#CreativeSummit: the Art and Culture of Placemaking (Artist-in-Residence Series)

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein (Physicist)

This month SummitLive365.com, a service of ArtsNow, celebrated its first birthday. While the site boasts some impressive stats– over 600 active users, over 200 organization profiles, over 150 venue profiles (to name a few)– I’m more impressed with the subjective progress the organization has made during the last year. It will remain subjective and unmeasurable until they conduct another far-reaching Arts and Culture Assessment. I also think it’s a challenge to measure the impact of the website without putting it in context of all the (mostly unseen) work ArtsNow is doing in our community and the wide-ranging creative placemaking efforts happening throughout Summit County.

Now is probably an appropriate time to admit: I am a millennial and an artist and I work for ArtsNow on a part-time basis.

As America continues its march toward becoming a post-industrial nation, more and more communities across the country are embracing the innovative talents of creative thinkers, i.e. artists. The shift is already underway: L.A., New York, Chicago and Silicon Valley are no longer the sole refuges for creative entrepreneurs. In fact, some arts organizations are actually moving out of the aforementioned places because they are being “priced out.” Cities like Akron and Barberton offer almost limitless resources– affordable rent, unused heaps of raw material, generous neighbors, a rich history, time and space. All the necessary components to create great art. The internet allows for the unprecedented democratization of our work. We no longer have to be directly in front of an individual to promote ourselves when information is easily shared with somebody halfway around the world in the time it takes to click “send.”

For example, my theatre company, Wandering Aesthetics, was involved with a initiative called “The Joy of Voting.” This project was led by Citizen University in Seattle and took place in five cities across the country. One component of our project was a poem written by a group of Mexican migrant workers/ESL students in another part of Ohio. The internet allowed us to connect with this group and share their words. Eric Liu, Executive Director of Citizen University, shared the poem via a TED Talk which has been seen– across the internet– over 500,000 times. Somebody who works for an advocacy group in Washington DC saw this TED Talk and emailed WA asking to use the poem in a PSA about the importance of voting in this upcoming election. This all took place in the matter of 2 – 3 months.

“Artists see potential in things where others do not. I think artists in many ways are the original entrepreneurs.” – Brian Chesky (Founder, Airbnb)

Even with all the available resources, there’s still one major thing millennial artists look for when choosing a place to call home: potential. Primarily, the potential for access to those resources and the potential to utilize their talents in a meaningful way. Kyle, my partner, and I chose to stay in Akron not because its the best place to make an arts career, but because we saw the potential inherent in this city. Potential, unintentionally or because of resistance to change, is usually stifled by those who hold the keys.

This can be aggravating to a millennial; we, as the human race, are learning to move just as quickly as the internet.

But there’s hope! Summit County is embracing the fact that the “gears of community” can no longer “grind slowly.” As banal as it may sound, both ArtsNow’s Executive Director Nicole Mullet and the organization’s board are teaching leaders across our community (most of whom are Baby Boomers and Gen Xers whose favorite phrases seem to be “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “There’s no way we could do that,” or “Who do you think you are?”) to be comfortable with the uncertainty and ambiguity that we artists welcome in our work. The lessons they are sharing come straight from Improv 101: don’t begin a venture with preconceived results in mind, say “Yes, and” to build off your partner’s suggestions, in order to look good– make your partner look good and fully (in no uncertain terms) commit to what you’re doing!

I understand why these are intimidating propositions. It took me years of arts training to let go of the need to have a complete road map before embarking on a journey. However, when you work like this, you’re able to pirouette when everyone is still just beginning to zig. This is the kind of creative thinking that happens when you mix arts-based solutions into other sectors. It’s about taking all the pieces you’re given and reassembling them in a new way. Which creates the kind of place on the forefront of innovation (I.e. the kind of places where millennials, in our vast array of choices, want to be.)

Our community is getting hip to that. All you have to do is check out Barberton Fourth Friday or the Better Block events in Copley/North Hill/Cuyahoga Falls/Middlebury or Akron’s Reimagining the Civic Commons project. The silos are starting to come down, resulting in numerous multi-sector collaborations – both large and small. What’s more, ArtsNow is not the only organization driving this change. Collide: Cuyahoga Falls, GAR Foundation, Knight Foundation, Downtown Akron Partnership, Akron Community Foundation, “Who Cares?”, the Akron-Summit Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, The WOMB and Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance (among many, many, many other community groups) are making major impacts on this kind of thinking across the county.

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” – John F. Kennedy (Former President of the United States)

SummitLive365 is an important piece of this puzzle. The website helps illustrate the true breadth of our sector. At any given time, there are around 1,000 events posted on the site. On a typical day, you can find usually 20 awesome things to do. (On a side note, this is wreaking havoc on my social life!) As the number of artists, organizations and venue profiles grow, people can no longer dismiss “the arts” as peripheral to our county’s future. As JFK mentioned in the same speech quoted above, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” He believed that art nourishes the culture of a place. And not in some tangential way; Art nourishes the roots– the foundation– of our culture.

Maybe I’m biased but, in one year, Nicole has done a fantastic job shifting people’s perspectives about our arts and culture community in unprecedented ways. Artists are being asked to “the table” at more meetings and events where, once upon a time, only “professionals” were invited to contribute. Because of our unique perspective, this foot-in-the-door allows the opportunity for profoundly different conversations and, eventually, decisions regarding the long-term health of our cities.

Finally, and I’m speaking as an artist and not necessarily for ArtsNow, the most gratifying change I’ve seen is: PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO UNDERSTAND THAT ARTISTS NEED TO BE PAID FOR THEIR WORK. Instead of hearing “It’ll be great exposure!” or “They should feel privileged; they get to have their work displayed!” you’re much more likely to hear a simple: “We don’t have room in our budget to hire an artist, so we won’t have one.” Which, on the surface, doesn’t necessarily sound fantastic, but feels seismic. It means that people are starting not to question the necessity of compensating us for our work. As ArtsNow/SummitLive365 continue to gather momentum, people are starting to include this as part of their budget planning.

It’s critical to mention that we’re still only at the beginning of this process. Though this is a time of rapid change and opportunity in Akron, cultural shifts do not happen over night. I know, fellow millennials, that you “want it now, daddy!” …so do I. (Our impatience, far and away, could be our biggest downfall.) Yet, before we go on that collaborative journey, we must be willing to meet people where they are, hopefully learning from each other along the way; it’s only together that we will find creative solutions to move the cities– that we all love– forward in extraordinary ways.

This is one of the important things about ArtsNow. The organization isn’t just interested in making fleeting, cosmetic changes to Summit County’s cultural landscape. ArtsNow is playing the long game– as unglamorous as that might appear. We’re a very small team of people who are rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty in an effort to cultivate a lasting and sustainable ecosystem for the arts to thrive.

Which, as any of you gardeners know, begins with wading through a mountain of manure. But I know of no better sherpa than Nicole to help us reach the #CreativeSummit.