska is based in Homer because that’s where Beggs happens to live. Hawfield was a previous Museums Alaska director in 2005.
The Arts Acquisition grant came about 10 years ago when Rasmuson officials met with artists around the state. The message they kept hearing was “You need to have working artists to have an arts and culture sector,” said Cassandra Stalzer, Rasmuson Foundation communications director. It started the Individual Artists awards program as one way to help artists and the Arts Acquisition program as another.
Through Museums Alaska, museums or cultural centers can apply for up to $35,000 to purchase contemporary, original art in all media by living Alaska artists. Museums can purchase art through galleries, dealers and the individual artists. In some cases, such as invitational shows the Pratt Museum periodically holds, curators select art from their own exhibit, such as a watercolor painting the Pratt bought from Homer artist Michael Murray that he entered in its Living by the Tides show. Beyond those guidelines, it’s up to the museum how it purchases art.
“We leave it up to the institution and its normal selection process to decide what’s worthy art,” Hawfield said.
The Pratt may be unique among Alaska museums in that it sometimes purchases art to complement other exhibits, Hawfield noted. For example, two photographs by Alan Parks purchased using Arts Acquisition funds are used in its Kachemak Bay: An Exploration of People and Place exhibit.
“It’s kind of rare for them to integrate fully the art work to tell the stories,” Hawfield said.
Along with giving artists cash to make a living, a museum purchase also can validate an artist’s career and make her work more known in Alaska, said artist and Bunnell Street Gallery director Asia Freeman. Freeman’s painting, “Pleiades Island,” was purchased through the Arts Acquisition program by the Pratt Museum and “Cold Island” by the Anchorage Museum.
“The most important thing an artist can ever achieve is to be collected by a museum,” Freeman said. “To be acquired by a museum means your work is properly archived and exhibited and ultimately contextualized so it can be understood and interpreted in a number of ways.”
When art is purchased from a gallery show, it also gives that gallery credibility. Bunnell has sold several works exhibited in shows, such as Sheryl Maree Reily’s “Harvest Rosary,” a rosary made of fishing floats that was in Bunnell’s Spill show.
“For Bunnell it’s been a great endorsement, especially for shows with large-scale work,” Freeman said. “To have those archived in the museum, that’s maybe the one thing that came out of the show. It validates the whole effort.”
The Arts Acquisition program also helps museums build their collections of contemporary art, Hawfield said. Before the program started and when he ran the Pratt, staff would say that they wanted to buy a piece.
“I would say, ‘We don’t have that kind of money,’” Hawfield said. “This program makes available a known amount of money so a collections committee could make the decision knowing they’ve got the funding.”
Since the Arts Acquisition program began in 2003, it has supported the purchase of 635 works of contemporary Alaska art by 284 Alaskans, with distributions to museums totaling $1.6 million. In 2012 the allocation was $300,000, with 90 works by more than 50 Alaska artists purchased. At the Rasmuson website at www.rasmuson.org/ArtOnDisplay is a virtual gallery searchable by artist or institution showing works purchased.
This year’s program started Monday, with a deadline of Aug. 13 to apply. Museums and cultural institutions are encouraged to apply early as funds are awarded on a rolling basis up to the deadline. For guidelines and application forms, visit the Museums Alaska website at www.museumsalaska.org.