A new exhibit at the University of Alaska Museum of the North tells the story of an Alaska woman whose love of polar bears and passion for the North led to an extraordinary collection. Polar Passion, now on display in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery, contains a select portion of the artwork that Grace Schaible has collected over the past several decades.
A longtime Alaska lawyer, as well as the state’s first female attorney general, Grace Schaible has donated hundreds of works of art to the museum. She also amassed one of the largest collections of polar bear artwork in the world, including hundreds of sculptures, prints and paintings.
Mareca Guthrie, fine arts curator at the UA Museum of the North, said Schaible’s collection includes artwork by nearly every well-known Alaska painter and printmaker from a 40-year span of the state’s history. “It was challenging to select only a small portion of her collection to display for this exhibition,” she said.
“I was particularly excited to showcase part of her extraordinary collection of Inuit artwork from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories in Canada. These prints and drawings are internationally recognized for their cultural and artistic significance. To my knowledge, the museum has never held an exhibition of them before.”
In 2015, Schaible donated more than 800 pieces to the museum, including prints, paintings, photographs, sculptures, carvings, drawings and collectibles that had been on display in her home and former law office. The donations range from Alaska Native and Inuit art to original oil paintings, as well as what she called “cutesy” items.
Angela Linn, senior collections manager of ethnology and history, said it’s important to preserve these objects at the UA Museum of the North. “Some of the pieces meet our goal of having a full representation of the arts of Alaska’s indigenous peoples, including walrus ivory carvings from Iñupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and Yup’ik artists in the state.
“The collectibles are important also, as they represent a more popular view of polar bears. Examinations of how the polar bear is depicted by both serious artists and pop culture can provide insights into the public perception of this iconic Northern creature.”
Many of the artworks on exhibit in the museum’s permanent galleries were donated by Schaible, including “Arctic Shadow,” the large bronze sculpture of a polar bear by Jacques and Mary Regat on display on the upper level, and paintings by Eustace Ziegler, Claire Fejes and other artists. The exhibit includes a walking tour brochure to help visitors find those.
Another feature of the exhibit is the story behind the “Ice Walker” Raven’s Tail robe woven by Sitka artist Teri Rofkar. Linn said Schaible commissioned the piece based on her friendship with the artist, even though polar bears are not a typical Tlingit theme.
The exhibit includes footage of Rofkar creating the robe and video of the 2015 Festival of Native Arts when the robe was worn on stage by a traditional dancer. “I’m particularly happy that we’re featuring that footage,” Linn said. “The robe represents Grace’s love of polar bears, from the fur around the top to the colors used. It took a year for the artist to create the robe, which has been featured in the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery since it opened in 2006.”
Schaible is one of the university’s most generous supporters. She has endowed scholarships and helped raise millions of dollars for the museum. The University of Alaska Fairbanks named her one of just three Philanthropists of the Century this year.
Guthrie said Schaible’s interest in the museum began when she was an undergraduate at UAF in 1945. “She was instrumental in moving the museum to its current location in 1980 and again with the expansion in 2005. The museum wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Grace. It is an honor to be showcasing a portion of her collection and presenting information about her legacy with the museum and the university.”
ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Mareca Guthrie, fine arts curator, at 907-474-5102 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and Angela Linn, senior collections manager of ethnology and history, at 907-474-1828 or email@example.com