Its past forged by industry, the Rubber City seeks to sculpt its future through arts and culture
Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
Illustration by Stephen Valentine
Northeast Ohioans are familiar with Akron’s reputation as the Rubber Capital of the World. It’s a moniker that hearkens back to the days when trucking, then war and then automobiles fueled America’s need for things like tires, boots and innovative applications of rubber – and in the process employed generations of Akronites.
The days when machinery churned day and night and the unmistakable smell of rubber hung in the air are gone, but the city – with good reason – is proud of its lunch-pail past. However, it’s just that: the past.
Arts and culture have been part of the next chapter for Akron and surrounding Summit County communities for some time now, but in 2014, a report comprehensively detailing the art scene’s strengths and weaknesses brought greater focus to efforts that would increase their role.
Momentum surrounding the city’s future as an arts hub has been building ever since, which is something fewer Northeast Ohioans – at least those around Greater Cleveland – may be familiar with than Akron’s industrial past.
“Akron and Summit County are in such an interesting and exciting place,” says Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow, a nonprofit designed to connect arts, culture and community in Summit County. “We’re deciding the narrative we’re going to tell about ourselves moving forward, and I think the arts and culture community is going to be a driving force in how we tell that story.”
ArtsNow was founded in 2015 as a result of that 2014 report, the Arts & Culture Assessment for Summit County, which was based on resident surveys, interviews of institutional leaders and a number of community meetings.
Among the report’s findings were a lack of clear leadership in the arts and culture community and a lack of coordinated communication regarding programming available to residents.
“We knew there was no lack of things going on, but perhaps there was a lack of understanding about what was going on,” Mullet concedes.
Enter ArtsNow and SummitLive365.com, created by ArtsNow to serve as a one-stop shop for anyone interested in the arts by offering events listings, a directory of institutions, artist profiles, educational opportunities and even a classifieds section to help artists find employment or commissions.
ArtsNow is also invested in helping artists as entrepreneurs, and it partners with local corporations – among them some of those rubber companies that still call Akron home – to help employees and their families get the most out Summit County’s arts and culture offerings.
While downtown Akron can literally and figuratively be considered the center of Summit County’s arts scene, Mullet is quick to point to a strong supporting cast, including: Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood, home to annual festivals of creativity like PorchRokr and Square Fest; Akron’s Merriman Valley neighborhood, a gateway to Cuyahoga Valley National Park and home to Weathervane Playhouse and none too fragile theater; Barberton, where a growing arts district includes Nine Muses Art Gallery and the Art Center on Tuscarawas; and Cuyahoga Falls, where Front Street is home to Studio 2091 Mothersbaugh and Cuyahoga Valley Art Center.
“It’s truly a community that’s growing and learning together. It’s a group of people who are very much in it together to see the arts sector thrive in Summit County,” she says. “It’s a very healthy landscape for arts and culture right now, so it’d be wonderful if people from Cleveland took the very short trip down (Interstate) 77 to check us out.”
From her vantage point as Akron Art Museum’s director of education, Alison Caplan senses the same positive momentum Mullet does.
“I think there’s a new vibrancy and interest in the arts downtown – and throughout Akron and Summit County,” she says. “I feel like (the museum is) a connecting place for people, whether you’re an art maker or someone who wants to plug in to activities.”
As one of the biggest players in Akron’s art scene, the museum is well positioned to better connect with the community. It’s been doing so through its Free Thursdays, when no admission fee and later hours are meant to make it easier for people to visit; its Inside|Out program, in which prints of works from the museum’s permanent collection are erected in various neighborhoods in the county; and its new Bud and Susie Rogers Garden, an inviting space that opened in July that can host exhibition opening receptions and other events. Currently in the works is an arts library in collaboration with its downtown neighbor, the Akron-Summit County Public Library.
“It will contain original works of art from artists in the region that people will be able to check out for three to four weeks and hang on their wall,” Caplan says. “The idea is that you don’t have to be a well-off person to collect art works from artists in our region, that there are so many ways you can participate in the local arts economy.”
