Based in Anchorage, Alaska, Out North was founded in 1985 by Gene Dugan and Jay Brause to support LGBTQ theatre in the inhospitable surroundings of a conservative state. In the three decades since, it has experienced many organisational evolutions, including a shift to general programming in the 1990s, and in 2013 temporarily closed operations. In 2017 Out North reframed its financial relationship with the city, which resulted in the city transferring its building to another theatre company; during the same time period, Out North reached an agreement with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, resulting in a new home in the heart of downtown Anchorage. It now has access to a suite of spaces in which to programme contemporary performance and visual art.
Out North is run on a volunteer basis by a board of five, including Indra Arriaga, who joined in 2013. In addition, its radio station, KONR 106.1 FM, has about a dozen volunteer DJs and one volunteer programmer.
Mission: supporting under-represented voices, and encouraging cultural dialogue
To understand the role Out North has played in Anchorage in the past 30 years, it’s useful to know a little about the place itself. Indra Arriaga moved there from San Francisco, having also spent time in London and New York, and found it “shocking: moving here takes people quite a few steps back in time. We’ve come a long way, but when Out North emerged it was the only place where anybody who was LGBT had a safe space.”
“We’ve come a long way, but when Out North emerged it was the only place where anybody who was LGBT had a safe space.”
Alaska is the least densely populated state in the US, with only 1.3 people per square mile; Anchorage is its biggest city, and within that, “Out North has always been the place that is at the forefront of political and civic changes”. While the state itself votes Republican and is by nature conservative, “we’re seeing the demographics in Anchorage really shifting, with a lot more indigenous groups – all kinds of different groups who have not traditionally been part of the Out North sphere”. The art scene has also tended to serve the segment of the population where wealth is concentrated, creating an opportunity for Out North to “push contemporary art in a way that other folks in Anchorage don’t, and represent minority voices”. That has included working with refugee and immigrant groups, the Hmong people (who make up 0.5% of the population), and in particular the Latin community, not least by hosting an annual Day of the Dead event.
“we’re seeing the demographics in Anchorage really shifting, with a lot more indigenous groups – all kinds of different groups who have not traditionally been part of the Out North sphere”.
A building, or a programmer?
The biggest shift that Out North has undergone over the past five years relates to its physical presence in Anchorage. For just over a decade, the organisation occupied a former library building to the east of the city, a 10-minute drive from downtown: “That was important to us because three different neighbourhoods come together in that particular corner, including one that is a totally immigrant community. The neighbourhoods for the most part are considered low income, and so it’s important for residents to have a place to which they can walk. And they were the first in the door for productions.” That building enabled Out North to begin working with the nearby high school, and to work effectively with local emerging artists, who could be more or less guaranteed an audience. “We’ve been really good at taking young people who are inexperienced and giving them a shot. We’ve incubated some graphic artists, some dance companies and some performance folks who are all doing really well and have outgrown us. In Anchorage we’re so removed that if you really want to learn and create, this is the space to do it.”
“We’ve been really good at taking young people who are inexperienced and giving them a shot. We’ve incubated some graphic artists, some dance companies and some performance folks who are all doing really well and have outgrown us.”
Out North’s ability to support less-established artists was facilitated by its financial arrangement with the city, which gave the library building rent-free on the understanding that it would be “arts focused”. “That allowed us to partner with people, and with small productions, with the deal that we provide space, technical support, ticketing, marketing, and running the books, and what they had to do was occupy the building, make sure it’s clean, and put on a show – and they did good work, because they were motivated to do it.” It also meant Out North was able to collaborate generously with various indigenous and immigrant communities: “For a period the Hmong Community Centre functioned out of there, teaching their traditional foods. We also worked a lot with Latin immigrants and Turkish immigrants, primarily giving them space and guiding them through how to put together their events.”
The beneficial financial arrangement did not extend to utilities, however, for which Out North remained responsible. “Just heating a building that size, the economics go through the roof. Out North found itself being more building owners and maintenance landlords. We had to make a conscious break to realign ourselves: to say that Out North is not the building but the organisation that was started 30 years ago, now in a new generation. We talked about where we sit geographically within Anchorage, and where we fit within the arts eco system, and what is it that Out North does that is different to everyone else?”
Through those conversations, the decision was taken to focus more on programming, and return the building to the Municipality of Anchorage. The library is now inhabited by a theatre company, while Out North has “entered into an agreement with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership to occupy space downtown in exchange for providing programming that would activate an otherwise lethargic part of downtown, increase its visibility, serve an under-represented population, and make that part of town a little safer.” Rather than a single building, Out North occupies “several points along the block: we have two spaces in the mall area, one for the gallery, and one in which we collaborate with the Experience theatre.” A third space is occupied by Out North’s integrated radio station.
Exhibitions in its new home have included Trumpazo and Unnatural Election, both responses to the presidency of Donald Trump, which challenged authoritarian politics and presented alternative and feminist perspectives; a retrospective dedicated to Alaskan artist Mariano Gonzales; and a group show of reinterpreted myths curated from open submission. In the theatre it has initiated an “indigenous open-performance space” and presented a choose-your-own-storyline performance by a transgender man. Continuing from its old home, Out North has maintained its tradition of presenting a Day of the Dead celebration. The goal, says Arriaga, is always: “getting back to the basics of who we are, but at the same time responding to what is going on around us now”.
Also central to Out North’s work is the fact that it has its own radio station: “Alaska has two low-power radio stations; it took over 10 years to get the permit but we have one of them. And that’s been crucial. Because it’s low power it’s considered a non-profit so we can’t sell ads, but we are able to play free, open-source content: so a lot of local music cycles through, and we can air live shows and community conversations.”
““Alaska has two low-power radio stations; it took over 10 years to get the permit but we have one of them. And that’s been crucial.”
In the past the radio station has also presented opportunities for programming work that isn’t building-based, while maintaining its connection to Out North. For instance, a collaboration with The Light Brigade, a local group of cross-disciplinary makers creating site-specific interventions across urban and natural environments, resulted in a display of “video mapping over the outside of buildings in Anchorage, with a soundtrack played on the radio. So people could drive by the installation and hear the sound that went with it.”
Out North’s work with immigrant communities recognises that: “by the time an immigrant comes to Alaska they’ve already been through a certain process because we’re so far removed. For example, within the Latin community you have generations of people who were born here, who know they’re Latin, feel Latin, are treated in a certain way – but yet they’ve never actually been. So there is this sense of not just immediately being displaced but being displaced in another generation. We’ve worked with those communities to provide a space for them to come together and work on those issues of identity.” The emphasis is on “enriching the culture that’s here: for instance, we supported the Turkish community with their annual festival, wrote letters to some of the immigration entities for some of their artists to be able to come over and perform, and they were able to put together a programme of dances and foods. When we have traditional dancers for the Day of the Dead, it’s basically the Latin community hosting other communities. There is an exchange of life that is really about enriching the culture that’s here.”
Out North’s priority in its new home is “to get back to creating a space for artists to push the limits”. But this is happening in a context of economic depression: “When the Lower 48 was going through its recession we didn’t feel it, but things like that tend to lag. Now our oil revenues are down and our unemployment is two points higher than the national average, and this is an opportunity to address the needs people are having as they deal with the downturn in the economy.” Also affecting the thinking of Out North is “the stress of the political situation”, particularly for immigrant communities, and this emphasises the need for work that “addresses current immigration policies”.
But for Arriaga, pushing the limits is also a civic role, because “for us, to push those limits really means continuing a conversation. What Out North has been really good at doing is asking questions of people, and we need to keep those dialogues going.”
Image: La Santa Cecilia at ON 4. Out North