In Arnold Sildegs' introduction to the twenty-fifth annual issue of Latvju Maksla (Latvian Art), the long-time editor and publisher of this most notable Latvian art journal outside Latvia recalls the first meeting in Cleveland (in 1975) of Latvian artists and craftsmen. The meeting was organized by Margers Grins, president of the Latvian Institute and by Sildegs himself, a member of its Board. The Latvian Institute is a group founded under the auspices of the American Latvian Association (ALA), the umbrella organization for all Latvian social and cultural groups in the United States. The mission of the Latvian Institute is to study and to preserve Latvian culture. Sildegs notes that the three most importants goals identified at this first meeting of Latvian artists and craftsmen were to establish:
.: an association of exile Latvian artists;
.: a tradition of annual artists' meeings or conferences;
.: an art journal to inform and unite Latvian artists dispersed throughout the world as a result of World War II.
Sildegs states that all three goals became realities, including the founding of the American Latvian Artists Association (ALMA) a few years later. The establishment of ALMA during the course of the 1970s-1980s was a natural continuation of the process of organizing Latvian immigrants which was initiated at the beginning of 1950, when, as a result of the United States government's "Displaced Persons Act" of 1948, 100,000 Latvians immigrated to the United States from Europe. These were World War II refugees who, for reasons of political belief, did not wish to return to a homeland now occupied by the Communist Soviet Union. The Canadian government also supported the immigration to Canada of approximately 20,000 Latvian refugees.
In the midst of this wave of immigrants were large numbers of Latvian intellectuals and artists, whose deeply rooted sense of national culture and pride became an incentive for the development of the Latvian spiritual world in exile. This mission was in essence a continuation of those efforts to preserve Latvian culture which had already begun in the refugee camps of Germany in the hope that the world political situation, dictated by principles of justice, would soon change and that the refugees would have an opportunity to return to a Latvia liberated from its Soviet occupiers. Scattered throughout the North American continent, Latvian congregations, associations, language schools, choirs and theater groups were established, as were artists' unions, such as the "New York Latvian Artists' Group" in 1951 and the Canadian artists' association "Latvis" in 1955 (both still active). Newspapers were established ("Laiks" in 1949); books and Latvian-language journals appeared. The tradition of the Song Festival (with choir concerts, theatrical performances, crafts and art exhibitions) was renewed every five years in a different American city, thus uniting Latvian choirs and thousands of visitors from America and from other continents as well.
The American Latvian Association (ALA) was founded in 1951, with the goals of uniting all Latvian society in the United States, searching for opportunities to influence American politicians to support the re-establishment of Latvian independence, working toward the preservation of Latvian language and culture, and encouraging new creative work. These assignments were (and still are) realized in various sections by elected volunteers. The art section organized annual juried exhibitions, whenever possible in American museums or universities, or in conjunction with the Song Festivals, inviting participation not only from Latvian artists in the United States but also other countries. During the first decades there was a large response, while in recent years the number of participants has decreased.
Working in the ALA art section consecutively for many years were three artists who were also largely responsible for the conception and realization of ALMA: Augusts Annus, dearly-beloved patriot and painter of Latvian themes, also former professor at the Latvian Academy of Art, Arnolds Sildegs, the above-mentioned editor of the journal, Latvian Art, and Laimons Eglitis, artist and art professor at Catonsville College. The idea of ALMA was born during the first Latvian artists' meeting of 1975, where the dominant theme was Prof. Annus' position that only a cultivated people with a will to survive was distinguishable from a faceless mass. The realization of this idea was not possible unti 1978, when Laimons Eglitis, the head of ALA's art section (with financial support from ALA) organized the Third Conference of Latvian Artists and Craftsmen in the Catskills in New York State (the second conference took place in Toronto, Canada in 1976).
