Without tourists or in-person markets, 2020 has been hard on Alaska artists

An Alaska Native artist sits behind a table covered in their work at an art fair.
Alaska Native artists from around the state typically sell their work at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. The Convention was held virtually this year, as was the art fair. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

The COVID-19 pandemic upended Alaska’s tourism season and led to the cancellation of many in-person events. Artists in the state are trying to adapt by moving business online. But some artists say they’re making a fraction of normal sales.

Leonard Savage is an Alaska Native ivory carver based in Wasilla. Being self-employed, Savage said he’s familiar with uncertainty: He always has a plan B.

“This is the first time we’ve gone all the way to plan F and G, and there’s nothing we can do,” he said.

Typically, Savage sells his carvings to shops around the state, and relies on the tourism season for the bulk of his sales. In the off-season, Savage said sales at art shows and markets help supplement his income.

“All of it was canceled, so you can see what happened to us. Our income was totally wiped out,” he said.

Savage has tried to take advantage of online platforms for selling his work. He’s had his own website since before the pandemic. Typically, he said, those sales are fairly steady. But not this year.

“I don’t know the reason why we’re selling so little,” Savage said. “Is it because other people are stressed too, because of the pandemic, and they don’t have extra money to spend?”

Now, Savage said, he’s trying to get by while waiting on more relief money and unemployment support from the government.

Meanwhile, Anchorage-based artist Christina Waska is getting on every online platform she can think of. She’s on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Etsy. Her work is on the Alaska Federation of Native’s virtual art marketplace. But Waska said most of her sales come from Facebook.

The beginning of the pandemic was the hardest, she said. Sales are slowly picking back up since plummeting in the spring. But, Waska said, she’s selling her work for a lot less than she normally would.

“I had to reduce to a drastic low just to keep myself moving and to make that dollar,” she said.

And online sales just aren’t the same, Waska said.

“I would rather have people see and feel my work. And they’re just looking at the screen and they can’t appreciate it as much. So it hurts, it really does hurt.”

Romney Dodd works and sells her art out of a studio space in Downtown Anchorage. Her main focus is painting bright, colorful designs on taxidermied fish. Dodd said the Christmas season is typically a busy one for downtown businesses.

“As I look out on G Street right now, there’s a few cars parked out front. Otherwise there’s about 20 open parking spaces. There’s no one,” she said.

Between a quiet winter and a largely absent tourist season, Dodd said, it’s been a really hard year.

“Well the truth of it is, it’s been devastating. The last thing in the world I want to do is lose this studio space. I’m doing everything I can to stay afloat and continue to maintain — I love my studio and I love my location downtown. I love downtown Anchorage.”

Dodd said she has seen a number of independent tourists. And she’s gotten some commissions that have made a big difference. Still, she said, it’s hard to think about what the near future might look like. 

“I generally am very resilient. I have a positive outlook. I love what I do. I am not going to stop doing what I do. But I do think these circumstances are so strange because it’s hard to dream into the future without knowing what it’s going to look like.”

Arts organizations are trying to help.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center is in the middle of a 12 Days of Christmas event, celebrating and highlighting Alaska Native artists at the end of a really hard year.

Through the event, the Heritage Center is working with artists to showcase their work and boost sales, while also providing resources to those who need help getting online stores off the ground. Shyanne Beatty is the center’s development director. She said the organization worked with one artist who later saw a huge boost in sales.

“She has called us and said her sales went up 80% and she is getting daily sales now,” said Beatty. “And she has Christmas presents under the Christmas tree now, for her family.”

Like the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council has been working all year to come up with creative ways for artists to showcase their work.

“It’s been devastating for arts businesses for sure,” said executive director Kathleen Light. “Galleries are just holding artwork, unable to sell it until next season or the following season when visitors come back.”

Light said the arts council has moved a lot of events online, and they plan to continue innovating to help create spaces to showcase and sell art during a very uncertain time.