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An uncertain future for Out North after board lays off entire staff

Suzanna Caldwell
Out North's board of directors temporarily “suspended normal operations” at the art house in east Anchorage on Monday, due to concerns over financial stability. In a brief statement, the board said it would work hard in coming months to conduct a full assessment of the organization, its finances and long-term options. Courtesy of Out North

Functions at Out North Contemporary Art House, one of Anchorage's most thought-provoking and sometimes controversial art organizations, took a dramatic turn Monday when the board of directors laid off the organization's entire six-person staff.

Out North's board of directors temporarily “suspended normal operations” at the art house Monday, due to concerns over financial stability. In a brief statement, the board said it would work hard in coming months to conduct a full assessment of the organization, its finances and long-term options.

“We took this unfortunate step because the board saw no other option for meeting the short-term financial needs of the organization,” Board President Chrissy Bell said in the statement. “Out North's financial condition is simply unsustainable at this time.”

Citing a focus on “the logistics involved with this difficult decision,” Board Member Grant Johnson said board members were unavailable for additional comment Monday.

Out North Executive Director Dawnell Smith said there wasn't any single issue that compelled the board to lay off the four full-time and two part-time staffers. A challenging funding environment, struggles with fundraising, low ticket prices and “challenging” show themes were all part of a “dozen” factors that led to closure.

“We're all heartbroken,” she said.

Financial troubles are nothing new to arts organizations in Alaska and across the country. Most are nonprofits and sustained via grant or foundation funding. For the last year, Out North had been working off a prestigious $250,000 ArtsPlace grant. That funding ended in May, Smith said.

Out North has seen financial problems before. In 2010, the organization weathered a public brouhaha that saw a production of “Reefer Madness” move from Out North to another venue after issues over grant funding emerged.

Despite a tumultuous history, Out North has consistently delivered thought-provoking and at times celebrated performances, including a crowd-pleasing adaptation of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" back in 2011 and this year's Aggravated Organizms, an exhibit that explores the relationship between Alaskans, Alaska Natives and the 10 most prevalent diseases in the state. 

Smith, who took over the organization in June 2012, still has a few days ahead of her to finish up work, but said that everyone else was done as of Monday. She is still working with the eight artists-in-residence to assess what will happen as the board moves forward.

Smith, a former Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage Press arts reporter, said Out North has always been the place where thought-provoking, sometimes controversial or uncomfortable work had a home. With its doors closed, it remains unclear who will take on the work.

“No one else in the state will touch them,” she said. “That's going to be a real loss if Out North doesn't continue.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com