Out North’s Closure a Blow for Anchorage Artists

The Out North Contemporary Art House in Anchorage closed its doors on July 29th after nearly 30 years in operation. Out North’s Board of Directors laid off the six staff members and asked resident art groups to remove their belongings by early September, citing financial concerns. As artists and fans mourn the loss of one of the city’s great art houses, no one seems sure about what will happen next.

out north contemporary art house
Out North Contemporary Art House suspended operations on July 29. Photo from Out North’s Facebook page.

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Out North was such a beloved place that it’s hard for some artists to talk about it in the past tense.

“A lot of people were talking about OutNorth — it was a buzzy place, it was fun,” says artist Drew Michael. “And now that they’re closed… or… not open, a lot of people are wondering, like, whoa, what happened?”

Drew Michael first developed his show Aggravated Organisms with painter Elizabeth Ellis at Out North. It featured large, Native-style wooden masks representing major diseases affecting Alaskans. The success of that show meant Michael was able to begin touring it around the city and state. Michael says losing the space is a big blow.

“I think it’s really hard for the art community to see a place that was really prominent for artists to express themselves close down,” he says. “Now we have one less space to work with, you know.”

The space housed not only visual art, but all kinds of events and programs, including theater performances, film screenings, workshops for teens, and a radio station, KONR, that just went off the air, too. Teeka Ballas, founder of F Magazine and former Operations Director for Out North, says much of the arts community is pretty shocked.

“I think we’re all reeling in the same way,” says Ballas. “Not only do we suddenly feel homeless, but it is a huge loss. It is the only place that could house so many of the different types of events that we did. It just feels like an emotional blow for all of us. I think I can speak very freely for all of us that we all were just emotionally set back and are still really emotionally set back on this.”

Ballas says F Magazine had to postpone its annual fundraiser, which had been scheduled for August 9th at Out North. She’ll have to find a new venue. And Indra Arriaga, founder of Anchorage’s Day of the Dead celebration, also doesn’t know what will happen. The event has been held at Out North every November for the past six years. She’s sure it will go on, but it may have to take a different shape.

“We’re still a little shell-shocked, and we’re not really sure what we’re going to do,” says Arriaga. “You know, OutNorth closing is just… it’s a huge hit for the arts community.”

wooden mask
A wooden mask carved by Anchorage artist Drew Michael. Photo by Sara Bernard, APRN-Anchorage.

Still, this isn’t the first time that closure has loomed for Out North in the years since it was founded in 1985, says Board President Chrissy Bell. It may seem like a sudden move, but Bell says it was necessary; Out North wouldn’t have had enough money to pay staff for their time if the board had waited even another month.

“Like many nonprofits, OutNorth has struggled with sustainability really throughout its history,” Bell says. “It’s been a constant struggle for us.”

Bell says they want to figure out what sustainability would look like, and that could be difficult. Out North’s consistent presentation of risky and challenging work has been a source of discomfort for some, but Teeka Ballas says that is also an important role for an art house to play.

“We did a lot of work that pushed the envelope,” Ballas says. “Stuff that was cutting edge, maybe, but also stuff that made people uncomfortable. And I think that’s a really big responsibility of the arts and arts administrators in any city: to allow a forum for art that pushes the envelope, makes people uncomfortable, makes people think, makes people be introspective.”

Ballas is confident that artists will continue to find avenues for challenging expression in Anchorage, with or without Out North.

“I have faith that at least through this contingency that we will somehow band together one way or another,” she says, “and continue what we’re doing through the community.”

Still, Ballas is frustrated that Out North’s audience had no chance to weigh in before the board made its decision. But Chrissy Bell says it wasn’t easy for the board, either. And taking this time to figure things out is critical to give Out North a chance at all.

“It was a very difficult and emotional decision for us to do this,” Bell says, “but it was really we felt like our only choice and our best chance to address what sustainability means for us once and for all.”

There will be one more show this fall: UNmanly, a mixed media exhibit curated by Michael Walsh. It opens on August 16th and will have limited gallery hours on Saturdays from noon to 4pm until September 14th. Bell says that’s due to a contractual agreement with the artists.

But that’ll be the last one, for now. Bell says the board’s hope is that OutNorth will be able to reopen, in some form. But it’s still impossible to predict what that form will be.