Alaska's Out North Theatre Could Lose Funding Over Programming

News   Alaska's Out North Theatre Could Lose Funding Over Programming
 
It's gotten just a little bit colder for at least one theatre in Alaska, thanks to the city assembly in Anchorage, which recently voted to eliminate a $22,000 operating grant for the Out North Contemporary Art house. A grant, announced Dec. 17, by the National Endowment For The Arts -- for $40,000 -- would seem like just what the doctor ordered. However, the artistic staff fears that because much of that money involves matching funding, the NEA sum is in peril -- especially since private donations to make up the $22,000 gap have generally been in the $15 range.
Out North's season brochure

Out North's season brochure

It's gotten just a little bit colder for at least one theatre in Alaska, thanks to the city assembly in Anchorage, which recently voted to eliminate a $22,000 operating grant for the Out North Contemporary Art house. A grant, announced Dec. 17, by the National Endowment For The Arts -- for $40,000 -- would seem like just what the doctor ordered. However, the artistic staff fears that because much of that money involves matching funding, the NEA sum is in peril -- especially since private donations to make up the $22,000 gap have generally been in the $15 range.

Out North has been offering a offers a mix of provocative works, such as Susan Miller's My Left Breast and the nude Chicago dance troupe, "XSIGHT."

As reported by Back Stage, that didn't sit well with assemblyman Kevin Meyer, who voted against the funding saying, "We do not believe that hard earned tax dollars of the people of Anchorage should be going to such a controversial organization." (He took specific objection to the word "Breast" being used in the advertising for My Left Breast and a topless photo to promote XSIGHT on the cover of Out North's season brochure.) Fellow assemblyman Ted Carlson added that governmental art funding should be, "strictly mainstream...that you would take your family to."

Jay Brause, co-artistic director of the theatre, told the Anchorage Daily News the assemblymen voting against the theatre's funding had a deeper, nastier agenda than embarrassment over nudity: "We are openly gay, and we are being punished. It's prejudice." Back Stage reported that Brause and founding director Gene Dugan recently sued for the right to marry -- a highly publicized action that no doubt roused the ire of the locals.

Said assemblywoman Pat Abney, who voted for the funding, "I think it is a major error to censor [a show] because someone personally does not want to see it, or doesn't want anyone else to see it." Brause and Dugan are most worried that the funding loss will scare off further grants which depend on matching money. As for the $22,000 that won't be going to Out North, Back Stage reports that it will be evenly divided amongst the other 17 organizations that partake of the Arts Advisory Commission's $235,000 to distribute.

Assemblyman Meyer told Playbill On-Line he voted against the funding because many of his contituents were put off by the company's advertising. "The problem is that the mailings they send out do offend some people. When people saw their tax dollars were paying for this, they were extremely upset. When you've got so many needs in this community and limited public funding...that $22,000 could be going to the homeless. The other art groups wanted some of that money too. Rather than cutting the amount of money we give to the arts... Someone could argue that we shouldn't fund the arts at all. I don't agree with that. So we spread it amongst the other 16."

Meyer was very careful to say that his constituents were upset by the advertising rather than he himself. He explained, "To some extent I didn't think it was appropriate.. I have a 5-year-old at home. You could say, `throw it in the trash,' and we did. But sometimes the mail sits on someone's table before the adults can throw it out. And if you're gonna ask the city for $22,000, you need to be more sensitive about these things. You want as many people in the community supporting your cause as possible. We're certainly not talking censorship here. My feeling is that it truly upset the majority in this fairly conservative community. In fact, the school board recently banned a book that dealt with an American Indian preying on small woman (I forget the title). And back in `93, when the gay rights issue was before the community, they said loud and clear they didn't want to support special rights for gays and homosexuals. My concern is the community might say we don't want any art funding at all."

But what about funding for next season at Out North? "We're taking it a year at a time," said Meyer. "Remember, we agreed to 16 out of 17 organizations represented by the commission. The board members aren't accountable to anyone, but we are accountable to constituents. Another argument is that we're already subsidizing them because they get a basically rent-free building so long as they provide maintenance."

