With nearly 100 years and internationally-recognized exhibitions under its belt, the Akron Art Museum is doing anything but resting on its laurels. A new $750,000 grant from Knight Foundation announced today is helping the museum to look forward – to rethink both the museum and its role in the community.
The infusion will help the museum not only originate new exhibitions, new Director Mark Masuoka says, but also develop a new model for engaging residents in its programming.
If Masuoka has his way, the funding will “literally change the way the museum thinks and feels and operates.”
“For it to be successful, it’s going to change who are.”
We talked with Masuoka about his plans for the Akron Art Museum’s future.
What excites you most about what you’ll be able to do with this new funding?
M.M: The exciting part is it gives us a chance to rethink the way the Akron Art Museum, as well as museums in general, interact with the public. It’s an engagement piece, but it’s a bigger story than ‘what do people do when they walk into the museum.’ The funding is going to allow us to think about what it means for people to interact with it – whether it’s inside the museum or outside its walls. What are people’s perceptions about who we are, and what we do? There is a huge opportunity to think about and plan ahead to what we want the Akron Art Museum to be. I know that sounds crazy because we have this fantastic building and this amazing history of programming, but it’s kind of exciting for an organization that is 91-years-old to be reinventing itself. That’s what the grant gives us the opportunity to do.
What do you mean by patrons interacting with the museum outside its walls?
M.M: When I met with the board, one of the things they were excited about was the opportunity to look at what the possibilities were to be more connected to the community. One of the things I’d love to start planning is ways to start working in partnership with other groups to create public works. I think they can be either public art projects or community engagement projects, as a way to show how the museum can function to make people’s lives better. That’s a lofty goal…That’s something we’re going to explore at the museum: What does that mean when an art museum can take on or expand its role to not just be a presenter but an engager? I’d love to do a community-wide project that involves other nonprofits and arts organizations, human service organizations, just this broad range of other institutions and organizations, so that people can actually see what it means when you take an extremely creative idea and bring it to the community and sort of physically see how it transforms the city.
The museum has originated internationally recognized programming such as Detroit Disassembled and the El Anatsui show. How will you continue that legacy with these funds, and what’s on deck that you’re excited about?
M.M: I think the next couple of shows really demonstrate this change we’re talking about. The next show is an artist from New York, Tony Feher. We talked early on with the curatorial team about this concept, of what it means when the role of the museum is to interact with artists from the conception of an idea…to think about, how soon can we get in front of a project, if not initiate the project with artists to create exhibitions. He is considering doing a piece in our lobby as an installation and he’s sourcing a lot of the materials – he works with a lot with found objects – in Akron thrift stores and flea markets to use in his installations. It’s a very exciting project, and one of the first times we’re going to try to activate our lobby a bit more, and see what it looks like to use it purposefully as an extension of our exhibition space rather than a gathering social space.
The museum has been experimenting with ways to consult the community on programming around its exhibitions. How has that worked, and how are you building on that?
M.M. We use it frequently in our education department. We bring a focus group together to inform us about how people are creating and thinking and how they want to engage in the exhibition. A recent example is the current Real/Surreal exhibition funded by this gift. Participants wanted to know how this art related to the tumultuous times they were created in, so a timeline of the 1920s, 30s and 40s was added to the gallery. It gives us a great perspective on how we can create interactive pieces and interpretations intertwined into arts education. We’re going to take that concept and take it a step further. For example, there’s the engagement piece I just talked about, where we’ll have a consistent and ongoing forum for the community to come into the museum to talk to us about what we’re doing, and what they’d like us to be…to be more of a community hub where people can come in and have an opinion about what the programming of the museum is. If anything, we just want to have a wonderful conversation with the community we serve.
I don’t see any other way to do it… For us to sit back and say here’s a show, here’s an education program without seeking feedback…It would seem crazy to me to make that presumption that that’s the best we can do.
Museums have tendency not to be so communicative, to hold the art world at arms length. That’s why a lot of museums are in trouble right now. People don’t see the relevancy. They aren’t being asked to be involved. If you’re going to ask for support and continually try to go back to the community and demonstrate what the museum is about, I don’t see how you can do it without engaging them first in the conversation