by Noor Hindi

Akron Art Museum director Mark Masuoka resigned May 19 after weeks of press reports about management’s poor treatment of employees. 

As the search for a new director begins, Akron-area artists and stakeholders say this is just the beginning of a wider and more comprehensive examination of the state of equity for women and people of color in Akron. 

Both before and after Masuoka’s resignation, community members expressed disappointment in the Akron Art Museum’s board of directors. Artists The Devil Strip spoke to say their trust in the institution has been diminished. Although they praised previous community-oriented projects by the Akron Art Museum — like the Inside|Out Project, which brought art to neighborhoods in Akron, and the Nick Cave performance at Summit Lake — they worry about the future of the institution, since many of the people who led those projects are no longer working at the museum.

Following Masuoka’s resignation, Mayor Dan Horrigan said in a statement that “Institutional racism is a real and serious threat to our community’s ongoing prosperity.” 

Rick Rogers, a former chairman of the board and a major donor to the museum, says Masuoka’s resignation “is just the beginning of the process.” He says the museum’s importance as a “creative anchor” in Akron cannot be underestimated, and expresses confidence in interim director Jon Fiume. 

“The board needs to be held accountable, I believe. The real reason we’re in the pickle we’re in today is because of inaction and bad decisions at the board level, bad board policies, lack of orientation and training, [and] failure to ensure a proper HR function at the museum,” Rogers says. “I think the board needs to understand what their accountability is on this. They need to express that to the community. I’m afraid some of the people who contributed to this problem are still there and drove the bad outcomes. And those people, I think, need to reflect and decide whether or not they should continue on the board or get some training so they can be much better board members.” 

Akronites Theresa and Steve Brightman, who’ve chosen not to renew their art museum memberships, say they’re displeased with the museum’s board as well. 

“I think Masuoka’s resignation is a first step, but I’m still cautiously optimistic because he wasn’t the only problem,” Theresa says. “There was also the issue that the board supported him instead of listening to staff. And if the attitudes of the board don’t change, those problems are going to continue manifesting no matter who is in charge.” 

Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow, says Akron’s Cultural Plan, which intends to examine and strengthen the arts and culture scene in Akron, is working toward a more equitable vision for all community members and neighborhoods in Akron. 

“A part of the cultural plan is a call to institutions big and small to start looking at staffing, looking at boards, and really taking a look at what equity means relative to race, gender, religion, abilities, means, all of those things,” Mullet says. “In Akron, we believe for our community to thrive that all people, regardless of age, race, gender, orientation, religion, background, must have access to and also participate in the making of the cultural scene in Akron. It can’t stop at access. It has to move into the space of truly engaging and listening to all people and allowing decisions and the future to be shaped by all people.”

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Over the last few days, The Devil Strip spoke to artists from all different mediums in Akron to find out what they think needs to be done for the Akron Art Museum to rebuild trust within the community, to create a more equitable space for artists and employees and to foster a greater sense of collaboration between artists and organizations in Akron. 

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Josy Jones, Founder of the Chameleon Village Theatre Collective

Medium: Theater

In 2018, Josy Jones worked with the Akron Art Museum and The Devil Strip to bring Black artists — a dancer, a musician and a makeup artist — to create works inspired by the work of Jeff Donaldson, whose work was on display at the museum at the time. These works were presented in the gallery amid Donaldson’s works. 

“I would like to see more collaboration, and more opportunities for connecting artists in the Akron community to the art museum in whatever capacity. And providing a platform for local artists to have their work and what they do be presented in a way that connects people to local artists who live here and also see the works that are at the art museum. 

There’s a wrong way to do community connection and there’s a correct way to do community connection. It’s important to build those relationships as opposed to just being like, ‘We’re open, and we want everybody to come,’ because that’s not how it works. The art museum is not the only part of the ecosystem. It’s not all that there is in Akron. The artists who live here also create the pulse of the city. And I would like to see us work together better. 

I think, and I will always say, [building relationships is] more time consuming and it’s costly. I want to say that initially. It takes more time and effort and resources to do things properly. But I think it means really talking to the people you’re looking to engage. And engaging them in a way where you’re asking them what they want, what their strengths are, what their skills are, what they’re interested in and what they understand and what they want to learn. And then really creating work that speaks to the things they’re telling you as opposed to creating things that you think is for them. So you have to have long-standing relationships and be willing to continue to have those relationships because it’s never just a one time thing. 

