Cultural Shift: Rust Never Sleeps

By Mark Masuoka, Executive Director and CEO, Akron Art Museum

Knight Foundation recently awarded the Akron Art Museum $1 million to engage the public with a series of groundbreaking exhibitions. Here, Executive Director Mark Masuoka writes about the museum’s new efforts and approach to community building.

In a constantly shifting cultural landscape, art organizations can choose to adapt and potentially survive in current economic conditions, or forge ahead and develop innovative ideas that will drive our creative economy.  How can cultural institutions move beyond survival mode by redefining cultural habits and re-imagining art museums as the new civic commons?

In many ways, the Akron Art Museum is no different that any other mid-sized, mid-western, post-industrial, contemporary art museum in the country.   Nationally, art museums face similar challenges in developing and executing creative strategies to retain their dedicated members and supporters while reaching new audiences, including the next generation of culture seekers.

The Akron Art Museum is perfectly positioned to embrace our city, which is struggling to differentiate itself from other “rust belt” communities, and help it create a new identity. Cracking the culture code means seizing this moment to be the provocateur, to stir up latent feelings of cultural discontent and expose the hyper-indulgence that often accompanies complacency.

Can an art museum be the cultural change agent that navigates complex social systems to ignite social, cultural and economic change?

With a firm belief that apathy is the enemy of change, the Akron Art Museum has begun the process of awakening minds and engaging hearts by stimulating risk taking and presenting a new value proposition: we are not just seeking the rewards of being creative, but encouraging everyone in the city to LIVE CREATIVE.

This new direction reflects the museum’s efforts to engage new audiences and building stronger communities. We are transitioning from a traditionally closed social ecosystem to a progressively open environment that focuses on reaching a broader spectrum of users, makers and supporters.

The challenge that we face cannot be met with a single one-step solution. The old formula used by art museums no longer works. It’s not only about the art.  Art museums need to take into consideration the importance of engagement and the transformation that takes while lives are enriched. Culture seekers expect to be directly engaged and audiences want to understand how their investment in arts and culture will be valued, delivered and ultimately consumed.  The development of new exhibitions and programs are carefully linked to how the Akron Art Museum captures the imagination of the high frequency users and the culturally disengaged.

The path to success is a non-linear sequence of events that requires a sense of urgency, adventure and introspection.  Civic engagement becomes the conduit to which we both receive and deliver visual content and information resulting in community-inspired art projects and relevant public programs that bring people together in a meaning exchange of ideas and inspired enthusiasm.

Over the past year, we have begun the process of working directly with artists to create temporary interventions within the museum’s public spaces and beyond our front doors extending out into Downtown Akron.

In April 2014, Tony Feher installed three 54-inch tall red marine buoys from the cantilevers that reach out from the roof of the museum, as part of his 25-year survey exhibition featured more than 50 of the artist’s works.  His exhibition included a two-week residency at the museum, which incorporated the architecture of our Coop Himmelb(l)au designed Knight Building into the exhibition.   Buoy exemplifies Feher’s creative process by bringing attention to everyday objects and materials and presenting them in new and unpredictable ways.  In dangling the buoys upside down, Feher subverts their intended function and offers viewers an element of surprise, delight and curiosity. These qualities are enhanced by the attention the buoys bring to museum and by suspending the unfamiliar with the recognizable. .

With each and every exhibit, program and event, we have the opportunity to reach out to Akron, and  propose a new civic strategy that ensures the cultural health and wellness for our entire community.