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The Alaska Native Heritage Center’s “Meet Alaska’s First People” initiative’s goal is to build community through Native arts, both by creating an important resource for the development of artistic practices and to create a city-wide embracing of Alaska Native arts and culture.  Ed Bourgeois, Director of Community Engagement at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, shares his progress and challenges and offers valuable insight into the importance of community partnerships.

Who outside your organization has been key to your ability to move your initiative forward?

One of the important keys to moving toward the initiative of our Art Installation project has been developing partnerships, collaborations with local and municipal organizations who are already involved in promoting the arts and economic growth of our community. For instance, Jocelyn Young, at the Municipality of Anchorage Public Works Department oversees the city’s 1% for Art Program, which requires 1 percent of all public construction budgets to be spent on permanent public art installations. As a result, her hand is on the pulse of the current mayoral administration concerning art in the community.  Our Art Installation project’s goal is to commission four sculptures or other visual art works and gift them to the community. She is an indispensable partner in assisting us with the strategic placement of these pieces, locations where they will make the most impact in the community.

What are the challenges in terms of connecting with others in the community to move things forward and if so, how have you been able to alleviate them?

One of our greatest challenges so far has been creating visibility. The Alaska Native Heritage Center is in an accessible, but somewhat remote location.  Since the hub of our city’s cultural activity occurs in the downtown corridor, we are constantly trying to find innovative ways to be visible with the visitor and the local residents alike.  A large part of our effort is making headway with creating visibility in the town center where all of our visitors land.  It’s the jumping off place for tourism activities in the downtown area and even with our local population; it’s a point of connection.

Another one of our key partnership is with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, an organization of businesses devoted to creating a thriving and vibrant downtown center. The challenge with moving forward here has been one of timing. The tourism season is a short one.  Most of our visitors come during the summer months.  As a consequence, anyone involved in the tourism industry, including the Alaska Native Heritage Center, is inundated with work and generally focused just to get through the season.  In a market where we are all driven by tourism summer is a less than ideal time to connect.  Key people are open to new collaboration in the fall, after the season is over.  Since the grant was received in the summer, we are at a disadvantage. We look forward to next summer where the Downtown Partnership will be a key collaborator.  Now that fall is here, we are making great progress.

What are the secrets to good partnerships?

The key to good partnerships is that there is something in it for everyone.  We are regularly approached by individuals and organizations to partner, but if the benefit is one-sided or the time commitment is one-sided, it is a lot harder to create that feeling of collaboration.  To me collaboration is really best described by the adage that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In the really successful collaborations that I have been involved in the partners could not do anything as large or meaningful on their own.  So by working together in a two party collaboration, we are able to achieve something much bigger than they could possibly do individually.  When we partner we can make something truly earth shattering.  I’d like to think that what we can achieve through collaboration is not just finding a partner that can solely help us achieve our purpose but the greater purpose – which is to build community.  It’s about building bridges that take the values and the knowledge that are contained here at the Center and sharing them with the entire community.  The most ideal partners are organizations and individuals who hold the same believe – the value of championing diversity in our community.