Alaska Native art sales down

Jonathan Grass
Juneau, Alaska (AP) August 2010

Selling Alaska Native art is a big draw downtown, but some shopkeepers and artists say stocking it on the shelves isn’t as easy as it used to be.

“The economy is forcing us to get away from the Native items,” said David Mende, owner of Northern Treasures in downtown.

He said it’s mostly a matter of money in that it costs a lot for shops to get the merchandise and too much for customers to spend.

“Native items can be 10 to 15 times more expensive. It can be too much for the average customer to spend,” he said, citing an example of totem poles he sells. The one made in Indonesia costs $44 while the Native-carved pole approached $500.

He noted the Indonesian one was actually designed by a Native who approved it to be manufactured overseas. Mende said this is not uncommon, as it can be cheaper to make that way.

Mende said Native works can cost so much partly because they’re specialized items and take a long time to make, and this cost forces shops to look outside the area or even outside the country. He said such vendors and wholesalers can usually make and sell artwork at cheaper prices.

Declining Native inventories are felt by the artists as much as the sellers.

One such artist is Mick Beasley. He said tight economic times are forcing many places to turn to foreign vendors rather than Native artists themselves. He said it’s a trend that seems to go up each year.

“The bottom line is it hurts the Native market,” Beasley said, adding, “I think there’s more knockoffs in the stores than ever.”

He said he’s seen a lot of art in downtown that comes from several countries. He said ones from Canada have a strong presence.

Beasley cited a lack of protection of intellectual property rights as a big problem affecting artists’ abilities to compete with outside vendors. He said this can also lead to misrepresentation of art.

“It’s all about intellectual property rights. More Natives need to receive protection,” he said.

Mende pointed out the heavier tolls the economy has placed on stores that deal either mostly or exclusively with Native art. He cited the now-defunct Raven’s Journey as an example.

“There’s only a few of us left,” he said.

Mende said adding to the problem is that ads on cruise ships are geared toward jewelers, which can hurt craft sellers. He said this wasn’t always the case, as things like carvings were advertised more in the 1990s.

Beasley said the tight market for Native artists is also causing many to undercut each other and avoid helping each other. He believes this is the wrong approach for Native Alaskans.

“We need some mentor programs for Native artists. There’s just not a lot,” he said.