Re-imagining University Arts Programs for Community Revitalization
AKRON: THE CITY, THE UNIVERSITY AND THE ARTS
As our region begins to reopen after the pandemic-forced shutdown and our downtown emerges transformed, the University of Akron will help lead a new era of art and culture for Akron and beyond.
UA’s AkronArts plan is a bold initiative to embrace and enhance arts on our campus and in Greater Akron to enrich, empower, and enliven our community. We will reassess and advance existing programs, facilities, and relationships and create new ones. We aspire to present Akron as a national model of creativity, expression, authenticity, diversity, and collaboration. We will use our campus and its human talent to develop and present myriad forms of artistic expression and ingenuity to make Akron an even more inspiring and empathetic place. We will open physical and philosophical boundaries, allowing our arts and cultural resources to flow into the community and inviting the community more fully into our campus. Akron and its university will Rise Together.
We believe this initiative will serve to increase enrollment, increase downtown visitorship, create commercial opportunities, and strengthen our relationships with important regional partner institutions. According to the recent Akron Cultural Plan, a collaborative effort to identify and guide the city’s cultural assets through 2035, “Arts and culture in the Akron MSA (metropolitan statistical area) is a $1.4 billion industry. Opportunities for growth in arts and culture in Akron can help financially support culture creators in the city and contribute to overall economic growth.” Our plan is directly aligned with that vision for growth.
We are confident this commitment will energize alumni in the same way the physical transformation of the campus did at the dawn of the 21st century. It will speak to parents of potential students as they evaluate the benefits of a regional university. And it will stimulate our student population as we invite them into a campus offering new opportunities for creative development, expression, and engagement. We are confident this enterprise will be attractive to the business community, with the promise of a downtown more attractive to young talent.
Akron and UA are uniquely positioned to capitalize on such a venture. The city, often described as a cross between big city and small town, has a robust legacy of innovation and collaboration made possible in part because of its manageable size and significant resources. It is, and always has been, a maker place. With a once-in-a-generation transformation of the city center, new leadership at the university, and a society ready to re-engage with arts and entertainment, this is the time to make a new statement about who we are, what we value, and how the rest of the world should see us. It is a time to offer new opportunities for our students to be enlightened and entertained, to learn the arts, to perform and present their creative work, and to feel they are part of a creative movement.
UA is using this opportunity to take a leadership role by addressing an important community need. As the Akron Cultural Plan states, “There is no ‘glue’ holding the arts together as a high-functioning center.” The University of Akron, with its diversity and scope and its central location, is uniquely capable of serving as this much needed unifier.
This initiative will adapt current facilities to new uses and ideas, including reimagining E.J. Thomas Hall and the Polsky Building and relocating the Myers School of Art. It will create new alignments of existing strengths in programs and people. It will offer exciting opportunities for faculty. It will highlight our nationally prominent creative arts faculty and alumni in recruiting efforts. It is intended to enhance the experience of all students while increasing enrollment in our arts majors.
Sometimes it takes a new way of looking for a community to see its strengths. AkronArts begins with an organic understanding of the city’s narrative – its history, its quirks, its pride, its personalities, its aesthetic, its challenges, and its solutions. It builds on existing resources with a vision for short- and long-term growth, revitalized relationships with other institutions, and new connections to be made.
Imagine a family in Northeast Ohio surveying the region’s options for the college experience. Imagine the appeal of a vibrant, reopened, culture-driven downtown. Then imagine the immediate association of the university aligned with that downtown. Imagine a freshman year with a foundation course in creativity, the promise of a significant cultural experience each year, and the opportunity to perform in or attend an event at a new venue in a downtown landmark, the Polsky Building. Imagine a university celebrating its new downtown landscape with color and form, music and poetry.
Our assets and models for growth
AkronArts will build on a robust foundation of facilities, programs, and recent achievements unique to our campus, bringing them to higher prominence and combining their resources in new ways. Many of our existing assets offer us models that can apply to new opportunities.
E.J. Thomas Hall: One of UA’s calling cards, E.J. Thomas draws patrons from the region for its programming of nationally touring Broadway shows, concerts, and other events. E.J. Thomas is home to the Akron Symphony Orchestra, Tuesday Musical Association, Children’s Concert Society and Akron Youth Symphony and a signature piece of campus architecture.
Arts Administration Program: The Arts Administration program has continued to thrive and produce graduates who hold notable positions with organizations such as The Cleveland Orchestra, Tuesday Musical Association, and many others in Northeast Ohio and beyond. With minimal investment, we believe the Arts Administration program can grow significantly and serve as the catalyst for interdisciplinary efforts within the university and collaboration between UA and the community. New courses in creativity and entrepreneurship can be developed that will interest students in all majors and new curricular pathways for undergraduate certificates, minors, or degrees can also drive enrollment increases.
