Arts advocates Ann Amer Brennan and Mary Ann Jackson founded the Akron Area Arts Alliance in 1991 to solve a problem.
The numerous arts organizations in Summit County faced similar challenges and the thought was that if they joined forces, they might be more successful in furthering their respective missions.
That was the primary mission for about 15 years until the organization took over the building that now houses Summit Artspace with the intent of creating a community art center.
“When that happened, the resources and the energy of the organization shifted to doing programming here at Summit Artspace,” says Toby Ann Weber, board chair for the alliance.
“We still maintain that membership focus. So we have members, we convene them at quarterly meetings and we bring them together with a speaker. But that’s not the primary work of the Alliance anymore. It’s now to operate Summit Artspace as a community art center.”
Summit Artspace is a place for artists to have studios and sell their work during the art walks and other events throughout the year, Weber says.
“We have a gallery where we run shows all year long for local artists,” Weber says. “We have arts organizations in the building, like Rubber City Artists and the Akron Society of Artists. There are classes that go on here. We also have Rubber City Prints, which is one of only five fine art print shops in the state of Ohio, so people can join the organization and come in and use the printing equipment and take classes.”
In April, the membership voted to adopt a resolution from the agency’s executive board that will focus the alliance’s future direction on the operation of Summit Artspace. Weber says there are challenges in operating the building that houses the art center.
“The challenge is that this is a big, old building,” Weber says. “We lease it from Summit County for $1 a year and the county’s resources are also limited. They practically gave the building to us, but physical plant improvements and capital improvements are a challenge. We want to build out more studios and that’s hard.”
Building stronger ties
One of Weber’s goals for the alliance is to build a stronger connection between the arts and the local business community.
“We don’t see as many corporate individuals from corporations on the boards of local arts organizations as would be beneficial,” Weber says.
“The lack of a defined arts district can be challenging, as well. Like any sector, you’ve got people — maybe this is even truer in the arts community. People have different visions for what — for example, what should be in an art center. There are people who are advocates for contemporary art, traditional art, visual art, performing art — those are complementary and competing interests.”
While foundational support is extremely helpful, businesses can bring their strategic expertise to help an organization like the alliance further its mission.
“Without those connections to the corporate community, we really just don’t have access to the expertise that’s held within all of our local corporations,” Weber says.
Earlier this year, the alliance hosted a forum to help artists learn about the business side of being an artist.
“There are many artists who work a full-time job not creating art and really wish they had the opportunity to focus their energies on those creative pursuits,” Weber says. “How do you price your work? How do protect your work and your intellectual property? How do you incorporate? How do you market? Fortunately, there are a number of people in the community who have successfully navigated that.”
The idea of the program is to introduce artists to accountants, attorneys and other artists who have been successful turning their art into a business.
“It’s for people who really want to focus on the business side of their creative pursuits and be able to, if not make a living at it, at least make sure that their work is protected and that they have an opportunity to sell their work.”
Weber served as interim executive director from September 2014 until July when she was replaced on a permanent basis by Joanne M. Green. Weber retains her role as board chair and expresses hope that she left the organization a better place than it was through her service as interim executive director.
“I want people to have a good feeling about the Arts Alliance, that it’s an organization that keeps its promises and does high-quality programming,” Weber says. ●