PUBLISHED: 5:24 PM on Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Alaskan art finds new home in the Big Apple
MANHATTAN, New York - Cup'ik ivory carver Franklin Matchian opened up a trunk full of his work to show the staff of the new Alaska House New York art and cultural center in the SoHo district of Manhattan.

Matchian presented polar bears, dolls and his masterpiece, an ivory Mona Lisa, which he created after hearing that the Mona Lisa is the most difficult painting to replicate.

Katie Spielberger photo
  Cup'ik artist Franklin Matchian shows his ivory carvings to Alaska House New York staff. The new cultural center in Manhattan is the first gallery in the lower 48 to showcase Alaska Native artwork.
Matchian showcases his work around the country and even found a collector to buy his art. Most Alaska Native artists, however, are not able to travel and promote their own work outside of the state. This is where the Alaska House comes in.

Located in the trendy SoHo district of Manhattan, the gallery is perfectly positioned to attract Big Apple art aficionados. Founded by Alice Rogoff Rubenstein through the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Fairbanks, Alaska House is the first center to promote Alaskan art and culture in the lower 48. The nonprofit organization seeks to increase awareness of Alaskan art, culture and issues.

"Polar bears are the only thing New Yorkers know about Alaska," Rogoff said.

At least, until Gov. Sarah Palin entered the national political arena. Asked to estimate what percentage of visitors to the Alaska House inquire about Palin, manager Dee Emma responded immediately: "All of them."

photo courtesy of Alaska House New York
  Alaska House New York founder Alice Rogoff Rubenstein (left, pointing) discusses artwork with gallery manager Dee Emma at the Sept. 15 opening of the gallery and cultural center. In addition to the gallery, the Alaska House will also present cultural events about Alaska, promote non-traditional tourism and provide a meeting space and home away from home for Alaskans in New York.
It may be curiosity about polar bears or Palin that lure New Yorkers into the Alaska House, but the gallery and cultural center hopes to display the variety of the state's natural and human resources - and how they intersect.

Rogoff, who splits her time between the East Coast and Anchorage, co-founded the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Anchorage in 2002 and had envisioned an Alaska House outside the state for some time.

Rogoff is thrilled at the unveiling of new artwork. "This is like Christmas for me," she said when Matchian arrived.

Located in a district known for trendy and innovative galleries, the Alaska House hopes to inspire the same passion in others.

Cultural events, such as a launch party for the new film "Games of the North," are scheduled to pique interest in lesser-known aspects of Alaskan life.

The Alaska House will also provide a meeting space for Alaskan business owners or politicians. Alaskans traveling in New York can find a comfortable place to reminisce about home over a cup of coffee and a bite of reindeer sausage.

Another goal of the Alaska House is to promote non-traditional travel in Alaska, off the beaten path of most tourists.

"We've tried to a get a mini-renaissance started (for travel) to Alaska beyond the reach of the cruise ships," Rogoff said.

Traveling beyond the reach of cruise ships was what got Rogoff involved in Alaska in the first place. She had never set foot in the state until she and family took a trip around the state in a helicopter flown by an Aleut pilot, who introduced her to life and culture in Native villages.

"We were 50-year-old people who have traveled the world and we didn't know this existed," Rogoff said.

She was hooked. Her timing has also been fortuitous - she noted that in the six years she has been working on promoting Alaska Native artwork, internet and high-quality digital cameras have arrived in Alaskan villages, making it possible to competitively market the work - even if it is produced in a remote village.

"It's all a big, long experiment, what we're doing here," Rogoff said.

If the opening reception, which attracted 400 people and sold 100 pieces of art, is any indication, the experiment seems to be producing positive results.

For more information on Alaska House New York visit Alaska Native artists who are interested in having their work displayed at Alaska House New York must first register with the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Anchorage at

Alaskans visiting New York are welcome to stop by the Alaska House at 109 Mercer Street in the SoHo district of Manhattan. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.