Myers School of Art Visiting Artist/Designer Residency and Lecture Series: Launched in 1998 thanks to a generous gift from Mary Schiller Myers, the series brings nationally and internationally recognized artists and scholars to campus for residencies from a few days to several weeks, in which guests work closely with students and present public talks and exhibitions for the broader community. More than 50 artists have participated including Liza Lou, Bruno Monguzzi, Marius Watz, Julie Schenkelberg, Bill Viola and Philip Beesley.
Kulas Concert Series: Over the last two decades, Cleveland’s Kulas Foundation has donated more than $400,000 to the UA School of Music to bring world-class musical artists to campus to concertize and interact with our students. The Kulas Concert Series presents multiple events each term designed to enhance UA student and community music prowess.
NEOMFA Program in Creative Writing: A groundbreaking model of collaboration between UA, Cleveland State University, Kent State University, and Youngstown State University, the NEOMFA is the only consortium of its kind in the country. Students have access to faculty and resources at all four campuses, earning a terminal degree in creative writing. The program brings in nationally prominent writers for readings, student workshops, and craft lectures. Visiting writers have included Roxane Gay, George Saunders, and Miranda July. Students attend national conferences and literary festivals. This consortial model’s efficient use of state-university resources could be adapted to other disciplines.
NCCAkron: NCCAkron is celebrating its fifth anniversary in 2020-21. One of only two national choreography centers in the country and as a separate nonprofit organization working in donated space on UA’s campus, NCCAkron hosts 100 professional choreographers and dancers each year to do creative research and development, providing no fewer than 20 opportunities for students and the surrounding community to engage with dance and the creative process.
The University of Akron Press and Akron Poetry Prize: Housed in the historic Quaker Square complex, the UA Press publishes books on an array of topics, most of regional interest, with series devoted to poetry, dance, psychology, and Ohio history, culture, and politics. The nationally prominent Akron Poetry Prize draws hundreds of entries each year. Leslie Harrison’s The Book of Endings, a UA Press-published poetry collection, was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award.
Art Bomb Brigade: This local community mural arts and education program brings UA’s presence brightly into Akron’s neighborhoods. Mural bombs are executed by a highly successful design team of UA students and alumni experienced in working with community partners to create large-scale imagery that reflects, connects with, and enhances the physical landscapes and built environments around Akron. Murals create a lasting impression of growth, possibility, imagination, and local pride.
Akron Roundtable: UA hosts this highly regarded, regionally broadcast lecture series at Quaker Station, bringing speakers -- many in the arts -- from the region and beyond. We will look for more opportunities to host civic arts and cultural events on campus.
Synapse: This Art+Science series extends the Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center goals of developing community around interdisciplinary learning and research. Synapse probes ideas, images. and mutual interests connecting art and science professionals and disciplines. Open to the campus community and the public, Synapse events take the form of residencies, internships, collaborative projects, lectures, workshops, panel discussions and exhibitions. Synapse and Art Bomb Brigade are examples of successful models both in funding and faculty management.
The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology: The Cummings Center, a member of the Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program, is a unique resource that cares for, provides access to, and interprets the historical record of psychology and related human sciences. The CCHP includes a museum of psychology, featuring artifacts, documents, films, and photographs from the history of the human sciences, and serves as the home of the Archives of the History of American Psychology and the Institute for Human Science and Culture. It draws scholars and visitors from around the world. Housed in a renovated historic building, the Center is named for Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings, who have donated generously to its mission.
College of Engineering and Polymer Science Chihuly Sculpture: One of Akron’s most distinctive works of public art, the Dale Chihuly creation at the east end of the campus commons represents the convergence of science and art. The blue spire is made of a polyurethane developed and tested by the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. It was financed entirely by private contributions.
Our arts ambassadors
AkronArts will highlight the artistic successes of our students and graduates, who will always be our best recruiting resource. These are our ambassadors and models for future successes. They include:
Matthew Cherry: Matthew, who left campus in 2004 as the all-time leading receiver in Zips football history, flirted with an NFL career before putting his studies in mass media to work. His success in the television and film industry reached the ultimate summit in 2020, when he won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for Hair Love, which he wrote, directed, and co-produced.
Yvette Nicole Brown: A UA alumna, Brown is an Emmy nominated actress from East Cleveland, Ohio. After graduation she packed her bags and followed her dreams to Los Angeles. Well-known for her role as Shirley Bennett on NBC’s comedy series “Community” and as Helen in the hit series “Drake & Josh,” her career includes numerous television and film credits.
Noor Hindi: A 2020 graduate of the NEOMFA program in creative writing, Noor was praised in a December 2020 New York Times feature by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who flatly declared, “Someone give Noor Hindi a book contract.” Someone did – she has signed with the prestigious Haymarket Books, which will publish her debut in 2023.
