Facing a potential deficit of $266,000 on a $4 million annual operating budget, the Frye Art Museum announced to Yoko Ott and to the rest of the museum staff on Wednesday that Ott’s position, manager of youth and community outreach, would have to be cut (and Ott’s programs shut down) in order to balance the budget.

The decision was not a reflection of Ott’s performance on the job, said museum director Midge Bowman.

“We sweated over this,” Bowman said. “What is lost is Yoko’s spirit.”

Ott, who joined the museum in 2006, is one of three managers in the education department, which is overseen by education director Jill Rullkoetter (formerly of Seattle Art Museum). The other two managers handle programs for adults and for younger children; Ott was in charge of teens and community partnerships.

But Bowman is right: What the museum has given up is far more than a demographic. Ott is known through the city—and beyond—for her innovative, thoughtful ideas. What the other managers in the Frye’s education department do is important; it’s also highly conventional (organize K–12 school tours and oversee lectures and studio classes for adults, for instance). That’s the stuff of every education department in every museum in the country.

Ott was trying to go further.

Her teen studio program—called SHFT—provided an introduction to the ideas behind contemporary art. In response to every exhibition in the galleries, Ott would invite an active, working artist in the city to develop a class that would engage teens in the same issues as those in the exhibition, and then their work would result in an exhibition on the publicly viewed walls of the education wing at the Frye.

Artist Gretchen Bennett, for instance, taught a sampling and storytelling class in conjunction with Dario Robleto’s exhibition Alloy of Love; in preparation for the upcoming Napoleon on the Nile and Empire exhibitions, artist Susie Lee taught a geocaching class that revolved around exploring the city on assignments from artists (Steve Roden of L.A., James Coupe of Seattle, and Charles Labelle of New York all contributed assignments for the students), and using the city itself as an art medium. Stefan Gruber taught an animation class that still has a waiting list. This fall, Stranger Genius Award winner Wynne Greenwood was scheduled to teach a video class called “Video and the Self-Governed Self.” But that has been canceled.

Ott’s other main program was Friday at the Frye, which on the surface was simply an opening night for the exhibitions. But actually, it was an interdisciplinary event curated by Ott in conjunction with—again—artists from around the city. Through that program, Ott brought artists and organizations into the Frye for collaborations, including Book-It Repertory Theatre, Richard Hugo House, Slide Rule (independent animators), Kristen Rask (DIY crafter), food critic and restaurateur Donna Moodie, KEXP, On the Boards, Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey (a team of dance and visual artists), Arts Corp, 11th Hour Productions (slam poets). She was working on an upcoming collaboration with Stranger Genius winners Seattle School.

Her projects were technologically savvy, represented on YouTube and networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Her newest idea, which was to be implemented this fall, was to turn the museum into an interactive gaming site during the exhibition Empire.

What Ott did was not the bread-and-butter of the museum’s education department—it was what made the museum’s education department interesting and unique.

“She’s one of my two favorite arts educators in this country,” said San Antonio–based artist Robleto. “Education departments at museums really are the front line of arts education in this country, and what she was doing was amazing.”

In particular, he praised the way Ott’s programs connected teens with professional artists, and rewarded them with the life-changing experience of showing work in a public art venue as opposed to a school hallway.

“I got a lot out of those classes,” said Tacha Stolz. “I’m not kidding. I really, really learned a lot. It was the gateway for how I feel about the arts. It made me want to go to First Thursday [Artwalk] or want to go and see other exhibitions at other museums.”

That wasn’t all, though.

“Those classes changed my course,” Stolz said. “They inspired me to do what I’m doing today.”

Stolz just finished her first week at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She says she never would have gone into art if all she’d known was the high-school art classes she took at the International Community School in Kirkland and Lake Washington High School in Seattle.

“In high-school art, you draw a grid, you look at a picture, and you draw what you see,” Stolz said. “That’s not how you learn how to draw. You have to really learn to see and then learn how to create, and it’s all about process. At the Frye, you go through this class, but then they tell you that you can make whatever you want out of whatever medium, and they give you the tools you need. If you want to do something with tagging, they’ll go into depth about tagging. Talking with Dario Robleto about his artwork was a really good experience. It’s really, really meaningful to have those experiences.”

In her first week, Stolz already feels ahead of her fellow students: “Since I’ve been here going to these slide shows at school of artists our teachers are looking at, like, those slides come up and I know where that’s coming from: I’ve seen those exhibits, whereas most students don’t get to see that and they only know a couple pieces by the masters but they would never be able to recognize different periods, because everything is always so focused on iconic art rather than just art.”

Ott, who also curates Seattle University’s gallery at the Lee Center on Capitol Hill, spent six years curating critically acclaimed and popular shows at Bumbershoot before going to the Frye. Bumbershoot, also in a belt-tightening move, did not replace Ott’s position after she left.

“I kind of feel like I’m reliving a little bit of that heartbreak,” Ott said in a phone interview Thursday. “I guess I need to do some soul-searching. I’m going, ‘Huh, how much do I believe in the nonprofit arts sector? Is it time for a career change?’”

To develop SHFT at the Frye, Ott studied models for teen programs at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh.

“I wanted to look at what programs don’t exist for teens, and then build that program, putting at the heart of it not just the professional working artist like Susie and Gretchen and Susan [Robb, another Stranger Genius who taught a sound art class] and Dario, but actually creating a platform for teens and believing that these are the future artists, and that we really wanted to support and mentor critical thinking and introduce a conceptual framework to them,” Ott said. “In my mind, it was like, you [the Frye] have embraced being risky for so long, couldn’t you have believed a little longer?”

Ott’s program didn’t bring in the same numbers as the school-tours program, especially because the brand-new program was slow to fill up at first. But it could easily be argued that its impact on those students it did affect was great, and that those students couldn’t have received that kind of instruction anywhere else.

The Frye’s financial woes come from the economic downturn, which has meant fewer rentals on the Seattle warehouses the museum owns. Income from the warehouses makes up more than half of the museum’s budget, because the museum, unlike most, is not a not-for-profit corporation—it is a private foundation.

If the economy continues to adversely affect the rental market, the Frye may need to establish a fundraising program for the first time in its history. The Frye may need to ask for donations, like other museums.

“Stay tuned for that,” director Bowman said. “When we were slightly smaller, we could live on [this structure], but we’ve got a bigger vision now, and we can’t support it as our current funding structure is.”

That bigger vision is reliant on programs like Ott’s. If the museum is truly devoted to smart art education that places the museum among the best in the country, then it will move swiftly on fundraising—and take as its first project raising the money to reinstate Ott’s programs as a part of the core mission of what has become a museum identified with intelligent innovation.

Business as usual is not what we have come to expect from the Frye.

jgraves@thestranger.com