M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

The Murdock Trust invests in capacity-building projects at nonprofit organizations across the Pacific Northwest. When one grant helps create new opportunities and increases the impact of a nonprofit’s work down the line, we call it the ripple effect. The Stories of Impact series on our website helps shed light on the outcomes driven by some of the outstanding organizations the Murdock Trust has been fortunate to support in recent years.

Two young students do a craft at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp
Photo Credit: Alex Hamm

Twelve years ago, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp (SFAC) received the gift of a historic college campus on an incredible piece of property. What followed was one of the country’s most extraordinary grassroots volunteer movements, with one-ninth of Sitka’s population showing up to rebuild the campus and give SFAC a permanent home. Today, the camp has received state and national recognition for the important arts education it provides to Alaskans and students from around the country.

Now in its fiftieth year of operations, SFAC is celebrating a new kind of community collaboration. Thanks to campus renovations, the camp will be able to welcome more students in the summer and allow the broader Sitka community to make use of its space year-round, strengthening the resilience and vitality of this beautiful Alaskan city.

A group of dancers lifts another dancer with her arms raised toward the sky, against a red backdrop
Photo Credit: Alex Hamm

Arts Education for Alaskans

SFAC was founded in 1973 in response to the need for arts education in Alaska. Because of low population density, remote location, and recently program cuts due to COVID-19 and other factors, many Alaskan students have little to no exposure to quality arts programs. For most students who attend SFAC, the camp is their only opportunity in the state to learn from professional artists.

Executive director Roger Schmidt caught a vision for his life as a musician when he attended the camp as a student. Today, he witnesses the same eye-opening experience in youth all the time.

“The students get the chance to work with first-class artists that are really inspiring to be around because they found a way to make a career around their art forms,” says Roger. “But the thing we talk about even more is the power of finding like-minded people. Being around kids who are creatively driven. Being around other students that love your art form or other art forms.”

In a world where many schools implicitly emphasize competition, Roger reflects that the arts ask students to be generous, expressive, and collaborative. “The arts, just in their nature, ask kids to work together as a community, sharing things that are important to them, based on the things that matter to them. That is what leads to this really strong, welcoming community.”

SFAC welcomes students from around the country, many of whom come from schools without arts programs. In two-week sessions, these students gather for Elementary, Middle School, High School, and Musical Theater camps. They choose from over 60 classes in theater, dance, music, creative writing, visual arts, and Alaska Native arts. Camps end with a final performance, and the Sitka community is invited to attend.

Every year, Roger says, they hear from parents that their children return home saying, “Mom, I found my people!”

A group of dancers practicing at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp

Renovations for Renewed Impact

Despite the incredible community effort that got the campus in shape twelve years ago, many of the buildings needed upgrades to serve campers safely and welcome more students into its doors. In 2021, SFAC received a grant from the Trust to support the final stage of renovating Sweetland Hall, the campus’s primary dormitory.

Built in 1988, Sweetland Hall was due for a redo. “It was really beat up and in bad shape,” said Roger. “Not just the aesthetics, but the plumbing, the lighting, everything. It was very expensive to run, and air handling systems weren’t working correctly. It was an unpleasant and literally unhygienic building to be in.”

SFAC had been raising funds since 2016 for this significant renovation, and the Trust grant brought it to completion. Since SFAC completed the renovations, the camp has seen several significant results.

First, it could welcome more campers. The dining hall could previously hold 150 students, and though SFAC was pushing capacity by seating up to 250, the remodel allowed them to safely accommodate 300. Now, long wait lists can shorten and more students can experience the transformative power of this arts community.

Another important impact of this remodel is that Sweetland Hall can now be sustainable long into the future, reducing the previously significant cost of repairs and upkeep. This sets SFAC up for long-term financial stability.

“The remodel of Sweetland has allowed us now to have a steady revenue stream that basically pays for that building not only to exist but to pay for itself into the future,” said Roger. “That’s our goal for each building, so we can have a really strong, sustainable program.”

An overhead shot of an orchestra performing at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp

Filling the Halls with Community Innovation

But the most exciting impact of this remodel is that it opens up the building for year-round community use. This has become vital for the city of Sitka, bringing in more university students, program participants, and residents. Now, the University of Alaska Southeast, AmeriCorps, Outer Coast, and other institutions have been able to expand their programs and welcome more participants.

“That’s really important for the community of Sitka,” Roger explains. “Our university doesn’t have housing, so it’s allowed the university to grow programs and bring more young people into Sitka. Any community needs to be attracting young people, otherwise people leave and that’s the beginning of a downward spiral for a community.”

For Roger, this is the most thrilling and hopeful result of SFAC’s new capacity. Just like Sitka community stepped in to restore the historic campus in 2011, so now are community innovations filling the newly restored building. It has become a community and economic driver for the city of Sitka.

“Sitka is my home,” says Roger. “I moved here when I was one. I left for a long time but I didn’t find a better place so I came back. And I’m really into the idea of, what can my community look like? How can it support its citizens? And how can it be resilient into the future?”

SFAC is more than an arts camp. It is a place of connection, convening, and community for the people of Alaska, a celebration of that which connects us rather than that which divides us. And the story of its renovation is a success story of continued community collaboration. The Murdock Trust is honored to play a small part in this chapter.

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