In 2013, the GAR Foundation and the Knight Foundation conducted an Arts and Culture Assessment for Summit County that sought to take the temperature of the arts sector, check its health and learn what was working and what wasn’t.
“They knew that a vibrant arts and culture scene supports and contributes to the economy,” says Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow. “We know that’s important. People want to stay, live, work and play in a place that’s really thriving.”
There also were concerns around some of the challenges that the arts organizations were facing in terms of financial sustainability, infrastructure and the operational strength needed to connect with new audiences.
Surveying those operating in and actively involved with the arts sector, as well as the general public, three of the report’s nine findings generated the most concern:
- There is a disconnect between the arts and culture sector and public perception as whole, but especially in the business community, which essentially said that arts and culture leadership lacked visibility in the community, leaving businesses unsure how to engage with them.
- There is a lack of communication with the general public about how to be engaged with the arts sector — people don’t know how to find arts, artists and art venues.
- The public doesn’t understand how investing in the arts makes an impact on the quality of life in the community.
With the results in, the GAR and Knight foundations toured the county for 18 months and talked with people across sectors. They determined that there was no backbone organization advocating for and telling the story of the arts in Summit County. That led to the creation of ArtsNow and its mission to connect arts, culture and community.
Creating the conversation
Knowing that connection was key, ArtsNow launched summitlive365.com as its first major effort.
“It’s someplace that you can go and find any arts and culture event, which is a description we paint with a pretty broad brush,” Mullet says.
The site includes individual artist directories, lists of venues and arts and culture organizations, and a classified section that helps connect artists with work. There, people are posting any creative position, volunteer opportunity or commission, and that’s helping artists find work.
“We’re really getting a cultural index for Summit County. And summitlive365 is allowing us to store that information and grow that information in a public format so that people can find it, interact with it, add to it,” she says.
Success is being measured, in part, by how well ArtsNow grows the number of artists featured in its online directory, increasing the number of venues until they’re all accounted for and making sure they’re keeping up with event listings. Mullet says the site, on average, lists 1,000 events at any one time.
“We have made a pretty significant impact, even in changing the conversation so that there is a conversation. Whether it’s something as small as people recognizing that artists need to be paid — that’s now a conversation that our business community and other nonprofits who want to utilize a photographer or artist to live paint during the symphony have — that is now something that is increasingly understood because they understand that it creates a healthy ecosystem when we’re paying our individual artists,” she says.
Telling the story
Better storytelling has also been key. She says the business community increasingly knows that if they want to access the arts sector, ArtsNow is an organization that can help, which has a ROI for businesses.
“If we want to retain talent, especially younger talent, they’re increasingly picking their place over their job. We need to give them something more than work, the gym and then home, and arts and culture is the perfect way to do that,” Mullet says.
To prove the connection between the arts and the economy, ArtsNow is working to find and package the research and data needed to tell that story. This also helps it make the case for national funding sources to donate money to Summit County arts organizations while connecting them with funding from sources within the county.
Making a difference
Mullet grew up in Holmes County and like many left to live elsewhere after graduating from the University of Akron, but then she came back. When she returned, she saw resurgence.
“I’m extremely optimistic about the City of Akron and the direction that we’re going,” Mullet says. She sees growing enthusiasm from younger people who want to live somewhere they can make a difference, and Akron is a place where people can do that.
“It’s something that can’t be undervalued. You can go to Chicago and New York and be one of 1,000 people with great ideas, all trying to enact change and be kind of a blip on the radar, or you can come to someplace like Akron or Summit where you can have an idea and you can see that change and see people’s lives impacted and affected.
“Arts and culture are a big part of that because we’re creating the place that people want to be. We’re making Akron and Summit County unique from other communities, which is vital.”