‘State of the Arts’ celebrates successes, looks toward future for Summit arts and culture

Listen to the full State of the Arts address on Soundcloud

Kerry Clawson Akron Beacon Journal

A lot has happened since Akron’s first cultural plan was launched in 2019 — namely a worldwide pandemic.

Before the pandemic, the arts and culture sector generated more than $1.4 billion in economic activity in the Akron area, Nicole Mullet, executive director for ArtsNow, said in her “State of the Arts” talk Thursday at the Akron Roundtable. The sector employed more than 17,000 people and generated more than $768 million in wages and income in the Akron Metropolitan Statistical Area.

But when the pandemic hit in 2020, more than one-third of creative jobs were lost in Ohio that year, the arts leader said.

“The pandemic devastated our arts and culture sector,” Mullet said at the event at Quaker Station at the University of Akron. “Revenues declined precipitously as a result of mandatory closures. Our arts and culture organizations and artists, who were already managing a financially fragile situation, were particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis and the disruption of business.”

In her speech, Mullet talked about the formation of ArtsNow in 2015 as the “backbone organization for arts, culture and environment” in Summit County. The nonprofit, which works to build and strengthen Summit County’s arts and culture scene, is one of more than 6,000 arts and culture agencies across the country.

“We operate on the knowledge that a thriving, equitable and fully leveraged arts and culture sector will strengthen the region’s economic and social vibrancy,” she said.

Mullet spoke of the 2012 Arts and Culture Landscape Study, funded by the GAR and Knight foundations, that led to the creation of ArtsNow. The final report revealed then that Summit County had many arts and culture to build upon “but many assets are in jeopardy, with waning relevance to audiences and eroding financial stability,” Mullet said.

Among its other findings, the 2012 study reported that a vibrant arts and culture scene was key to business talent attraction and retention, yet businesses felt disconnected from the arts. Additionally, it found, many consumers wanted different kinds of arts experiences that were more relevant to their lives.

Since that report, arts and cultural nonprofits began to meet regularly and collaborate on accessibility and providing welcoming environments for all, Mullet said. New, small theater companies such as Gum-Dip Theatre have emerged and Akron Public Schools created college and career academies that included a focus on the business of the arts and culture sector.

Such collaborative arts and cultural efforts led to the 2019 Akron Cultural Plan, a 15-year plan funded by GAR and the Knight Foundation with the goal of furthering cultural diversity and increasing opportunities for all Akron residents to create and experience arts and culture. The cultural planning process has inspired work on arts and cultural engagement throughout the county, Mullet said.

She pointed to a number of recent, key successes, including the new Akron Black Artist Guild, which launched in February to help connect Black artists to each other and to resources in the community.

“It has not even been one year and they are a known entity and they are making an impact and they are bringing the community along with them,” said Mullet, including opening its first exhibition, “Outlined in Black,” in October and hosting acclaimed installation artist Theaster Gates as a speaker in April.

Other successes include:

• Cuyahoga Falls’ $50,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the first such grant in Summit County, which will bring public art to downtown Cuyahoga Falls through a community-driven process.

• The transformative effect that the Akron Civic Theatre restoration and Knight Stage addition has had on the Bowery project in downtown Akron.

• The University of Akron’s ArtsAkron plan, announced by President Gary Miller last spring to invest in and leverage UA arts programs to benefit downtown and the community at large.

• Miller’s appointment last month of Howard Parr, executive director of the Civic, as special adviser for arts and culture to the UA president.

Looking ahead, as arts and cultural organizations work to stay afloat, reopen safely and continue to engage with young people and serve the community,  Mullet said the local arts and culture sector is focusing on four key areas, in keeping with the Cultural Plan and ArtsAkron:

• Supporting the creative workforce to ensure the success of the sector in the region.

• Increasing access to arts and culture opportunities for young people.

• Ensuring that conversations around talent attraction and retention include arts and culture.

• Exploring long-term sustainable support for arts and culture.

During the question-and-answer portion after Mullet’s address, an attendee asked what people at the Akron RoundTable event can do to support and elevate Summit County’s arts and culture sector.

“One of the things obviously that you can do is to make sure that as you’re able to safely get out and about again, that you’re going out to performances, that you’re buying local art and that you’re paying attention to the things that are happening in Summit County and around the arts,” she said. “There’s also opportunities to give your time and talent. You don’t have to be in the arts to serve on an arts and culture board.”

To hear Mullet’s full Akron RoundTable talk, listen at 8 p.m. Dec. 16 on WKSU (89.7-FM).

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

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