Asked about the Assembly process, Out North founder Dugan told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 15), "They went to a second vote and it failed again. So we are out of that funding loop, but that doesn't mean we've stopped trying to change the minds of at least one assembly member (all we need to do to get a 6-5 vote in our favor). One assembly member, George Wuerch, told us he only hears from constituents who don't want Out North funded, so we need to hear from the people who go to Out North shows and support us. At this point, any change would have to be a budget amendment, but we're trying to work with the mayor [Rick Mystrom] to get the funding."

Despite the turmoil, Out North continues its season: "Our `Under 30' program, of local artists creating performances under 30 minutes, opens New Years Day for a weeklong run. After that, The Hittite Empire, an African-American troupe, will bring Anatomy Of Deep Blue. Plus we're one-stop shopping for visual arts exhibitions and kids' performances. In February, the Northwest Film & Video Festival tour arrives, then a performance by local Alaskan writers ("First Voice"). In March we have The Mathematics Of Change with monologist Josh Kornbluth" (Red Diaper Baby).

"This is our 13th season," Dugan told Playbill On-Line, "and this is our sixth or seventh battle, but the first time we've lost funding. The assembly process was different this year. It may have been legal, but it cut out public participation."

Chuck Albrecht, communications director for Mayor Mystrom, told Playbill On-Line the Mayor had initially stood behind the advisory commission's recommendations on funding for 17-out-of-17 groups. "The assembly could have passed it, as they have in years past, but this time they did the vote as a line-by-line item. The vote went down 6-5. Now, the mayor has veto power, but if he'd used it, they would have just over-ridden it and taken away the money anyway."

[Responding to the Mayor's argument, Out North co-artistic director Brause told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 17), "No, they did not have the votes for an override. It's not a simple majority; you need 8 votes to override, which the assembly obviously didn't have."]

Mystrom's spokesperson expressed confidence that Out North would make up its shortfall thanks to generous donations. He said, "I don't know that they'll have a white knight this year, but I imagine the fine arts community will step up and come up with some of that money."

Asked if the mayor was personally offended by Out North's advertising, Albrecht said, "I don't know if the Mayor was all that familiar with what Out North was doing, outside their reading series at the junior high schools. [Out North] did make a mistake on a flyer they sent out to every household, which offended and bothered even supporters of the company."

Only four years ago, Out North was in another fight for its grant money -- over a bus advertisement for the venue's booking of the Pomo Afro Homos' show, Fierce Love. The ad featured only the troupe's name, the show's title, the theatre's box office info, and the eyes of a black man wearing glasses.

According to the Pomo website, then-mayor Tom Fink saw this as running counter to the Transit Department's advertising policy that "ensure(s) good taste in advertising," prohibiting the display of advertising relating to "tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, any use of obscenities, and any reference to sexual or adults-only material." The ad was ultimately rejected, at which point the mayor tried to have Out North's grant rescinded. Fink said, "[I don't] think there's any question that the public does not approve of spending money for a theatre which encompasses homosexual themes." The assembly voted unanimously to reject the mayor's proposal."

Said Brause, "The bus sign was benign. The transit department said it was advertising for adult material, even though it was an all-ages show. We had to go to superior court for an injunction to restrain the municipality from refusing to put our signs up. They lost, and we got the signs up on constitutional grounds. But that's when we first established our reputation as being a bit too feisty for people's tastes."

Continued Brause, "The central issue of the attack is that we send out `offensive' materials. Ultimately, we're against the growing national trend of putting viewer advisories on our work. Instead, we develop through pictures what the show might embrace. Also, when something is more older-age-appropriate, we won't put a children's price on the work. You just can't win with content advisories, and our refusal to do that is being held against us."

Assemblyperson Pat Abney told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 23), "I'm very supportive of Out North. I don't believe in censoring people. Also, they do a tremendous job with the youth in our community, and I believe strongly that the arts are the way people get the message of the times. The issues make you think and bring about discussion in the community, which is healthy."

Abney also made it clear Out North's advertising was not really the issue - just a convenient target. "With the assembly we have right now," she said, "it wouldn't matter what [Out North] was doing. It's run by two gay men, and the assembly as it's now constituted would never support them. That's not what they say on the record, but they certainly say it in the back room."

Asked what the chances are of reversing the funding cut, Abney said she was trying to get her colleagues, "At least to look at the funding for the school programs. It's very important that Out North have the matching funds. We have a gang problem here, we need communication, and the program has had a positive effect."

-- By David Lefkowitz

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