Theron Brown: With a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies and graduate work in classical piano from UA, Theron has played with ensembles around the world. He gained national renown when he was cast as Herbie Hancock in the 2016 Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead. Theron has contributed in many ways to Akron’s cultural enrichment, most notably as co-founder and director of the Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival.
The Brothers Mueller: This “collaborative duo” set of twins graduated from the Myers School of Art’s graphic design program in 2008. After becoming principals at Studio Mercury, a New York-based design studio, they were invited into a small, hand-picked creative team at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to assemble its first iPad publication, “Boundless Beauty.” Since launch, the project has garnered international press, including Time’s “Top 10 Everything.” The brothers now work for Apple in Cupertino, California.
KleinReid: This studio, a pioneer in ceramic design and maker movements, was founded in Brooklyn in 1993 by James Klein and David Reid, both graduates from the Myers School of Art. KleinReid’s pieces have been extensively shown in gallery and museum exhibitions, and in retail design stores and boutiques worldwide. James and David have designed collections for prestigious firms including Herman Miller, Dansk and Room&Board and have been profiled in national and international periodicals.
Rhea Butcher: Butcher, a social media influencer whose Akron pride is always in evidence, is a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer, and podcast host. A graduate of the Myers School of Art in 2005, majoring in printmaking, Butcher is now best known for personal, observational comedy focused on their vegetarianism, feminism, love of baseball, and experiences as a butch lesbian. Butcher now resides in Los Angeles.
Woodrow Nash: A UA alumnus, Nash began his career in New York City, working in an array of creative pursuits that ranged from jazz album covers to commissioned paintings to fashion art. He has created more than 40 life-sized sculptures of slave children for the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana. In 2019, the artist, now living back in Akron, created busts of John Brown and four Black men who joined his raid on Harper’s Ferry for the John Brown Home in Akron.
The AkronArts plan
Collaborate for the community’s greater good: We will engage with our arts partners in the community, offering our vast cultural resources for the greater good of the region. For the past several years, UA has, necessarily, had to focus on getting its own financial and leadership house in order. Now we intend to focus on our partnership and leadership roles with the City of Akron, Summit County, Akron Cultural Plan, ArtsNow, Akron Civic Commons, Downtown Akron Partnership and others. We will seek new ways to associate with and participate in such events as the Lock 3 Concert Series, Akron Artwalk, the Akron Art Museum’s Downtown at Dusk concert series, the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, PorchRokr, the Rubber City Jazz Festival, the Akron-Summit County Library’s Main Event Author Series, and others. These activities and associations will add to UA’s positive image and enhance our student recruiting efforts.
Announce our commitment: UA will join with the City of Akron for an event at Lock 3 on September 9, 2021, a symbolic reopening of downtown that will also represent our new vision of partnership with the city. Adding our resources to the vitality of the central city will help bring visitors, attract tenants to new residential spaces, and spur economic activity.
The Polsky renaissance: Showcasing the Polsky Building as our portal into downtown, we will reimagine this iconic Akron treasure as Polsky Arts, with a 15,000-square-foot space featuring stages for music, theater, dance, literary, and other performances; an art gallery; the Made at Myers boutique; a café; and shared public spaces. With three pull-down doors, Polsky Arts will open directly onto Main Street, welcoming the public onto our campus in an exciting new way. The performance space will be programmed and operated by students in our Arts Administration program. Additionally, the Polsky parking deck will be adapted for open-air art and cultural events, enhanced with mural paintings and other installations.
In direct proximity to the Akron Civic Theatre, Lock 3 Park, Cascade Plaza, and the Akron-Summit County Public Library – designated by the Akron Civic Commons as the “Civic Gateway” – Polsky allows us to open the western edge of campus directly into the heart of the city’s cultural life, and to invite the city to enter the university through this portal.
Our intent is to contribute substantially to the Akron Cultural Plan’s call to “celebrate and market Downtown Akron as a premier arts and culture district for local and national tourism and bolster the collective ownership of downtown and its cultural amenities for all Akron residents.”
New home for the Myers School of Art: While the Polsky Arts is a wonderful additive space to connect UA with the community, discussions are ongoing between leadership at the Myers School of Art and UA administration, capital planning, and advancement to relocate the school. A new or renovated facility will include area-specific studios, labs with cutting-edge technology, lecture rooms, and significant gallery and exhibition spaces, all being critical to the creative academic experience. An impressive facility allows the Myers School of Art to be competitive with other area art and design schools, attract additional students, and enhance their existing strengths.
Mid-size performance hall: Opportunities also exist for a mid-size performance hall that could be used by the School of Music; School of Dance, Theatre, and Arts Administration; and community partners.
