Going into its 28th season, Out North Contemporary Art House is a multi-disciplinary art center in Anchorage, Alaska that produces, presents, teaches, and supports contemporary performance and visual art from throughout the state, country and world. Last year, Out North developed an “Art House Resident Program” to incubate and sustain small local art groups that already do the work that fulfills Out North’s mission. This “Art House Resident” initiative is designed to create a collaborative, dynamic physical and community space where a dozen or more art house resident groups can create, present, produce, teach, and reach out through spoken word, literature, theater, visual art, film, new media, music, education and journalism to push the boundaries of content and community, give voice to those marginalized because of identity or circumstance, advance critical thinking and social justice, and build community pride, resilience and resolve.

ArtPlace talked to Dawnell Smith, executive director of Out North Contemporary Art House, about how the Art House Resident Program builds vibrancy in its community.

ARTPLACE: What is your elevator pitch when you describe your project to people?

DAWNELL: Well, I think the best elevator pitch would be a 30-second flash live performance piece integrating spoken word, sound, visual components, movement, storytelling, and technology, plus interaction with the elevator’s social space, the participation of people in the elevator, the brief exposure to wherever the elevator door opens up to, awareness of the many voices speaking/whispering/singing/breathing, and a thoughtful, human response to the adjustment of ties, belts, skirts, shirts, gazes and relationships.

So far I’ve only imagined that pitch, so I tell people that we’re providing the physical, creative and social infrastructure for an array of emerging and enduring local art groups to collaborate in a way that expands and evolves their creative work and ability to work in and with our community. We don’t just want people to see art or artists at work, but know that they can get involved, participate, bring art into their lives in spontaneous and purposeful ways.

ARTPLACE: How do you expect to increase vibrancy in the place you are working?

DAWNELL: Communication is key, for the very notion of vibrancy alludes to the moving back and forth, the to and fro of energy that sustains itself. Community vibrancy means creating this ongoing, imaginative dialog. To usher along this conversation, we will invest in new staff and technology to make this act of moving back and forth, listening and being heard more visible and accessible – through improved social networking, virtual and live; through art projects that thrive on collaboration; through a community radio station that builds a technically accessible vehicle for producing and airing a full spectrum of local content; through graphic, audio, video, online, and written materials that truly represent what Out North does, how everyone can participate, what people might see, do and experience; through art that speaks to how local concerns and issues reflect upon and relate to global ones; through education and outreach.

The first rule of community, I think, is the understanding of our communal obligations to listening, sharing, considering, responding. Vibrancy rises from this understanding and commitment; it is the creative act at the core of our art house resident program.

We have already begun talking and collaborating with our art house resident groups to determine and define what the program should look like in a year, five years, beyond, and what each of us needs to contribute and count on to strengthen it. As we move forward, we will need to figure out how to support and incubate groups with a limited or unique capacity of contributing, how to share finite resources, how to work through unconventional uses of art spaces, how to activate collaborations among art house and community groups.

Though we have radio programming that focuses on art house residents and their work, for instance, its content is currently contingent upon the availability of technology and the skills necessary to use it. Bringing a radio program developer comes on board will help us build the technical infrastructure for making it easier for all residents and partners to produce content, and for Out North to reach out to other voices in the community.

This process requires and creates vibrancy, so our first step is to set the back and forth, the to and fro more prominently in motion. Once noticed, understood and embraced, it can become a continuous act that affirms and nourishes itself.

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