Summer schedule heating up at Kenai visitors center

Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Though it's just barely spring, the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center already is planning a busy summer.

Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau employees, who staff the center, have several events in the works to bring visitors and locals to the center on the Kenai Spur Highway to showcase what Kenai has to offer.

At the top of that list is the summer art show, "Alaska 2005 — Native Arts Now." The contemporary Alaska Native art show will be curated by Ron Senungetuk, an artist living in Homer who used to chair the art department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As with past summer shows, the Native art display will be up all summer starting May 2 and include an extravagant opening reception May 5.

Mya Renken, executive director of the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the staff is trying to refocus on the original purpose of the center — to bring visitors to Kenai.

To do that, Renken said they're trying to highlight the history and culture of Kenai. This new focus is behind the decision to give the 2006 summer art show a Kenai theme that incorporates original art and items from the center's historical collection.

"I think that will be a bigger draw to visitors to the area," Renken said. "No one else is telling the story of Kenai and that's our job. Research shows people travel for culture and historic reasons. ... We think that will give them the best of both."

The Kenai focus is displacing a summer wildlife art show open to international artists, which the center hosted in 2000 and 2003.

David Wartinbee, curator for the wildlife art shows, said he's sorry to see the show go.

"I have felt and still do feel that the wildlife shows brought huge numbers of people to the community and were a very positive reflection on the community," he said. "I don't think the scale that we did with the wildlife shows will be continued."

Wartinbee said the wildlife art shows drew original works from top wildlife artists from around the world, including Robert Batemen and Daniel Smith.

"The list could just go on and on and on of all these top-name people from around the world who's work we had on display," Wartinbee said. "I heard comments from visitors that 'This isn't the kind of show I'd expect to see in Alaska. It's a show we expect to see in New York City.' I'm very very proud of what we did here."

Renken said that, while the wildlife show was a great thing for the community, she thinks a Kenai-focused show will draw more viewers.

"We are transitioning to making sure our exhibits are of interest to a broad variety of people," she said, citing research that shows visitors say they're interested in learning about the culture and history of the places they visit.

Wartinbee disagrees, saying the wildlife shows did bring many people to the center — 30,000 to 40,000, by his estimate.

"There's been a ton of people going to those shows because these were international-quality shows."

The subject matter of the shows — wildlife — also was a big draw, Wartinbee said.

"Everyone has a favorite animal. People come to Alaska to see animals, to see critters, and here's paintings of these animals. It has a very broad-brushed interest or attraction to lots of people because we all connect to animals in some way."

Renken and Wartinbee said the international wildlife shows may be continued in some format, just not as the main summer show in the center. Renken said the center may be open to hosting the show some other time in the year, and Wartinbee said he's considering putting it on in Anchorage.

The center's summer interpretive program on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays will continue the Kenai focus, with science presentations Mondays, art Wednesdays and Alaska heritage Fridays.

"We have invaluable re-sources at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the Watershed — all kinds of great resources around here, and we appreciate their support in helping us provide those programs," Renken said.

Project Kenai will get a big push this year, the goal of which is to teach people in the tourism industry about Kenai attractions so they can relay that information to visitors.

"Project Kenai is a way to kind of educate people within our community on the front lines on what there is to see and do in Kenai instead of sending them to Homer," Renken said.

Another new endeavor at the center will be Saturday markets where artists, crafters and gardeners can hawk their wares in the grassy areas around the building Saturdays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Renken said she hopes the visitors bureau will establish the program this summer and hand it off to another group to continue in future years.

Other than that, center employees will attend trade shows and initiate others efforts to convince people Kenai is the place to be this summer.

"We're looking forward to a good year," Renken said.

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