It’s definitely hard, it’s definitely costly, it’s very inefficient as far as time and resources are concerned and I try to make sure I say that. I understand what I’m asking for is going to cost you time and money and resources. But investing in that time and resources up front will make it so much easier and make what you’re doing so much more inclusive and make artists and people feel like they are seen and heard and have value to you. That you care about them showing up and continuing to show up. And you’re invested in the quality of their life or what they want or what they think or how they feel. You invest in that, instead of, ‘oh I’m doing this for a grant.’ You’re doing it because you are invested.’” 

Jenniva Cummings

Medium: Special effects, body painting, visual art

In 2018, Jenniva was one of the artists working with the Akron Art Museum and The Devil Strip to present art alongside the Jeff Donaldson exhibit.  

“I had this conversation with my best friend a few days ago about the Akron Art Museum. And she said, before I was presented there and they had the Jeff Donaldson exhibit, that she had not been to the Akron Art Museum since she was in grade school. It wasn’t even a thought of ‘oh, let me go in here and explore.’ And if I was planning to go out in Akron, the art museum, if I’m being honest, probably would have been the last place for me to go. 

I had a great experience with them during the Jeff Donaldson exhibit because I was working with Alison [Caplan]. She was directing everything. I feel like the turnout I had with that opened people’s eyes, like ‘oh I didn’t even know this was here.’ Or ‘I didn’t know they had these types of events.’ Or ‘I didn’t know it was free on Thursdays for the public.’ That was a positive component that came out of it. 

And in turn, it allowed me to go back. Because since then, when we have some free time, I have three teenagers, [I’ll say] ‘let’s go check out the new exhibit they have.’ I feel like if I had not had that connection, I would still be looking for other things to do outside of going to the Akron Art Museum. 

Being able to see myself in the shadow box, my family members being able to see my name on a plaque, to see the history behind the art which had a lot of meaning to it, I think it made people really comfortable. You want to be able to see that representation. You want to see somebody that looks like you, where you feel like, ‘That’s me.’ 

You have to create this open, relatable, welcoming space. And not just on Thursdays when it’s free to the public. There’s got to be more to draw people in.’”

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Beth Vild, COO of Big Love Network

Medium: Ecological Art

“The Akron Art Museum sets the tone for the rest of the nonprofit arts sector for our city. It’s incredibly important for them to get it right because it echoes out into the rest of the community. As a woman in the art nonprofit sector in Akron, we’re the first hired, the first fired, and women and people of color are the least listened to when it comes to these issues. 

The museum has a really great opportunity to change that around. I think they have to bring in people of color and women into the conversation as it was microaggressions and implicit biases towards women and people of color that got them into this situation. And I think the board and the staff need implicit bias training, and micro-aggression training. And there should be a crafted way for staff to be able to report micro-aggressions and implicit biases within the organization.

And there needs to be women and people of color leadership brought into the museum and respected within the museum. There are a ton of women who used to work for the museum that no longer work for the museum because of years of these issues. 

The art museum has a real opportunity to set precedence for how the nonprofit art sector in our city behaves.” 

Joseph White (Joe Jellicle) 

Medium: Acrylic painting, storyboarding, and animation

“I would like it to have more outreach programs. I would love to see the art museum doing more than just, ‘hey, you come to us, and take this tour.’ It’s such a beautiful space. I would love to see opportunities presented for artists to do their own thing there. 

Invite us in. Give us a chance to see what this space is and what it offers the community. Give the museum a makeover. Reintroduce it to new generations.  

I would love to see an art museum that feels inviting to the community, as opposed to the cold, historical place that it is right now.’” 

Amber Cullen, Lead Facilitator of VIBE Collective 

Medium: Art Administration, Visual Arts

From a community perspective, the Nick Cave [performance], all of the work Alison [Caplan] did was amazing. The community outreach with Black artists, the work that Josy [Jones] did, that was when I really started to feel like there was a connection happening with the community. 

And when the Nick Cave performance went to Summit Lake, that was a very vibrant and rich moment. When I [worked] at South Street [Ministries as the Communications of Communications], they had the Inside|Out project. That was also great to bring the art museum into the community, but I think everyone I’ve worked with is not there anymore. 

Gaining trust is going to take a lot of time. You don’t have the things that were said be said and the things that were done be done and expect things to change over night. With all of the monumental work that’s been done in the last two years by the leaders I mentioned, with the engagement with the community, all of that is all for naught because of [the director’s] comments. And that’s the reality of what happened. So it will take time to rebuild. 

From here on out there has to be a great transparency if the value is to build that community trust. It might be not to. And that’s the choice of leadership. If the Akron Art Museum desires to be the community institution rooted in Akron, yoked with the community, there must be that community building piece where the equity and the accessibility of art is valued. 