70 participants arrived for the 1978 meeting, among them distinguished artists whose participation continued in ensuing years. From the older generation these included Evalds Dajevskis, Martins Krumins, Alfreds Kruklins, Leonids Linauts, Fridrichs Milts, Bruno Rozitis, Arnolds Treibergs (all now deceased); from the middle generation came Voldemars Avens, Laimons Eglitis, Dagmara Igale, Ilmars Rumpeters, Maija Slesere; and from the younger generation, Daina Dagnija, Ausma Matcate, Dzintars Mezulis, and Girts Purins. Also attending were the noted art historian Dr. Janis Silins and several active critics from Latvian newspapers and art reviews such as Nikolajs Bulmanis, Erika Kronberga and Eleonora Sturma. Major topics of discussion, according to art critic Eleonora Sturma included: the need for artists to cooperate with exile organizations; the desirability of developing opportunities for Latvian artists to exhibit in international forums; the necessity of involving young Latvian artists in Latvian art life; and clarification of the notion of Latvian ethnicity in art. At the suggestion of Leonids Linauts, an organizing group was selected to establish a formal artists' association. This group included Nikolajs Bulmanis, Leonids Linauts, Dr. Janis Silins, Maija Slesere and Arnolds Treibergs. They were asked to contact all known Latvian artists in North America and to invite them to join the new organization.
Leonids Linauts, well-known as an East-coast stained glass artist, was the most active in this endeavor. With the help of Arnolds Treibergs and other members, Linauts contacted a large number of Latvian artists in the United States (and a number in Canada as well). Assisted by Evalds Dajevskis and Janis Audrins, Linauts created a preliminary set of by-laws for ALMA that stipulated three-year terms for elected ALMA officers, with balloting to be conducted by mail. Linauts also assumed the preparatory duties so that unofficially the organization was able to begin its work in 1979.
The first official slate of officers for ALMA was nominated at the fourth conference in the Catskills in 1982, led by Karlis Kronbergs, the head of the Canadian Latvian artists' organization "Latvis". Since in the interim Leonids Linauts had removed himself from activity, the election was organized by Vigeo Saule, professor of art at Baruch College in New York City. As a result of the 1982 election, the duties of the presidency were assumed by artist Girts Purins, art professor at the University of Pittsburg. He was joined by secretary Velta Rozite and treasurer Dace Marga (who remains treasurer to this day). Purins began to lead the organization toward a number of notable achievements, beginning with the stimulating conference of 1983. The first juried exhibition organized by ALMA took place in 1985 in New York at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute, with works inspired by Latvian folklore, celebrating the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Latvian scholar and compiler of folk art, Krisjanis Barons. Purins also established connections with art organizations in Latvia.
In subsequent years, ALMA customarily organized its annual conference in upstate New York, at the Latvian community center in the Catskill mountains. In addition to official business, these conferences included lectures and discussions about issues in Latvian art, exhibitions of members' work, slide presentations, and video presentations about art events in Latvia. Many interested visitors attended these conferences. During the 1983 conference, critic Sturma pointed out that despite good support for Latvian artists on the part of the exile Latvian organizations, nevertheless the lack of success in finding outlets for Latvian work outside the Latvian emigre society was disappointing. She urged ALMA members to work on the preparation of better quality exhibition catalogues and to attempt to solve the persistent exhibition space problems associated wih the Song Festivals. The Song Festival tradition had become one of the most important venues for Latvian exile artists to show their work to an audience of thousands of Latvian viewers. Since these events were organized with a primary emphasis on musical performance, however, the art exhibits were often displayed in inappropriate hotel spaces. The problem persists to this day, but the Song Festival exhibits served an important role in providing Latvian exile artists a platform from which to show their work to a wider audience. The space limitations, however, prevented these exhibitions from attracting a wider non-Latvian audience.
