When Sheldon Jackson College ran into financial troubles in 2007, it had to shut down its campus. The lost educational opportunities were a challenge enough for the community, but the campus closure was particularly devastating to the town. Its 100-year-old historic campus is on the National Historic Landmark registry, and since it is comprised of 19 buildings spread over 20 acres, its loss would create a significant void in the town. So, in 2012, Alaska Arts Southeast (AASE) created the Sitka Festival of the Arts, Humanities, and Natural Sciences as a way to activate this important site and save the campus.
Sitka is an 8,900-person town on an island in southeast Alaska reachable only by plane or boat. Set in the midst of a scenic and rugged geography, on the outer coast of the Tongass National Forest, the town’s surrounding natural beauty is prized by Sitka residents. An important part of the community is the historic Sheldon Jackson College campus. A traditional college quadrangle situated in a prominent part of town, three of its edges are lined with historic landmarks. Centrally located, the campus is an important node in a network of other significant sites, including the Sitka Sound Science Center, the Alaska State Sheldon Jackson Museum, a National Historic Park, a head start preschool, and a national military cemetery.
As an island-based town set off the coast of Alaska, Sitka’s community is deeply connected to its geography. A robust fishing-based economy further links it to its environment. The town is diverse and includes Alaska Natives, a broad range of ages, and a mix of income levels. With over 20,000 visitors each year, tourists cause the population to swell by significant measure. A strong tradition of arts in the community melds Tlingit Indian heritage, Russian influences and contemporary practices. The shuttering of the Sheldon Jackson College campus disheartened many residents, since it is such a prominent feature in the town landscape. When the college trustees agreed to gift the campus to AASE (an arts organization working in the community since 1972), the news sent a wave of optimism through the community.
Sitka faced a significant and immediate need to implement plans for the boarded-up college campus before it could become an abandoned void in the community. A new vision for the campus would need to entail architectural and landscape restoration efforts to address the physical places themselves, but it would also require a program to keep the spaces open and active. In addition to the campus itself, the town was in need of economic and cultural opportunities. With cruise ship-based tourism declining, residents saw the potential to increase the draw of Sitka to independent travelers who are attracted by cultural and arts programming. This effort could showcase the unique qualities of Sitka to these visitors and serve the local populations as well.
The Sitka Festival of the Arts project was a way of addressing longstanding social and economic challenges. “We are artists and are used to thinking creatively, to taking risks,” explains Roger Schmidt, Executive Director of AASE. “We like big ideas.” With its 19 buildings and 20 acres, AASE had a lot of space and programming to take into account as it developed its vision. Part of this vision was architectural and urban, since it would need to refurbish some of the campus buildings and open spaces, but the group also had programmatic aims. It proposed the Sitka Festival of the Arts, Humanities, and Natural Sciences, which would hold ten weeks of multidisciplinary experiential arts programs throughout the spaces provided by the then-empty college campus. The group set as its goal to offer meaningful artistic experiences to as many people as possible and to increase the desirability of Sitka as a place to visit and live.
AASE knew that to bring its vision to life it would need many strategic partners. Fortunately, it already had a close partner in the City and Borough of Sitka. In addition, the group was able to form partnerships with other arts organizations, including the Greater Sitka Arts Council, the Sitka Summer Music Festival, the Indigenous Alaska Native Artists, as well as other community partners like the Sitka Sound Science Center, and the Island Institute. With a grassroots approach, local artists and community members were instrumental in galvanizing community support. Beyond official partner organizations, the project also relied on the personal contributions of community members. AASE credits the thousands of volunteer hours for making the festival possible.
- Tlingit Spruce Basket Talk
- Bi-Weekly Chamber Music Concerts (9)
- Circus Camp Performance
- Crab Feed
- Arts Share Performances by Fine Arts Camp Faculty (12)
- 3-Day Sumposium on Resilient Communities
- TedXSitka Presentation
- Musical Theater Performances (3)
- 3-Day Sitka Seafood Festival
- Native Jazz Concert
- Sitaka Fellows Residency
- ArtPlace America
- Individual and corporate donors
- Tickets revenue
- Tuition from classes
Schmidt emphasized the importance of balancing big ideas with practicality. “Dream big,” he says,” but be “cold, logical and strategic about the logistics behind the success.” Their first task was to author a vision document and a work plan to articulate how the AASE would convert the former college campus into what would become the Sitka Arts Campus. Taking the plan to the City Assembly, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Sitka Economic Development Association, AASE recognized the importance of gaining broad-based community support in order to get the attention of local government officials. A key part of its strategy was to build on already successful programs and help adapt them to new venues on the campus. Programs include a Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which is the only such camp in the state of Alaska, an Artists-in-the-Schools program, which arranges for artists to spend two-week residencies in Sitka public schools, and an artist series, which brings nationally recognized performing artists to Sitka venues. The flagship program would be the ten-week festival, filling the campus with arts programs over the summer months. Programs included chamber music concerts, food festivals, jazz performances, symposia, residencies, presentations, and exhibitions. A popular TEDx conference also brought together writers, entrepreneurs, community organizers and musicians.
The most significant outcome was the transformation of a deteriorated unoccupied college campus into a productive community arts space used by community members and town visitors. The 2012 festival provided ten weeks of fully programmed arts opportunities to experience and explore with just over 44,000 total attendees. Mayor Mim McConnell notes, “The economic impact of Sitka Fest is substantial. The influx of hundreds of students attending our camps and the dozens of teaching artists and performers in-residence through the summer (along with the visitors that make up the audiences) support our businesses and add to our tax base. Our community recognizes not only the financial benefit of Sitka Fest, but also values the cultural diversity and spiritual depth that it brings to Sitkans each summer.”
The festival has created an increase in tourism and a rise in the number of community members that have now started to visit the campus. The Sitka Economic Development Association has written that the campus revitalization created by Sitka Fest could have been responsible for the economic turnaround experienced from 2011 to 2012, when the city went from a declining economy to a growing economy. Assembly member Phyllis Hackett comments, "not only do the vast variety of events entertain and stimulate residents, they also bring visitors from all walks of life to town, creating substantial economic and cultural benefit as well. It is truly remarkable for a small isolated community such as ours to have the opportunities Sitka Fest provides. We are blessed." AASE has seen this economic growth first hand in the now rising demand for additional programming across the calendar and in different disciplines and genres.