New student opportunities: The AkronArts initiative will guarantee every student a significant arts/cultural experience every year as we bring nationally prominent performers and speakers to campus with a focus on student engagement.
New freshmen will be offered a general-studies course focused on creativity and entrepreneurship.
Students and the community will be invited to an annual arts festival in the renovated Polsky Arts and the adjacent parking deck, celebrating student awards and successes and featuring exhibitions and performances by students and faculty from across the creative disciplines.
Empower faculty as curators and creators: UA will foster an “arts ecosystem” culture on campus, inviting faculty from all disciplines to collaborate in new ways. One model to build on is a Summer 2021 Honors colloquium, “Unlocking Your Creativity,” taught by Myers School of Art professor David Flynn. This class will include sessions led by creatives from campus and the community, focused variously on creative writing, painting, acting, salsa dancing, entrepreneurship, spoken-word performance, and videography.
Faculty will be invited to participate in annual interdisciplinary, student-led projects focused on city and university collaboration. The John Brown House, for example, could be a focus as it undergoes restoration. All disciplines would be encouraged to offer classes and other opportunities to contribute to the restoration project.
Creative arts faculty will be featured in recruiting campaigns and materials.
New leadership position: The university will hire a Special Assistant for Arts & Cultural Affairs. This leader will energize, direct, and grow the AkronArts initiative, organizing and deploying university resources and representing the university in community, regional and national initiatives to connect the UA arts with the commonwealth good. The Special Assistant will manage the E. J. Thomas Performance Hall and collaborate with other venues in the city, such as the Civic Theatre in downtown Akron. The Special Assistant will work closely with the Vice President for Research and Business Engagement to develop arts-focused intersections with business and government for the purpose of talent development, economic growth and entrepreneurship.
Akron Poet Laureate: Inspired by former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s reading at the 2021 presidential inauguration, we will create a laureate post to be awarded annually to a UA student. The Akron Poet Laureate will serve as a literary ambassador, visiting schools and libraries, and reading a poem at the opening of civic gatherings such as Akron Roundtable events, State of the City speeches, Akron RubberDucks Opening Day, and others.
Expand the Arts Administration program: The M.A. in Arts Administration prepares students for successful careers as administrators, advocates, and leaders in all disciplines of the arts. The program has always been committed to balancing theoretical study in the classroom with application through practical experiences and internships. This program is uniquely aligned with the AkronArts mission to connect our campus arts activities with the community. We intend for arts administration students to operate Polsky Arts, for example, and envision building even stronger bonds with community arts organizations and the business community through internships and other outreach opportunities. We aim to reinvigorate this important program. We also aim to revise its curriculum to incorporate all the arts, and to develop undergraduate degrees, minors, and certificates with an eye toward arts entrepreneurship.
Arts capital campaign: The Department of Development will pursue opportunities with existing and new donors and other funding sources to support these outward-thinking efforts.
In 2020, President Miller launched the $150 million We Rise Together Campaign for the University. Three main focal points of the campaign, each with a $50 million goal, are 1.) Lift our People - support for scholarships, retention support, ZipAssist and book scholarships; 2.) Elevate this Place - endowment building for faculty support and leadership, research and equipment, instruction beyond the classroom, and visiting professors and lecturers; and 3.) Live up to our Promises, focusing on student innovation and entrepreneurship, high-demand trans-disciplinary programs, support for STEM undergraduate programs, support for performing, visual and cultural arts, emergency housing support, excellence in athletics and campus environment enhancement.
The We Rise Together campaign includes the launch of the Arts Advancement Council, which will provide an external framework of supporters of the AkronArts initiative, coinciding with a new era of leadership under incoming dean Dr. Mitchell McKinney.
The Arts Advancement Council will bring together local, regional, and national leaders and patrons of the visual, performing, and cultural arts to support the AkronArts initiative; advocate on behalf of UA and its students; strengthen and grow collaborations with the City of Akron; promote its academic programs in the arts; and generate philanthropic resources to support UA arts. Individual and corporate members will be asked to contribute a minimum of $5,000 annual gift to a UA arts program or arts fund. The Arts Advancement Council intends to continue its support of AkronArts beyond completion of the We Rise Together campaign.
Our renaissance begins
Akron’s narrative is a long unspooling of invention and reinvention. The city and its university have known hard times and have always leaned on creativity in all its forms to meet and overcome our challenges. As we begin to reemerge from the long, dark hibernation of the pandemic, UA is eager to embrace its relationships across Akron, to lead, support, share, and elevate art as a celebration of life.
Submitted May 17, 2021 to President Gary Miller by the AkronArts Committee on Re-imagining University Arts Programs for Community Revitalization
Joe Urgo, Chair
Georgia Nix Miller