In 1987, as recognition for exceptional accomplishments in Latvian art and contributions to Latvian culture, ALMA elected its first group of honorary members: Janis Audrins, Reinis Birzgalis, Evalds Dajevskis, Eduards Dzenis, Anslavs Eglitis, Elza Druja-Forsu, Janis Kalmite, Martins Krumins, Leonids Linauts, Karlis Neilis, Arnolds Nullitis, Fridrichs Milts, Arnolds Sildegs, Janis Silins, Erasts Sveics, Arnolds Treibergs and Ardis Vinklers.
Over the years, many other names have been added to this group, including some of the most important Latvian artists in the homeland. One of the most well-known honorary members is the internationally-recognized painter and graphic artist Vija Celmins. Honorary memberships have also been bestowed upon Nikolajs Bulmanis and Eleonora Sturma, both active in Latvian cultural life and the Latvian press.
In addition to hosting annual conferences, ALMA organized a number of exhibitions of members' work outside the Latvian exile community. Among these was "Concerns for Light", an academic conference and traveling exhibition organized by Girts Purins at Pittsburgh, and the ALMA exhibition at the International Images Gallery in Sewickley, Pennsylvania in 1995. Other projects included support of Latvian artists and groups in the homeland. A special fund was established to assist artists with magazine subscriptions and donations of equipment and of money for special projects. Purins also was instrumental in providing an opportunity for ALMA members to participate in the First Global Latvian Art Exhibition in Riga, Latvia. Many works from this exhibition remained in the collections of Latvian museums. Toward the end of the 1980s criticisms could be heard about the domination of East Coast artists in the ALMA organization. Attempts to be more geographically inclusive resulted in convening some annual conferences in the Midwest at the Latvian Center Garezers in Michigan. In 1995 Girts Purins retired from the presidency of ALMA after serving 12 years in that office. Purins has earned the sincere gratitude of ALMA members for his many years of service. He established a vital association - organizing exhibitions, conferences and annual meetings, and cultivating relationships and initiating collaborative projects with artists in Latvia.
Purins was succeeded by artist, teacher and arts administrator, Lelde Alida Kalmite of Chicago, daughter of honorary ALMA member Janis Kalmite. Kalmite's six-year presidency was seen in part as an attempt to broaden the scope of representation of Midwestern and Western artists in ALMA, and an acknowledgement that some of the most important work in Latvian exile art was being done in the Midwest (most notably, publication of Latvju Maksla by Sildegs in Kalamazoo, MI, the establishment, albeit for a relatively short time, of a Latvian gallery "Astra" in the gallery disrict of Chicago, and the growth of Garezers as a national cultural center for Latvians). Lelde Kalmite organized a national exhibition of ALMA members work in 1997 at the Beverly Art Center in Chicago, in addition to a conference featuring lectures by invited guests Ilze Konstants, at that time director of the Latvian Association of Art Museums, and her husband Zigurds Konstants, a major publisher of Latvian art books and catalogues.
In the autumn of 2001, Juris Ubans, ALMA Vice-President and son of famous Latvian artist Konrads Ubans, was elected president of ALMA. Ubans has established a reputation as one of the most active Latvian artists in the United States, where he is Professor of Art at the University of Southern Maine. Ubans has sponsored many Latvian exchange students and has led study groups of American students in Latvia. He is exceptionallywell-known in the Latvian art world and his election reflects the increasing importance of global interaction among Latvian artists and the growing emphasis on establishing close ties to the cultural life of Latvia itself.
During the course of twenty years of activity, the number of ALMA members has been approximately 200, among them also a number of non-artist supporters. ALMA members have continued to be active in American artists' exhibitions. Many ALMA members belong to American artist organizations and, since the renewal of Latvian independence in 1991, have joined artists' organizations in Latvia. For their part, many Latvian artists in the homeland have become members of ALMA. A number of ALMA members have also had solo exhibitions in Latvia. It cannot be denied that ALMA has served an important purpose in supporting Latvian artists outside the homeland and in helping them to maintain their unique culture and identity. Throughout its history, ALMA has been supported by the American Latvian Association with grants and exhibition awards, and, of course, by the Latvian exile public which has purchased the work of ALMA members.