Over the last 40 years, Robert Banghart has come to know Alaska, and many of its small communities, quite well.
Banghart wins 'Distinguished Service' award 012517 AE 1 Capital City Weekly Over the last 40 years, Robert Banghart has come to know Alaska, and many of its small communities, quite well.

Robert Banghart in his studio on Douglas with dog four, Jasmine. Banghart has worked on 11 museum and cultural center projects, has helped with exhibits and community developments in many other communities, has composed and scored music for many plays, and restores stringed instruments. He’s this year receiving a Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. Mary Catharine Martin | Capital City Weekly

Michael Penn

Bob Banghart, deputy director of the State Libraries, Archives and Museums unrolls a red ribbon during the Grand Opening of the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff building housing the State Library, State Archives and State Museum on Monday, June 6, 2016.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Story last updated at 1/26/2017 - 8:40 pm

Banghart wins 'Distinguished Service' award

Over the last 40 years, Robert Banghart has come to know Alaska, and many of its small communities, quite well.

He’s worked on 11 different museums and cultural centers in communities around Alaska through his company, Banghart & Associates. He’s also worked on a number of other projects around the state.

“You get to know a community pretty well, because you’re there to study its history and at the same time put that history on some sort of platform so people can engage themselves with it… You end up building these relationships and you get to see them grow as institutions and the personnel grow as professionals,” he said.

Most summers, he’s taken off from museum work and he and his wife, Laura Lucas, have adventured — walking to Anaktuvuk Pass from the haul road, or kayaking around Southeast Alaska. He’s also traveled many summers with a band he was playing with (he’s been a part of a number of them). For a few years in the early 1980s, he and Lucas traveled around the state in the summers with their puppet theatre.

This year, he’s one of three people winning a Governor’s Award for “Distinguished Service to the Humanities.”

Banghart first arrived in Nenana, Alaska as a 17-year-old, and he’s been here ever since, graduating from the University of Alaska with a degree in art and design in 1974.

He first came to Juneau that year, while working as a studio potter. That’s when he first ended up working on the state museum as a contractor, then working to build the museum’s Eagle Tree — a new tree is now on display at the APK. He “hung his shingle out” as a private contractor in 1976.

He’s worked on a number of museums over the years. A few are the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, the Skagway Museum, the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, the Inupiaq Heritage Center in Utqiagvik, previously known as Barrow; the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North, and the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska.

One he found especially impacting, he said, was the Ilanka Cultural Center in Cordova.

“It was such a grassroots effort,” he said. “We sat in a former Mason Hall and ate peanut butter sandwiches and drank coffee.”

In 2016, Banghart finished up a role as the deputy director of the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums, leading design and construction of the new facility in downtown Juneau during the construction of the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives and Museum building, dedicated June of 2016.

As of Jan. 1, Banghart is back in the private sector.

Now, he’s interested “in being at the confluence of all the various client-based needs that would form the idea of the project.”

He sits between all the different stakeholders, making sure everyone understands each other.

“You’d be surprised how unique … each one of those languages is,” he said of contractors, owners and architects. “It’s all about communication … a successful project means everybody’s having to sit down with a paper bag of what they can give up. (A successful project) means it’s not one person’s way, and that means compromise.”

Projects don’t have to be museums, he said, but tend to be the kind of thing that people are interested in doing with others, not for themselves.

“Building institutions and reinforcing community is the goal,” he said.


After he finished up his most recent role with the museum he took a few months off, catching up on his work co-creating the music for the musical to the Pulitzer-prize-nominated novel “The Snow Child.”

Banghart plays the fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. (He’s one of only two people who have participated in every single Alaska Folk Festival, which he cofounded, since they began. He also cofounded Juneau Jazz & Classics.) He’s made his living as a fiddle player in summers between museum gigs, playing with several bands over the years. Sometimes, the money he helped raise at benefit concerts even went to pay his salary.

The musical for “The Snow Child,” the novel written by Alaska writer Eowyn Ivey, is a five piece string band. Banghart describes the music as “Americana with bluegrass instrumentation,” but goes beyond that.

He’s working with musician Georgia Stitt. The two of them come from different backgrounds, Banghart said. He comes from a “trad root, Americana root” background, and Stitt’s is in schools musical theatre.

“What we’re creating is a hybrid of those forms, in a broad sense,” he said. “It has a really fresh sound to it — that’s been the feedback from those who have heard it.”

It’s being directed by Molly Smith, the founder of Perseverance Theatre, who’s now artistic director at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. That’s where it’ll premiere (the date will be announced in February) after which it will come to Juneau and Anchorage.

Banghart began composing for Perseverance Theatre in 1991, for “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.” He’s scored more than a dozen plays and an opera, his biography for “The Snow Child” says.

In his studio in Juneau, he’s got a number of stringed instruments in need of love; he refurbishes them, both on his own and by commission.

The Distinguished Service to the Arts award recognizes “individuals, organizations or institutions who/that have made a significant contribution to the humanities in Alaska.”

“In the museum world there’s one word that defines the entire thing, and that’s trust,” Banghart said. “The trust that you have with your community that you’re serving, and that they have in you. Without it, nothing works.”