Art economics

On a Sunday afternoon in early December, the CEO of the Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation sold his first Alutiiq mask — hand-carved from Sitka spruce — out of a crowded studio in Mountain View.

“It was pretty exciting,” said Will Anderson.

The artist and executive, who’s been honing the art of Alutiiq mask-making for about seven years now, is part of an unlikely assembly of artists who practice their crafts out of a nondescript building on Mountain View Drive. At the December open house, his work was on display alongside vivid sea life scenes by Alvin Amason, wooden masterpieces by fellow mask-maker Perry Eaton and dream-like landscapes by Linda Lyons.

Couples strolled through the studios, sipping glasses of wine and admiring the art adorning the walls and tables. In most cases, though, they didn’t go any further than that. Anderson’s sale was one of the exceptions.

“It’s kind of slow this year,” said painter Cheryl Lyon, who’s shown and sold her work in Anchorage for about 15 years now.

In a city where Made in Alaska is a common commercial catchphrase, selling local art can prove to be an uncertain prospect; even during the holidays. Making a living making art is an even tougher proposition.

Anderson’s foray into the Anchorage art market is relatively new. A Kodiak native and former CEO of Koniag, Inc., he said he originally began practicing the carving craft as a way to reconnect with his culture–not to make a buck.

“It’s interesting because, when I was growing up in Kodiak, if you’d go into a gift shop, there wouldn’t be anything from our culture, it was all Southeast Alaska art,” Anderson said. “There’d kind of been this break of the Alutiiq culture.”

More than 200 years ago, Kodiak’s Three Saints Bay became one of the first Russian settlements in Alaska, and Anderson said the prolonged exposure to other cultures washed away much of the Alutiiq’s own.

“It kind of left this void,” he said.

As an executive for Koniag, he said he had the chance to examine collections of Alutiiq art in France, Finland, Russia, Estonia and Spain. Back home in Alaska, he took a carving class with Eaton at the Alaska Native Heritage Center that sent him down his own artistic path.

At first, he never sold his work—he said he didn’t want to compete with Koniag’s shareholders, some of whom depend on their art to pay the bills. After leaving the Kodiak-based regional corporation about two years ago, though, he relaxed his self-imposed restriction.

Sunday’s sale marked his first step into the ranks of working Alaskan artists. But Anderson still works a full-time job shepherding the Kotzebue-based village corporation. He’s not alone.

Renowned Suqpiaq Alutiiq mask-maker Eaton, who works out of a studio adjacent to Anderson’s, was also the founding president and CEO of the Alaska Native Heritage Center and a former senior advisor at Alyeska Pipeline Services Company.

Graham Dane, a British artist who’s worked in Anchorage for years, also knows what it’s like to hold down another job while pursuing a career as a professional artist. In the past, he’s supplemented his art by teaching the subject at an Anchorage elementary school and the University of Alaska Anchorage. So far, on this most recent stay stateside, he’s relying solely on his paintings. Things are a little different.

“The market’s changed,” said Dane, who’s sold his work for upwards of $8,000. “Let’s be honest—it’s a business.”

According to research from the Alaska State Council on the Arts, it can be difficult business, to boot.

A 2009 report on the state’s “creative economy” found that Anchorage ranked above the national average in all areas—except for art gallery sales, individual artist sales and performing arts participation.

Dane described it like an iceberg: Only those artists at the very tip are able to make a living with their work. Underneath the water, he said, everyone else is scrambling to keep their heads up. Producing art and paying the bills with it are two very different things.

“If you want to do it, you do whatever it takes,” he said. “If you want to sell it, well, you either hope for the best or you begin to tailor things.”

In Anderson’s world of Alaska Native art, that often means producing work aimed at collectors–including Alaska Native corporations–or visitors to the state.

“You get such a big tourist trade: People from all over the world come here, and they want to take something home with them from Alaska,” Anderson said. “And so that’s the challenge, is creating something at the right price point, that someone could afford to buy it.”

You have to pick a niche, he said.

Cheryl Lyon, who works as both a stay-at-home mother and professional artist, sells her paintings out of her studio and the Blue Hollomon gallery on Arctic Boulevard and offers everything from larger pieces to small, color-drenched canvases for $100. She said she hasn’t seen the same kind of traffic this season as she has in years past.

Could it be the variety of art available to Anchorage buyers?

“I think people support their local artists — I think we have a good art scene here,” said Lyon, standing by a display of her paintings in the softly lit Mountain View studio on Dec. 7.

But while there are plenty of artists and a rainbow variety of opportunities to show and sell their work, commercial success can be a tough nut to crack. Craft fairs like the annual Christmas Arts & Crafts Emporium can draw huge crowds of enthusiastic buyers. Art sales; not so much.

Dane believes it’s possible to oversaturate an already tricky market. While galleries like Blue Hollomon, which sells work on commission, have gone a long way toward enriching Anchorage’s art scene, he said the vibrant variety available locally can make it difficult for working artists to pin down a stable and sustainable customer base.

Especially during the holidays, the economics of a career in art comes into sharp focus.

“How do you survive?” Dane asked. “That’s a really good question, and that’s a really hard one to answer.”

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