I can tell you that I will not be partnering until I feel comfortable. I’m not going to put our artists or me or anybody in a position where we’re not valued as a partner. 

We can’t really imagine a way forward until we know where people stand. For me I see it as an opportunity for the Akron Art Museum and leadership to really envision and to name the values. You might not value diversity, equity and inclusion. Do I agree with that? No. But if that’s not what you value, name it so we know where you stand. 

It’s a come-to-Jesus moment, except for an institution. It’s really about evaluating and digging deep into what is the institution downtown, why does it matter, what do we want it to be? And the ‘we’ is the community, but it might not be… If the leadership wants it to be about a small sphere of people, that’s their choice. And if that’s what the executive board decides, that’s what they decide. If it’s not to be a community institution, it’s not to be a community institution.”

Tessa Gaffney

Medium: Theater

“I think the most important thing is to address where things went wrong so that you can actually create solutions to not do the exact same thing again. My whole approach to art is making it accessible and not this daunting thing that’s only for the insiders who are high brow. You shouldn’t have to study art to understand it or appreciate it. 

You have to find ways to bring art to people and stop asking them to come seek it out. Demystify it and make it less scary for someone to discover it. 

Diversity is in practice and evolving to the wide array of perspectives that exist and not whatever they’re doing with the current politically correct climate where we have the right talking points but what does that essentially mean, and how are you going to change?”

Garrick Black II, Marketing Director for Akron Urban League, Owner of Noir Creative

Medium: Photography, Videography and DJing 

“‘How can the art museum be more mobile?’ Is one of my biggest questions. How can it reach the community outside of it, rather than the art just being in the building, especially when we’re talking about equity and inclusion and diversity?

I feel like in a lot of Black and brown communities, we’re always told we need to get a ‘real job.’ And art isn’t that real job. Especially with a lot of the arts programs being taken out from a lot of schools around the country, it’s critical for the museum to make it clear you can be a businessperson and be an artist. And I think that exposure within minority communities would help those people who are looking for an example of, ‘I can be an artist and be a successful business person and not have to worry about a full-time job.’ 

I think with the way I was brought up, I was glad my parents saw the value in art and pushed me and my sister to really explore the arts. But sometimes I feel like even when you drive past the building, somehow, when we look at that art museum we feel like it’s not for us. 

I think one of the biggest things that’s going to help artists be included in that equity conversation is to continue to give artists the freedom they need to create. That’s Step 1. Step 2 is to treat the artists like the business people they are and appreciate the value they attach to their work. And then Step 3 is be willing to give the exposure with payment while taking the other two parts into consideration.”

Nichole Epps, Visual Artist, Community Activist

Medium: Acrylic and ink pen

First and foremost, there needs to be transparency and intentional interest. Not including individuals that are typically not part of conversations solely for an exhibit. There needs to be ongoing interest in communities that don’t frequent the museum. There has to be genuine interest in understanding and learning why these groups of people don’t frequent the museum. And wanting to create programming that interests these groups. 

The board has to reflect that. It’s very difficult to put out a message of inclusion and an equitable space where everyone is represented when the board and the people in a position of power all look the same. That does not create an environment where trust is going to be easy to establish. And without trust no matter what efforts any organization makes, it’s going to fail. 

For me as a little girl whose parents always exposed me to art, as much as I loved art, I hated the art museum growing up. Nothing looked like me. From the people giving the education, even when we would walk through, it wasn’t relatable to me, my life, my experience. And even when there was an African-American exhibit, which only happens during Black History Month, which sends a message to me as a little girl, like, ‘Oh. I only matter during this month.’

It’s your story. You want to feel heard, you want to feel seen. You want to feel like you matter. And if you go into a place and everything around you looks completely different from you, it sends a message that you don’t matter, which means your story doesn’t matter, and your voice doesn’t matter. And your experience is not important to us. 

They need to have local artists as part of the decision making. Putting local artists or community activists, the culture creators within the city, giving them a voice, even if they’re not on the board, letting them know we care and we value your expertise and without that we can’t be successful. If they don’t do that it’s going to be the same problem over and over again. 

If you think about it in this case, the little people’s voices didn’t matter until the big people got in trouble. That’s the scary thing about being an artist in this town. Because of the powers in place, you are afraid to speak your truth out of fear of losing what few crumbs are thrown to you. And until that atmosphere of fear dissipates, it’s going to be difficult for any long term changes to occur.”

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Equity and Inclusion Reporter. Email her at noor@thedevilstrip.com

Top photo: Shane Wynn via Akronstock. Photos throughout provided by the artists — Amber Cullen photo by Sara Fouts; Beth Vild photo by Shane Wynn.

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