On Friday, Akron will kick off the public-input phase for its first citywide arts and cultural plan, which is now in the information-gathering stages and will culminate by the end of the year with a strategic plan to support arts, culture and the environment across all Akron neighborhoods.

The project, funded by $100,000 each from the GAR Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is being conducted by the nonprofit ArtsNow, which provides advocacy and resources for arts and cultural groups, and Designing Local of Columbus, a cultural planning company.

"We know that diverse opportunities to experience arts, culture and the environment are key to creating a vibrant and prosperous community. For the first time in its history, Akron will be engaging in a citywide cultural planning process to ensure arts and culture in the community is living up to its full potential," said Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow.

The collaborative plan is designed to be for everyone. Amanda Golden and her team at Designing Local have interviewed more than 120 community members in the plan's first phase to ask them how they experience arts and culture, what they think about the city's current arts and culture resources, and what their needs or desires are.

The more people who give input, the better, Golden said.

"This plan is really about the community at large. No one's opinion is more important than another," she said. "We want the city to adopt the plan to help direct their arts and culture investment based on what the public wants and desires."

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, whose administration supports the plan but is not providing public funding for it, said its findings may bring up important questions that the city hasn't thought about yet.

"What are the common themes that we can build upon in each individual neighborhood?" he asked. "What does arts and culture mean to you and how does it bring the community together and make it more attractive?"

"I think the [arts] planning process, it's a growing and important part of our community and I think we need to be able to highlight it as much as possible," Horrigan said. "It's also an economic development tool, how communities are wrapped around arts and culture."

A garden as art

Summit Lake community leader SeKoria Finney was interviewed in the project's first phase, which began in mid-March. She and her grandmother, Shirley Finney, who is on the steering committee for the planning project, are creating the Princeton-Kenyon Memorial Garden on a street corner in their neighborhood. With the help of volunteers, the women will plant the flower garden based on SeKoria's design to remember those who have been killed in their Park East area of the neighborhood.

"This is art that you can see and feel and walk through," Shirley Finney said Monday, standing in the stamped concrete area where the garden — funded by the Akron Civic Commons and aided by landscape architect Kyle Lukes of Environmental Design Group — will be.

Shirley Finney said in her neighborhood, she wants children to be able to "draw what they feel," learn to play a musical instrument and learn to swim.

SeKoria Finney is a visual artist who runs Growing Mindz for children to do crafting in her neighborhood. She said she sees beautification projects happening around the lake several blocks away, but wants to lead more of them in her northeast corner of the neighborhood.

"I want to bridge that gap," she said.

Akron residents can give comments and complete a survey at www.AkronCulturalPlan.com, which launches Friday. Those who request a one-on-one interview through the online portal will get a response from the cultural planning team within 48 hours.

A live engagement map on the website will allow residents to drop a pin on the map to let others know where in the city art and culture is happening.

Residents can share ideas on social media by using the hashtag #AkronCulturalPlan or attend one of many public events. Those meetings will be held either in or near the city's 11 community centers, which serve all 24 of Akron's neighborhoods.

The first meetings will be 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. May 30 at two locations: Coventry Oaks Lodge at 40 Axline Ave., and the Odom Boulevard Branch Library at 600 Vernon Odom Blvd.

Overcoming barriers

Designing Local will conduct focus groups with community members, including one with the mayor's Senior Citizens Commission at Stan Hywet in July. Community organizations also can give input with a "session in a box" at Akron's public libraries, where they can receive a kit of materials to provide arts and cultural feedback.

Artists will survey community members about their thoughts on arts and culture at tables at city festivals and events throughout the summer, and will conduct their own focus groups to gain more input.

The project is designed to be transparent: At www.AkronCulturalPlan.com, people will be able to read the entire list of residents who have been interviewed and recommend who the planning team should talk to. The website will provide ongoing updates about the planning process.

Once Designing Local synthesizes information about where in the city people access arts and culture, it will identify where arts and culture is concentrated and where there may be a cultural desert.

The key is to work to understand what barriers there may be in certain neighborhoods, said Golden, whose company has created cultural plans in Surprise, Arizona, and Chamblee, Georgia, and is nearly finished with another in Upper Arlington, Ohio.

Sean Joyce, executive director at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, envisions the cultural plan breaking down more barriers, similar to how ArtsNow's participation in the national "Museums for All" program enables patrons with federal EBT cards to gain discounted or free access to Akron museums and the zoo.

"That's just one thing that can be happening across the whole spectrum," he said of accessibility.

"Arts and culture can impact a lot of different things, including social service challenges, educational alignment and helping meet some educational goals," Joyce said. "To me, it's really about tying in all these different focuses to make Akron better."

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.