Akron Art Museum discovers relevance takes more than a new building

As museums and cultural institutions search for audiences, they’re trying to understand their relevance to their respective communities. It’s the key to developing programs that address the interests of local people, which in turn leads to support in the form of attendance and memberships.

For the Akron Art Museum, its attempt to bolster its engagement to the community began with the $40 million expansion of its downtown building in 2007. But the real lesson came after its completion.

“What we learned is that we created a pretty fantastic infrastructure with this new expansion, and I think we captured a lot of people’s imagination about the Akron Art Museum and its architecture, and definitely pointed people toward our collection at the museum,” says Akron Art Museum Executive Director and CEO Mark Masuoka.

“But what we forgot to do was continue this conversation about who we are, what the value of this museum is to this community,” he says. “We took for granted that if we built this museum, people would just come and they would just keep coming. Well, they came because they were curious, but at some point they stopped coming, and it became a concern for the museum that we have to continue to make the case for people to (keep coming) as we go forward.”

A common question

Discovering exactly what the community wants from its art museum began the day Masuoka took the helm in 2013, with a series of community conversations. People from the community shared their stories about the art museum and what they hope it can be.

From these conversations came a common question: Why should people who aren’t creative take any interest in the museum? To Masuoka, it meant that people didn’t quite understand what value the museum had in their lives.

“We hear it a lot, and we thought, ‘We’re not trying to make you an artist. We may not even be trying to make you a more creative person. It would be good if we could, but I think what we can really accomplish here is to help connect people to make more creative choices in their life and to lead a more creative life,’” Masuoka says.

“Live Creative started that concept where we felt we could really make a difference and help people expand their idea of what it meant to be connected and involved in an art museum,” he says. That led the museum to expand its role and become a facilitator that helps build people’s creative lives.

“And that actually changed everything.”

Inside out

About two months after the conversations, the museum launched its first initiative: Free Thursdays. It consolidated its sporadic free days to one and realigned its Thursday programming. It also improved its marketing.
But getting its message out took on a literal meaning when it began its Inside|Out program.

“Inside|Out was the best metaphor for what we were trying to do because it was about literally taking what we have in the art museum and our collection and taking it directly into the community and sharing it and saying, ‘You know, this is your art museum. This is work that you have access to, and what better way than Inside|Out?’” Masuoka says.

The museum first took prints of its paintings and hung them throughout West Akron and downtown, then it expanded from there.

“People who would never even dream of coming to the Akron Art Museum suddenly were exposed to this amazing painting sitting right in their local park or in the metro parks or even hanging on the outside of the building,” he says.

The $3 million Bud and Susie Rogers Garden, completed in 2016, is another way the museum connects with people. In this instance through a public space built on the museum grounds where events can be held and people can gather. The museum also launched the Akron Art Library, through which any resident with a library card can check out artwork the same way they would check out books.

So far, the programs are working.

“Attendance is up 20 percent,” Masuoka says. “We’re probably going to break some attendance records this year, not only because of the garden, but just the across-the-board increase in our public programs as well as just our general attendance.”

Keep making the case

Despite the troubling dip in attendance in the years that followed its renovation, Masuoka says getting people in the door hasn’t been the primary goal.

The main mission is to get people to recognize the role of the museum and what it offers. Once they do, the expectation is that people will want to get closer to the art museum not just as visitors, but also in their support.

“We can never just rely on making one specific case on the value of this museum as we go into the future,” Masuoka says. “We need to do all the things that we’ve been able to accomplish now and continue to do it in the future as far as asking questions and understanding and keeping our finger on the pulse of this community so that we can stay relevant.”