by Rosalie Murphy

On Thursday, ArtsNow announced that they are seeking input from hundreds of residents in developing Akron’s first-ever “cultural plan.”

ArtsNow and Columbus-based consulting firm Designing Local say cultural plans are similar to economic development plans or urban design plans. They include assessments of what assets a city already has — park space, public art, theater companies, locally owned restaurants, and more — as well as the challenges it faces, such as citizens struggling to find information or artists struggling to make a living.

Then, planners collect visions for what the city should look like — both from the people who produce art and culture as well as the people who consume it.

In Akron, ArtsNow executive director Nicole Mullet says the plan creators have interviewed 175 people so far about the way they interact with the environment, art, local history and cultural experiences. Now, they’re seeking input online and at meetings from as many Akronites as possible. (Learn more at AkronCulturalPlan.com.)

Deniela Williams, pastor at New Millennium Baptist Church, said the planning process thus far has helped her see her church’s choir and liturgical dance team as artists. She envisions an “equitable, world-class cultural environment” for Akron, where the arts support diversity and economic development and are accessible for all residents.

“It’s been amazing, the diversity of priorities,” ArtsNow executive director Nicole Mullet says. But two things have risen to the top: A desire for greater equity among Akron’s neighborhoods, and the idea that “culture” incorporates parks, restaurants, and historic buildings, not just the visual and performing arts.

ArtsNow and Designing Local are currently collecting feedback online from all Akronites who want to participate. They’ll also host 11 public meetings this spring and summer, one in each ward, where residents can share their thoughts.

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“We know that having a thriving cultural scene increases our attachment to where we live. It also encourages people from outside of our city to come experience our city. We all know that we travel, we’re traveling on our stomachs, we’re traveling to see arts and culture. It’s understanding what exists, celebrating what exists, and then using those strengths to encourage and support and strengthen the city through advancing cultural diversity,” says Amanda Golden, managing principal of Designing Local.

Creation of the plan is funded by the GAR Foundation and the Knight Foundation. No public money is involved in the project.

However, Mayor Dan Horrigan spoke at Thursday’s kickoff event, and the cultural plan’s creators hope City Council will adopt it and use it to guide policy changes.

“We already know that Akron has a very, very rich cultural ecosystem, but many people in Akron don’t realize or don’t recognize what they have,” says Amanda Golden, managing principal of Designing Local. “The cultural plan is going to examine those things and say to those people, ‘what do you feel like you’re missing?’ … A lot of our work is about saying, ‘hey, the thing that you want already exists here, and it’s run by this person or this organization. Maybe they just haven’t been able to find it or maybe [the organization] needs to improve [outreach].”

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Asked for examples of impacts cultural plans have had in other cities, Amanda offered:

  • If researchers find that people are “really hungry” for public art installations, who takes responsibility for maintaining those installations? Who makes sure they’re safe? Having policies in place makes it easier for cities to install public art, Amanda says.
  • Who implements the ideas included in the plan? That could be a city government-backed Cultural Arts Commission with representatives from each neighborhood, a nonprofit, or another governing body.
  • Some communities have identified specific holes in the venues their cities offer — for example, a 150-seat flexible space, Amanda says — but she doesn’t foresee that being an issue in Akron.

If you want to participate, you can take the survey and add sites where you experience arts and culture to a map at AkronCulturalPlan.com.

The first two public meetings are May 30 at 5:30 pm at:

  • Coventry Oaks Lodge, 40 Axline Ave, Akron
  • Odom Boulevard Branch Library, 600 Vernon Odom Blvd, Akron

In the fall, the partners will release a first draft of the cultural plan for public review and comment. And in the winter, they’ll release a second draft, for one additional round of comment.

Amanda says they hope to present the plan to City Council in December and have it adopted in January 2020.

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.

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