Artrepreneur: An idea worth stealing?

At the end of July, the big arts news in Fairbanks was the 30th anniversary of its Summer Arts Festival.

The festival seemed to me an interesting idea that Whitehorse should perhaps consider stealing.

For 30 years, the festival has hosted something like a summer camp for adults, with a wide array of arts workshops to choose from.

And by wide, I mean expansive – from chamber music to Alaskan Native Art to figure skating to healing arts, the festival offers an incredible palette of arts workshop experiences.

The musical side is particularly strong, which isn’t surprising, given its history. The festival sprouted as a one-week jazz festival in 1980. The very next year, it changed its name to “Jazz to Classics”, and doubled to two weeks.

By 1982, the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival finally had its current and expanded name since dance, opera, theatre, musical theatre and visual arts had been added to the workshop offerings.

In 1990, ice skating was also added.

Since then, requests from registrants have prompted the offering of creative writing, healing arts, accordion, blue grass, harmonica and filmmaking workshops.

A full-time participant pays $550 and can then fill up their timetable from a smörgåsbord of classes.

Music students and creative writers perform at free lunch hour concerts. This is one benefit to clustering the arts this way: they can be one another’s audience.

Professional musicians from Alaska and all over the United States teach the courses, and play evening concerts as well.

Robert Franz, associate conductor of the Houston Symphony, and music director of the Boise Philharmonic and Mansfield Symphony, directed the Festival Chamber Orchestra, which not only performed concerts of its own, but was available to back up opera, dance and choirs.

Okaidja Afroso of Ghana came North to lead World Music Dance and Drumming courses, too.

Registration comes with concert vouchers, and full registration means you get to see any and all evening concerts you desire.

I heard a sample of the Jovino Santos Neto Quinteto at a lunch hour concert. It’s a Brazilian-influenced band out of Seattle that was an incredible amount of fun.

The festival also offered mini-workshops for people for whom arts immersion was not an option.

They’re produced in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which gives them classrooms to work from, and participants can book accommodations in dorm rooms if desired.

In its second-week programme, the festival published a list a participants. Most came from Alaska, but many from the Lower 48.

I spoke with Victoria Nechodomu. She teaches at the Akuik Memorial School in Kasigluk, in Western Alaska’s wide river delta region. It was her first time at the festival.

She signed up for two weeks of classes in harmonica, Alaska native dance, Alaska native storytelling, Balance (a course in aligning one’s skull and spine), steel drums and swing dance.

When she registered, she had also signed up for a course for educators, where they would reflect on their experience learning the various art forms, so as to become better teachers.

Unfortunately, that course was cancelled, but she did find insights that were useful to her as a teacher.

“Am I going to walk back into a Yupik village and teach swing dance? No …” she said.

But her courses in Alaska native culture were very helpful. She felt it really useful to hear the instructor articulate traditions she had been observing for the last three years.

She has watched students and community dance traditional dances, as well as modern twists on those dances, and hadn’t participated.

Now that she’s spent some time learning, she thinks she can take part now, and “find a better foot in the community”.

She found Yupik dance easier than swing dance to remember because “it tells a story, and as long as I can remember that story in my head it makes sense to me, and it’s more meaningful.

“Every instructor is really gifted at what they do.

“It’s a great opportunity to try out new forms of art – where in my life would I have the chance to pick up steel drums and play in a steel drum ensemble? It’s just fun. It’s like a buffet.”

There are courses offered in the festival for both advanced artists and people just beginning.

If Whitehorse organized a summer arts festival in the style of the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, and teamed up with the Yukon Summer Music Camp, a workshop roster like this might be worth exploring.

Or attending next summer.

Check out its website at for more information.

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