Bethel Gives NEA Chairman A Whirlwind Tour of Yup'ik Art

Feb 27, 2018

Museum curator Ben Charles, NEA Chairman Jane Chu, and Alaska State Council on the Arts Chair Benjamin Brown tour the Bethel Cultural Center's museum.
Credit Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK

Federal and state officials made a whirlwind tour of Yukon-Kuskokwim culture last weekend. National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu landed in Bethel on Saturday and spent the day trudging through the snow, looking at Yup'ik art.

In one busy afternoon, Chairman Chu watched Bethel’s local Native dance troupe practice. She attended a carving class at UAF's Kuskokwim University Campus, where she saw earrings carved from mammoth tusk and story knives inlaid with ivory. And she met with local artists at Bethel’s cultural center, where she saw masks, nets, and dance fans at the local museum.

As the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Chu oversees a federal agency that funds art throughout the country. She went to Anchorage and Southeast several years ago, but had never been to Bethel before. Chu said that she was impressed by the way utility and beauty intertwine in Yup'ik art.

"The art that we’ve seen in Bethel so far is not only filled with vibrancy, but it’s filled with meaning," she said. "And we are so appreciative that they're honoring the traditions of not only hundreds of years ago, but in some cases thousands of years ago."

Other prominent federal and state officials joined Chu on her trip, including Benjamin Brown, who chairs the Alaska State Council on the Arts. The visitors were also discussing a policy issue involving the use and sale of ivory. In an attempt to crack down on illegal sales of elephant ivory, several states have banned the sale of ivory altogether. "Unfortunately," said Benjamin Brown, "global efforts to curtail ivory sales have cast the net too wide, and the unintended victims are Alaska native artists."

Brown said that Alaska's arts council strongly supports the efforts of U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan to craft legislation that would require states to allow the sale of legally carved walrus or mammoth ivory. "We simply can’t allow misguided efforts in other states to harm these people's artistic expression or their economic well-being," he said

The NEA has funded many large projects in urban areas, but Chairman Chu stressed that the agency is also interested in funding rural projects. The NEA offers both grants, and instructional seminars on how to write them. Chu also encouraged residents to look at the Citizens Institute for Rural Design, which funds workshops in remote communities and looks for solutions to rural challenges.