Read the assessment of the arts and culture in Summit County released last week, and you will arrive at an unsettling finding. The drivers of the study, the GAR Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, discovered that many do not see a “problem” with the arts in our community. That includes those who attend and the organizations themselves.
Many are pleased with groups that appear “healthy enough” and don’t mind driving to Cleveland or other destinations to see shows and performances. Yet that willingness to head elsewhere invites the question: What could this community do better in the realm of arts and culture? The object isn’t to meet every need, or seek what cannot be achieved. Rather, the challenge goes to enhancing what is here, knowing that a vibrant arts and culture scene is crucial to attracting and retaining talent, or to the strength of the local economy and quality of our lives.
In that way, the assessment of the GAR and Knight foundations is a timely and necessary declaration: Yes, the community has a problem. The arts and culture sector isn’t what it could be, as young people and African-Americans emphasized, and that works to our disadvantage.
The benefit of the assessment is its basis for launching a discussion and even providing a road map. Consider the highlighting of the Cultural Data Project developed several years ago by the Pew Charitable Trust. Arts organizations enter data about their programming, finances and operations. When a large number in a community do so, a rich portrait of the arts and culture scene follows, helping to shape initiatives and making available the pieces to tell a complete story.
Unfortunately, just a handful of arts and cultural organizations in the county have participated. The assessment rightly concludes that a first step should be increasing participation.
Such a coming together would be part of a larger objective, the arts achieving the identity of a sector, each organization part of a thriving whole. Other communities have benefited from such an approach, two nearby, Canton and Cleveland. There are 604 arts organizations in Summit County. Eighty are involved with the Akron Area Arts Alliance. That isn’t enough.
Building an arts sector requires focused leadership. The assessment points to the need for arts and cultural organizations to engage more effectively “power players” in the community. The public sector contributes amply to the arts. Where the area falls short is in private support. Yet its presence is indispensable.
This community has outstanding arts organizations. What they need is sustained and adequate support, including a dedicated public funding stream. That starts with developing a more united front, or laying the groundwork and winning confidence, just as the two foundations most helpfully have outlined.