HOMER, ALASKA'S ART DESTINATION
The Best Small Towns in the United States to Visit in 2023 - Homer, Alaska
The first time I saw Homer was after an eight-hour drive through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in a failed attempt to see moose, caribou, or grizzly bears. But when I arrived in Homer, passing vivid red, waist-high fireweed with the backdrop of the bright blue Cook Inlet and Lake Clark National Park’s towering Aleutian Range in the distance, I knew it was worth the trip.
At the far southern tip of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Homer is a town of two parts: the mainland town of around 6,000 people, which serves as the starting point for wildlife tours and fishing trips and is full of artists, oddballs, and free-spirited Alaskan hippies; and the Homer Spit, a four-mile-long stretch of land dotted with fresh seafood stands, shiplapped (and seaside) ice cream shops and art galleries, and driftwood-covered beaches ripe for beachcombing.
For many visitors to Alaska, Homer is a mere pit stop, a place to spend an hour while they wait for their water taxis to island resorts like Stillpoint Lodge. But in 2023, I recommend spending an extra day in Homer to visit the interactive Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center, take a grizzly bear helicopter tour, paddle your way along the town’s rocky mainland coastline, or wet your whistle at local stops like Homer Brewing Company or nearby Bear Creek Winery (which has a very reasonable $5 tasting fee).
Summer is the prime season to visit for the most lodging, dining, and activity options. The mid-August Salmonfest (just north in Ninilchik) is one of Alaska’s biggest music festivals, complete with global headliners. But the most diverse event is September’s Alaska World Arts Festival, offering two weeks of comedy shows and concerts, performances, art classes, workshops, and dance performances throughout more than 50 Homer venues.
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After four years and a pandemic, the Alaska Worlds Arts Festival might have found its groove.
Started in 2019 by director and producer Sally Oberstein as Homer’s answer to the Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe Fest, in 2020 the Alaska World Arts Festival went totally virtual. Last year it brought back some live events, and this year half the events will be live performances or workshops.
“It’s a mix,” Oberstein said Tuesday on a break from directing “Nice Moves,” a musical comedy she produced with Mike McKinney that opens the festival on Friday at the Mariner Theatre. “One of our goals is for people to meet each other and learn about different cultures and make world friendships — which is exactly what’s happening.”
The necessity of holding events virtually through the magic of Zoom and high-speed internet has proven a boon as the world emerges from two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecting people around the world with a live audience enables cultural interaction without the expense of travel and lodging.
“We’ve also learned some of the amazing things we can do. It’s so hard to bring all the people together in one place,” Oberstein said. “… If we were bringing all those people in, we would not be able to offer them for next to nothing or free.”
Many of the world arts fest events run starting at $10 and up. Adding up the individual fees shows how good a bargain the festival membership price can be. A festival membership costs $100, and includes admission to most events as well as a raffle ticket for two tickets by Alaska Airlines anywhere they fly. For example, art workshops by Lynn Marie Naden are $55.
“That’s a $55 class,” Oberstein said of Naden’s workshop. “You take another class and, boom (for the price of a membership), there you go to everything.”
Free to the public are Live-at-lunch concerts offered almost daily at Land’s End Resort, one of the world arts fest sponsors. At 7 p.m. Saturday, the Pratt Museum & Park holds a $125-a-head fundraiser, Jazz-Tat-Tat with Jeffery Lee Mills, but at noon Sunday he and other musicians offer a free noon concert. Other Live-at-Lunch concerts are noon Friday, Sept. 16, with Atz Lee and Nikos Kilcher at the Green Can and noon Sunday, Sept. 18, with the Bayside Buskers at Land’s End. Visiting Turkish musician Cem Dagtekin plays noon Saturday, Sept. 17, at Land’s End.
World arts fest also offers live events old school, with the cutting-edge 20th century technology of AM radio. In collaboration with KBBI Public Radio AM 890, a free, live poetry and prose reading with Alaska writers Rachel “Ray” Ball, Linda Martin, Jeremy Pataky and Marybeth Holleman is 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, at the Homer Public Library and also broadcast on KBBI. A virtual event, “Backstage Legends,” at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, is live on Zoom and also broadcast on KBBI.
Some events also will be recorded, but shown to a live audience, including "Austentatious," an improvised Jane Austen novel as seen at the Edinburgh Fringe that's shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Homer Theatre. Oberstein said she saw "Austentatious" six times at the Fringe.
“I’m not a Jane Austen fan, but those guys are stunning,” she said.
Along the noon free concerts, several groups perform. Jeffrey Mills presents “Boomers Oldies but Goodies: Music of a Mature Generation” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, at Alice’s Champagne Palace. Admission is $25 in advance, $30 at the door or free with a festival membership.
“We’re trying to hit as many different kinds of art genres and styles of art that attract different audiences,” Oberstein said. “We have a little rock ‘n’ roll, a little poetry. We hit the whole spectrum.”
Sometimes people ask her why they don’t have “fill in the blank,” she said, and Oberstein said she responds, “Good idea for next year. And then I say, ‘Would you like to volunteer to help?’”
Some traveling artists will visit. Tadeusz Pieta and Jolanta Surma from Poland offer art workshops form 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2-6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12, at Homer Art & Frame. Those workshops are $200 each, but not official festival events. Oberstein said they’re advertising and including in the festival some workshops to help out arts organizations.
Over the next week Oberstein will be greeting visitors from Germany, New York, Italy and Poland.
“Those are people landing in Homer to love and meet our community,” she said. “… The woman who flew in yesterday from Spain, we had a sunny day, and she’s like ‘I want to move here already. Everyone is so friendly. … We get to share Homer with all these people.”
Oberstein’s big production will be “Nice Moves,” her comedy revue about the past 100 years of dance told through the adventures of Spirit of Dancing Past and four generations of a delusional family at odds with each other’s dance styles. The Spirit pops out of an exploding radio console to take them back in time.
“It’s almost a vacation for putting the festival together,” Oberstein said. “It’s the funnest job on the planet, but it’s a lot of work. I go into the theater and everybody’s bounding around on stage, putting colorful costumes on and having a good time.”
World arts fest opens with a gala from 2-4 p.m. Friday at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center and the premiere of “Nice Moves” at 6 and 8 p.m. Friday at the Mariner Theatre. It ends on Wednesday, Sept. 21, segueing into the Homer Documentary Film Festival starting Sept. 22.
While festival memberships include free admission to festival events, registration is required to hold a space. For a full program, ticket information and registration, visit www.alaskaworldarts.org.
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Come for the Adventure, Stay for the Culture