Anchorage Museum gives focus to a new narrative of the Far North
As a child, Julie Decker often found herself at the Anchorage Museum. Her father, Don Decker, then an Anchorage art teacher, was —and still is — a creative power in his own right. His art was displayed there and so was that of his students. Julie’s prom was at the museum and so was her wedding. She interned there.
“It was this temple of things we cared about. Education and art and ideas,” she says.
Now chief executive of the Anchorage Museum, Julie Decker is uniquely situated to explain the museum’s growth into a leading-edge art force. Support from the Rasmuson Foundation and the family behind the philanthropy set the stage.
The new Rasmuson Wing, a 31,000-square-foot addition to the city-owned building that officially opened in September, dramatically expands gallery space. It anchors what’s now seen as a world-class museum. The addition was entirely privately funded. The Foundation contributed $12 million. In addition, Board Chairman Ed Rasmuson and his wife, Cathy – the Board vice chair – contributed $6 million, as did Board member Judy Rasmuson, Ed’s sister. Before, the museum had just 3,000 square feet to display its collection. Now with the wing that also added office space and a new Patron’s Lounge, it has 25,000 square feet for its own collections.
“We don’t consider that a gift just to the museum,” Decker says. “We consider that a gift to the community.”
From design to completion, the project was done in 18 months, which would be fast for a house in Alaska, let alone a commercial or museum space. Downtown streets were closed. Giant cranes were brought in. At the same time, the Alaska historical galleries on the other side of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center were being re-envisioned in a separate, $14 million project.
“We stayed open to the public through the entire time,” she says.
Deliberate Alaska stories
The new wing is a modern testament to Alaska and the Far North, a place that turns the traditional museum model on its head to give room for developing narratives about art, design, history, science and culture. The façade includes Alaska yellow cedar and zinc, a nod to Alaska’s own resource-rich story. Inside are recycled pine floors, echoing what’s in New York’s Whitney Museum of Modern Art and speaking to the resilience of Alaskans. It was designed by McCool Carlson Green and built by Davis Constructors & Engineers Inc., both of Anchorage.
Walk into the atrium, up the stairs, through a rectangular entryway and the new wing opens up before you.
“You could be in any contemporary art space in the world,” the Anchorage Press said in its overview last fall.
“It is unexpected to find this grand space in our city,” Decker said.
One of Decker’s favorite overheard comments captures the museum’s essence: “This is like a mini-Museum of Modern Art, but with soul.”
The look is clean, vibrant and inviting with walls of windows bringing in urban and wild landscapes. Natural light inoculates against what’s known as museum fatigue, a psychological phenomenon identified in the ‘80s. The tall ceilings and open spaces hint at the vastness of our state.
Almost 300 Alaska pieces are on display. They tell deliberate stories, about and for Alaska and Alaskans. They invite questions about contemporary issues and the future of the North.
“That’s what we are. We are a place for narratives about place,” Decker said.
Indigenous works front and center
The new galleries are big enough for varied lenses: paintings and masks, sculpture and installation, video and multi-media. Works by indigenous artists aren’t walled off in their own areas as in old-style museums, but displayed throughout.
Contemporary works will rotate through exhibit areas. In the center of the new space is a deconstructed totem pole by Nicholas Galanin, a Tlinglit and Unangax̂ artist who received a Rasmuson Foundation 2018 art fellowship. He explores how we reconstruct the past and titled the museum piece, “I Think It Goes Like This?”
For the first time, the scale of the space provides a proper home for mega works. Alvin Amason, the Foundation’s 2018 Distinguished Artist, designed and created his three-dimensional bear “Everything I Love is Here” for the space that it now anchors.
It was then-Mayor Elmer Rasmuson back in the 1960s who saw the need for a museum to make Anchorage a true cosmopolitan city. His wife, trailblazer Mary Louise Rasmuson, led the effort to create the Anchorage Museum of Art and History, as it was known when it opened its doors in 1968.The building and collection remain publicly owned, run by a nonprofit organization.
Alaska used to embrace what Decker calls a disadvantaged narrative: If only we could be like some other place. If only we could get fresh vegetables. If only we could watch TV like the rest of the country.
The museum’s role, she said, is to tell a more empowering narrative, with voices of women, indigenous people and newcomers sought and amplified.
There are rotating exhibits, talks, tours and a host of other events that invite the community inside. At First Friday gatherings now, thousands of people walk through the galleries. Decker no longer recognizes all the faces. A younger crowd mixes with the old familiar one. Game nights feature pool, ping pong and Giant Jenga. One night, a sax player’s venue was the museum’s oversized elevator.
“More and more, I see teenagers in the building,” Decker said. That is a demographic that many museums would love to attract. Their presence is wildly exciting, she said. “We created a social comfort zone.”
It’s not a stuffy old museum. It’s a contemporary space for art and science, history and culture, a place for the community to come together.