Featured Image: Grace Carter

Credit: CAN Journal

Summit ArtsNow State of the Arts reception in the lobby at the Akron Civic Theater. Photo credit: Tim Fitzwater.

One year ago, ArtsNow, the backbone arts organization of Summit County, convened arts professionals and communitarians at the Akron Roundtable to report on 2021’s highs—and lows. 2021 was a year most nonprofit arts organizations spent clawing to bounce back from pandemic-induced shutdowns and budget cuts. Despite these challenges, the arts and culture sector kept pressing forward. “In a time of furloughs, limited staff, and increased need for resources to sanitize and keep spaces safe, we saw the same creativity that makes us so valuable in the good times show up in big ways during the hard times,” noted Nicole Mullet, Executive Director of ArtsNow.

Musician and ArtsNow board member Flocco Torres welcomes the crowd. Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

One year later, Floco Torres, a local Hip-Hop musician and ArtsNow board member, welcomed over 200 attendees to the annual State of the Arts from the stage of the Akron Civic Theatre. An hour-long presentation by Nicole Mullet recognized the relentless efforts of Summit County’s best and brightest artists, administrators, and advocates to advance the Akron Cultural Plan.

Let’s talk about the Akron Cultural Plan.

According to the Akron Cultural Plan’s website, “[the] cultural plan is a living document intended to examine and strengthen the soul of a community through the exploration of arts, humanities, culture, natural resources, and heritage throughout all neighborhoods of Akron.” Developed beginning in 2019, the plan is the roadmap guiding residents, organizations, and businesses to a city where arts and culture are crucial to wellbeing and economic success.

“The Akron/Summit Cultural Plan was developed by, with, and for the community. It is owned by the community. And it is driven by neighborhoods, institutions of faith, arts and culture nonprofits, artists and creative businesses, partners representing sectors such as healthcare, education, social services, aging communities, people of all abilities, and economic development. It is a plan where the process was as important and the product,” said Mullet during the presentation.

Cultural equity is a core thread woven into the fabric of the plan. In fact, 97% of those who were interviewed or engaged with during the creation of the plan mentioned the importance of true equity as a part of Akron’s future.

This year, the sector showed up. Numerous projects pushed the Akron Cultural Plan forward, prioritizing equity and accessibility at the center of everything. Now for the roundup of this year’s highlights:

The inaugural Summit Artsnow awards were presented to Theresa Carter (left) and Gregg Mervis. Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

At this year’s State of the Arts event, ArtsNow honored two advocates and champions for arts and culture in Summit County. The inaugural awards were presented to Theresa Carter, President of Synthomer Foundation and longtime arts supporter and patron, and Gregg Mervis, President & CEO of the Akron/Summit Convention & Visitors Bureau and founding board chair of ArtsNow. Carter was awarded the ArtsNow Distinguished Patron Award, and Mervis, the ArtsNow Visionary Leader Award.

This fall, the Knight Foundation announced an investment of $300,000 over three years in the Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival. The festival has grown each year and has an impact on over 300 young people annually through collaboration with Open Tone Music. It is an economic driver and brings both residents and visitors to downtown Akron to listen to music, learn about the history of jazz in the community, eat dinner in restaurants, and spend money in retail shops. This year, the festival opened conversations about the Akron Innerbelt, a highway that displaced hundreds of people from a predominantly Black neighborhood in the 1970s. The Innerbelt is no longer in use today but serves as a painful reminder of racial injustice.

Over 60% of tickets sold by the Akron Civic Theatre are purchased by residents outside of Summit County annually, bringing new economic activity to the area. The Civic’s programming serves a diverse age range, with the Millennial Theatre Project bridging the gap between youth and adult theatre, and Boom! targeted toward older adults.

It is worth noting that by 2025, for the first time in its history, Summit County will have more people over the age of 55 than under the age of 18. Matt Reed and Lori Smith of Direction Home started Aging is an Artform during the pandemic to positively impact mobility and engagement and combat isolation. Colleen Kelly and the County of Summit of have been advancing a countywide plan for Age-Friendly that highlights the power and necessity of the creative aging movement.

The City of Cuyahoga Falls was awarded a $50,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to commission and install two custom public art installations on Front Street. Internationally renowned artists Stacy Levy and Peter B. Jones created works of art that incorporate the City of Cuyahoga Falls’ history and connection to the river.

Summit Artspace and the Summit Developmental Disabilities Board began a new partnership to showcase artwork by artists of all abilities. Additionally, Summit Artspace’s galleries exhibited 795 artworks through 56 in-person and virtual exhibitions.

Artists, administrative leadership, movements, and boards had hard conversations and identified opportunities to advance equity and inclusion in Summit County. A few to recognize include the Akron Black Artist Guild; the Summit County DEIA Advisory Board for Arts and Culture, led by Dr. Sheldon Wrice; and “Say it Loud” led by Francine Parr and Ivy Johnson, a community-centered original production of the Millennial Theatre Project created to give voice to people’s lived experiences.

Meryl Engler and Lizzi Aronhalt were among seven artists granted support for the advancement of their careers. Photo by Tim Fitzwater.

In November, with support and partnership from the Ian Patrick Schwarber Foundation, over $15,000 was distributed to seven artists to support their career advancement and further develop their craft. These seven artists include Lizzi Aronhalt, Katie Beck, Meryl Engler, Josy Jones, Micah Kraus, Dominic Moore-Dunson, and Stephanie Stewart. A second round of creative investment grants are already set to be awarded in 2023.

In September, the Knight Foundation announced that it would make a $1 million investment in advancing the cultural plan. In 2023, ArtsNow will be launching year one of a four-year cycle where the organization will fund work that advances the priorities of the cultural plan.

A lot of work has been done, and there is plenty of work to do. One thing is for certain: Summit County’s robust and resilient arts and culture sector is one that consistently over-delivers.