Deb: 49 Writers Interview with Victoria Lord, Rasmuson Foundation

Rasmuson Individual Artist Award applications are due one week from today. Read on for details from Victoria Lord, Rasmuson Program Associate.

While our readers may be familiar with Rasmuson’s Individual Artist Awards, some may not know what the Foundation is or how it came to be. Could you briefly enlighten us?

The Rasmuson Foundation was created under a declaration of trust in May of 1955 by Jenny Rasmuson to honor her late husband, “E.A.” Rasmuson. E.A. Rasmuson immigrated to the United States from Sweden and eventually found himself in Yakutat working as a missionary of the Swedish Covenant Church. It was there that he met and married Jenny Olson, a Christian education worker who had been with the mission for more than a year.

E.A. Rasmuson assumed leadership of the Bank of Alaska in 1918 in the midst of the financial disruption caused by World War I and accepted the challenge of reviving a bank in serious financial trouble. E.A. never lost his faith in the Bank of Alaska, or the territory it served. Jenny Rasmuson served on the board of directors of the growing bank and shared her husband’s dreams for Alaska. Together, they tirelessly promoted the growth of the Territory and the development of its rich natural resource potential.

E.A. Rasmuson died in 1949 and left the bank to his son, Elmer. Elmer was involved in the Foundation from its modest beginnings (the first Foundation grant was $125) and became the driving force behind its growth. When Elmer died in December 2000 at age 91, he left his personal fortune of more than $400 million to charity, much of it to the family foundation.

Elmer’s vision for the Foundation was to support projects of lasting impact for the public benefit of all Alaskans. Today, Elmer’s three children, Edward, Lile and Judy, his widow Mary Louise, daughter-in-law Cathryn, and grandchildren Adam Gibbons and Natasha von Imhof serve on the Foundation’s 12-member board of directors and carry on his legacy.

In 2003, the Rasmuson Foundation convened a panel of arts leaders and artists from around Alaska to discuss the state of the arts in Alaska. Out of that conversation, the Rasmuson Foundation Arts and Culture Initiative was born. The Initiative provides support to Alaskan artists and arts organization in four focus areas: Arts Education, Creative Ventures, Organizational Advancement, and Design and Public Art. The Individual Artist Award program was launched in 2004 as part of the Creative Ventures.

With regard to writing, how does the Foundation handle the sometimes fuzzy distinction between literary and commercial work?

The recipients of the literary arts/scriptworks awards are artists writing fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, screen plays, and/or scripts for the stage. These artists may complete a novel, publish work, and/or promote a published work that may result in a financial return. However, work that is solely factual and/or written for news outlets is considered commercial and not the type of creative work funded through this grant program. There may be an ‘art’ to being a serious journalist, but these grants are intended to support original artistic work.

Where does the Foundation find judges for awards in the literary arts?

Rasmuson Foundation staff receives recommendations through a vast network of colleagues throughout the United States and Canada. Those selected to participate in the literary arts application review panel process are writers, small press owners, editors, and/or educators and come to the process with lots of experience and an open mind.

What are some of the typical reasons one grantee is chosen over the others?

A strong, compelling work sample is the primary reason. (Hint: spelling errors and typos from literary arts applicants are not a good thing!) Applications for a Project Award should reflect a relevant project that will truly benefit the artist at whatever stage in their artist career they are, and the work samples must demonstrate the artist’s ability to complete the project.

What advice do you have for writers who want to apply for one of the Rasmuson awards?

We call these grants the ‘selfish’ awards. Applicants should reflect on where they are as artists, what they would really like to accomplish, and what resources (financial, time, commitment, etc.) are needed to get there. The process of filling out the Individual Artist Award applications has proved beneficial to those who have taken the time to approach it honestly and thoughtfully.

Rasmuson took some hits when the economy floundered. What do you foresee for future Rasmuson efforts in the arts?

Throughout the economic decline, the Rasmuson Foundation Board of Directors were steadfast in their support for Individual Artists Awards and the budget for the program was held steady. In December, the Board decided to continue robust support for the Art and Culture Initiative for the next three years.

We’ve focused mostly on awards. Is there anything else we should know about how Rasmuson supports writers and writing?

One way that we try to follow through on our belief in supporting work by Alaskan artists is the feature Glimpses of Who We Are on the Rasmuson Foundation website. These are stories commissioned from Alaskan writers that describe the Alaska non-profit world and how nonprofits benefit Alaskans. I know of many folks outside of Alaska who have been reading and sharing the stories to discover the ‘real’ Alaska. We also support the efforts of the Alaskan writing community by participating in conferences, attending meetings, and responding to requests like this one. Thanks for the opportunity 49 Writers!

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