While it's infra dig up here to consider Alaska "frontier territory," the fact remains that it seems so. Image, perceived as truth, can be more true than mere fact.
So, during the recent eighth annual Sitka Summer Music Festival, Alaska's first Arts Writers and Critics Colloquium served to acquaint 13 Alaska arts authorities with one another and a few from "Outside," which is how Alaskans refer to other places.
Though the music critics of our 200-year-old land have had their organization for some years, alliances of theater critics are relatively recent. The American Theater Critics Association has just had its fifth annual meeting in Chicago and in July the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center held its 11th annual Critics Institute in Waterford, Conn.
There is, to be sure, something eerie about critics banding together in any organized fashion. Of all God's creatures, critics, inherently subjective, are loners and suspicious of organizations of any kind. Their opinions are dredged up from lonely interiors; they not unnaturally are scornful of divergent views, and it is all they can do to align even roughly the decencies of democratic procedures with the dictates of also solitary craft.
However, misery does love company. And for writers from Anchorage, Fairbanks and Homer - and five from outside - there was comfort, albeit cold, in knowing that the identical topics were discussed in Chicago and Waterford.
The get-together was arranged by Arts Alaska Inc., an affiliate of the Alaska State Council on the Arts funded by a grant from the Humanities Forum through AAI's Performing Arts Coordinator, Rick Goodfellow.
Jocelyn Paine of the Anchorage Daily News said the week-long colliquium was "like an intensive Berlitz blitz:
"From 9 in the morning 'til 9 at night, we sat in classrooms and went on tours together; we ate the awful cafeteria food and sat at the same table, still talking. After the day was officially over we went to our rooms and wrote - critiques, reviews, assignments for our papers."
One of the colloquium members - Karen Monson, music critic of the Chicago Daily News for 11 years until its expiration last year - used the Sitka Summer Music Festival as a learning experience to review the reviewers.
The festibal is a creation of violinist Paul Rosenthal, student of Jascha Heifetz and member of the Anchorage Community College faculty, who envisioned the stage of Sitka's Centennial Building auditorium as a rare setting for chamber music.
At each concert there is a gasp from the 500-seat room as the stage curtains part. Instead of the expected black drapes or stark back wall, the audience finds itself looking through enormous glass windows onto the snow-topped moujtains of Sitka harbor. Fishing boats glide silently, and a bald eagle perches atop a mooring.
It is a spectacular setting and the assured professionalism of the relatively young musicians evokes a memorable sensation of stark nature and worldly sophistication.
But that is only one unusual aspect of the arts in Alaska, a state whose sheer size awes the outsider. It is one-fifth the size of the lower 48, or 586,412 square miles, with thousands of islands and 33,904 miles of coastline. Of the roughly 400,000 population, nearly half live in Anchorage, some 60,000 in the Fairbanks area and some 20,000 in Juneau, the sprawling capital which covers 3,108 square miles. The rest of the population lives in settlements of various sizes up to a hundred or so houses.
Given these mind-boggling statistics, it is not surprising that the more portable visual arts are the most widespread. But, through the state council, the performing arts have begun to have impressive support. This coming year the federal appropriation will add $633,700 to the state appropriation of $1,016,700, allowing increased funding for music and dance. Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka (population 4,205) get the most attention. The smaller centers survive on whatever arrives in the state's 6,000 registered aircraft, one for every 81 Alaskans.
Communications are a challenge. Of the 13 Alaskans at the colloquium, several met for the first time, though each knew the others' work. Since my first Alaska visit of 1977, Robert Atwood's Anchorage Times has expanded its arts coverage to include a special weekend section, and Kay Fanning's Anchorage News, fortified by a vital infusion of California casy, has more than doubled its coverage. The lively Advocate has collapsed, but the Fairbanks News-Miner, the Homer News and the Sitka Sentinel attended the colloquium and so did some members of the broadcasting media.
Radio and TV are vital links for the more remote Alaskans, to whom a few days in Anchorage are the equivalent of a New York visit for Easterners. For the critics, with air fare several hundred dollars and climbing, Seattle is the closest complex of the lively arts, with New York, Washington and London out in never-never land.
So what the Alaska arts writers most rightly fear is parochialism.
They flee, as outsiders lately have been fleeing, from the schlock of TV, and ache for quality - hard to come by in Alaska's climate and staggering, expensive distances, but visible nonetheless.
The Alaska Repertory Theater is having its first summer season with Robert Farley's staging of "Diamond Studs," already a holdover in Anchorage.
Though this farthest outpost of Actors' Equity has made forays away from home to Fairbanks with "Clarence Darrow" and "The Fourposter," the coming season will find it making its first major tour around the state. Twenty towns have asked for "Diamond Studs" and, declares producer Paul V. Brown, "Somehow we're going to get to all."
The touring must be made by air and 17 towns already have guaranteed expenses. What Brown needs now is a novel benefactor who'll donate a plane to ART, which would then more easily reach such spots as Nome, Kodiak, Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. Anybody got a plane to spare?