A Bias for Action
November 07, 2016
Anchorage Museum Director/CEO Julie Decker shared some perspective on the museum's role and impact at an all-staff meeting Nov. 1, 2016. Here are her remarks.
Twenty-two years ago I had just moved back to Anchorage and started working with small nonprofits while running a small business. I was struck at the time by the lack of community around the arts. I was leading a small art gallery, serving on the board of another, and saw that big efforts by artists here generated very little audience. So I worked with the two galleries (at the time, the International Gallery was in a space above Sack’s Café in a building that has since been torn down) and talked to a coffee shop about starting something we called First Fridays. The first event drew 1,000 people. Crammed into a tiny gallery, this felt like something. People were hungry for a sense of common good and effort and camaraderie.
First Fridays, of course, grew into something that now involves dozens of venues, hundreds of artists and many thousands of community members. But, I remember those first days when it was only a need and an opportunity. We went through complaints – about First Fridays not having a structure, about competition (restaurants and bars tried to prevent it because it was seen as competition for dollars). Venues jostled for press coverage. Some gallery owners and artists complained First Fridays were too social in nature, with too few serious collectors and too few sales. We had to work with Municipal Assembly members to provide ways for it to continue. I learned early that change always comes with friction, that building community requires 1,000 conversations about values and value.
But, working with those small nonprofits taught me so many things I will always treasure. I learned that positive change requires 1,000 considered conversations along with the intent to communicate. It was about working hard – putting your whole self into something in order for it to succeed. It was about taking risks because otherwise you don’t survive. It was about caring for the mission, because that’s the only thing that really inspires people to give and risk. It was about a belief in something beyond itself and beyond self, the idea that the work will make the city better, make our place better, make our future better.
I learned a bias for action, because it’s better to do it than not do it. Every person involved had to do everything – there were no departments. I was marketing and installation and fundraising and special event planner and janitorial and accounting for those small organizations.
I only knew “all-in.” When I was working on my first major exhibition here at the museum I hung some artwork and watched a scene unfold because I had broken protocols about who had the authority to install artwork. I had to prove myself in countless ways here. Because we are an institution and institutions do things one way.
In those really early days of First Fridays we watched the museum start doing First Fridays and it annoyed us little guys to see the big institution with all of the resources ride the bandwagon. We saw the museum as the establishment – too removed from the community – not on the ground, not gritty, not with their whole selves invested.
This month the museum was named “Best First Friday Venue” in the annual Anchorage Press “Press Picks” competition – a populist exercise polling readers about who and what is the most popular. It’s not the first time the museum has “won.”
I read on Facebook all of the comments in artist strings railing against the mainstream, bemoaning the International Gallery coming in second to a monolith like the museum. I can’t help but think about the cycle, the history, the trajectory, the full circle, and to think about how many ways there are to think about our future, our role, and our impact.
Three years ago, I signed a five-year contract to be your director and CEO. Two years before that I took the position of chief curator and the manager of the exhibitions department.
In both positions, I started with the same values I had 22 years ago. I wanted to see how an institution could matter to a community – how it could build something bigger than itself – how it could make a place feel better. How it could help others feel opportunity. I wanted to apply some of the things I’d learned in small organizations – that to do good things requires every person’s energy and focus and goodwill and generosity.
When the readers of the Anchorage Press say we are their First Friday venue of choice, does that mean we are populist or does that mean we are providing something of deeper value to the community, to artists, and to audiences? I think both are true. When I double check my gut to see if we are taking the risks we need for social good, I think: We have an artist essentially living on our 4th floor. We burned giant masks on our lawn. We facilitated tattoos.
But, at the same time, we are an institution that needs to hold tens of thousands of objects in the public trust and needs to think about 40 years from now and not just the next Friday. Also, because we have the infrastructure, because we have the resources, because we have the public trust, because we have members, because we are the big guy, we also have an obligation to constantly remind ourselves that we are here not for our own good but for the social good. We have an obligation to offer as much access and as many programs as we can to the community. It’s imperative.
It’s a big responsibility to be the big guy. We have to be mature leaders while finding the edge. We have to adapt to a changing world – not just once, but over and over again.
It’s not about one community or one discipline – we have people who want us to do more for history, more for science, more for art and more for culture. And so we do. We aren’t content because we can’t afford to be irrelevant.