A Creative Lab Starting Conversations About Climate, While Enlivening Anchorage’s Downtown

Anchorage’s SEED Lab kept a downtown business district alive amid the pandemic, and is encouraging other positive urban developments.

A workshop at Anchorage's SEED Lab. (Courtesy photo)

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Artist Amy Meissner believes in the power of repair.

Living in Alaska, Meissner is keenly aware of how items may not be readily available or may stick around too long, because they are hard to discard.

“This is about making the repairers visible, not only the repair – the act of repair being visible – but the repairs themselves,” she says of her work. “So that it’s part of the conversation, and it becomes a first response to brokenness – to repair, rather than discard and replace. And so for folks who live here in Alaska, there’s a long history of repairing objects, because materials were scarce.”

Enter the SEED Lab, a public art project in Anchorage. Part of the 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, the lab aims to empower creative practitioners to work with communities and propose solutions to challenges facing Northern places, people and climates – establishing the North as a catalyst for change. Meissner was one of the artists, especially early on, who offered workshops at the Lab.

In Alaska, things tend to stay put, she says.

“It is very difficult for us to ship anything out of the state,” she adds. “It’s expensive…packaging and garbage and things that are broken, right, they tend to pile up. And so not having those skills readily available, there’s no way to mitigate that issue.” The SEED Lab not only hosts these repair workshops, but opens up a bigger conversation about climate change.

Since its opening, the SEED Lab has impacted residents throughout the community: 76% of participants reported that SEED Lab’s activities made them think differently about a particular issue and 93% of participants reported that public art can help shape opinion and action around important issues.

The SEED Lab was established as a permanent venue in the community to support artists creating work about important issues. It served as a key anchor keeping a downtown business district “alive” amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Its presence is encouraging other positive urban developments, including a plan to develop the vacant lot behind SEED Lab into a law office. (Anchorage recently made headlines nationally as one of the latest U.S. cities to eliminate minimum parking requirements for new developments, an increasingly popular policy to combat urban sprawl and promote housing development.)

The Lab hosts innovators or creatives-in-residence who are interested in the climate and future. Current artist-in-residence Launch Alaska works to mitigate the causes and effects of climate change while unlocking economic opportunities in Alaska through startups.

Former artist-in-residence Jiabao Li creates works addressing climate change, interspecies world sharing, humane technology and a just, sustainable future. Her mediums include wearable, robot, AR/VR, projection, performance, software, and installation.

Julie Decker, the Anchorage Museum CEO and executive director, says the museum and its staff had been thinking a lot about climate change as an organization: how artists, residencies, and exhibitions and programs could be utilized and rooted in practice.

“There was this empty building across the street that I saw from my office every day,” Decker says. “And I had engaged the building owners about the future of that building. They were super open to the museum’s sort of occupying that as a community good, rather than having an empty building downtown.”

The space became activated during the pandemic through a series of outdoor murals. “There was something actually visible, some action taking place, which I think is important for people to see that there’s something dynamic at play,” she says.

There are currently about three programs per week at the Lab, ranging from community talks to a writer in residence, a podcasting studio, a tool lending library and more. The museum just signed a five-year agreement for the building so there’s excitement about the future, Decker says.

Meissner says she would like to see a mobile version of the Lab to help make it more accessible to other community members who may not be able to travel to downtown Anchorage.

“There’s always going to be roadblocks or barriers for people,” Meissner says. “And so the idea of having something mobile, or that can go into communities has always been something that I’ve been interested in…that’s an exciting way to think about expanding the potentiality for community and community outreach.”

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Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and elsewhere. Visit her website at KristiEaton.com or follow her on Twitter @KristiEaton.

Tags: climate changeplacemakingdowntown revitalizationanchorage

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