Caplan also feels it’s important for the museum to flex its artistic muscle to attract national and international figures to the region, which it did recently when it hosted Theaster Gates, an acclaimed artist, musician, community organizer, urban planner and cultural entrepreneur from Chicago.
“We brought him here to lead conversations with the community, so I think besides being local and working with local groups, we also try to think globally,” Caplan says. “I think sometimes we get into a bubble in Akron, where we love local things and local things are awesome, but if we bring in an artist to work on a mural from Chicago, that’s really amazing because that artist can hire out local artists to contribute, and they learn from that experience – and it’ll bring more people into the community to see the works.”
Overall, Caplan feels Akron’s art scene is “pretty accessible,” pointing to the monthly Downtown Akron Art Walk (first Saturdays) and the artwork that’s popped up in and around the Summit Metro Parks and Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And like Mullet, she says it’s accessible to those from Greater Cleveland, too.
“I think there’s a stigma with driving to Akron, which is crazy,” says Caplan, who speaks from experience as a former Case Western Reserve University grad student. “I’ve lived in Cleveland, and if you drive from the East Side to the West Side, you’re pretty much going to spend as much time in your car, so it’s really not as far as you think it is to Akron.”
If anyone can offer a long, profound perspective on Akron’s art scene, it’s Don Drumm, whose prolific career as an artist and craftsman spans decades.
Drumm was born in Warren and earned his art degrees from Kent State University. He met his wife Lisa, then an arts teacher at the University of Akron, in 1958, and he opened his first studio in Akron in 1960.
“We were sort of the first who attempted to earn a living full-time as practicing artists in the city,” Drumm recalls.
In 1970, the couple opened a new studio on Crouse Street, just south of The University of Akron. In 1971, they made part of the studio a gallery, and the enterprise has been growing ever since. Today, there’s a veritable village of Drumm buildings on Crouse – eight, all told, painted in yellows, purples and greens and adorned by his trademark suns – giving visitors the sense they’re in for a unique experience.
Along the way, he pioneered the use of cast aluminum as an artistic medium and has flourished as a sculptor. His work can be seen publicly via the number of commissions he’s completed or privately in the homes of generations of Akronites who’ve received one of his pieces as a wedding gift or birthday present.
Drumm doesn’t consider himself to be a good teacher – “I prefer to create” – but he values education, and thinks it’s important to Akron’s future in the arts.
The Drumms established the Don and Lisa Drumm Endowed Scholarship to support graduates of the Akron Public School System entering The University of Akron’s School of Art. He’d also like to see universities like Akron and Kent State offer artists-to-be more diversified training so that as gallery owners like him age out (he’s 81), there will be a new generation of business-savvy artists to solidify the scene’s future.
“Akron U. has a law school, an engineering school, business – all these things would help young artists. They could do some seminars with them or what have you. At least by the time they get to their senior year, if they’re going to practice, they’ve got to know about these things,” he says. “You don’t just go out, if you’re a potter and start potting, and say ‘Here I am’ because nobody will hear you. You have to go knocking on doors.”
Drumm points to Summit Artspace – a community arts center in downtown Akron that to some extent, provides business and marketing training for artists – as one of the “great things” about the city’s art scene.
Toby Ann Weber, Summit Artspace board chair, says that following that 2014 report, the entity that oversaw Summit Artspace, the Akron Area Arts Alliance, conducted a self-assessment in an effort to better serve the community. One of its findings was that it was underutilizing its best asset – its building, a three-story structure just around the corner from the Akron Art Museum that once was home to the Akron Beacon Journal.
Since then, AAAA shifted its strategic direction to focus more on Summit Artspace than on some of its other endeavors. While not formally an incubator, the building now does more to serve as a place for artists to lease studio space, for organizations to rent office space, and for various entities to host workshops or educational training. Of course there’s also space to showcase art, from the first-floor gallery to just about any hallway, corner or landing available.
“There’s a lot more art in the building,” Weber says. “We’re serving a lot more artists by putting their work up everywhere we can.”
Summit Artspace is more than just a resource for artists. In 2017, it’s scheduled to host eight shows in its gallery, all of which will have programming meant to engage audiences – like panels, lectures and workshops – associated with them. Summit Artspace is also home to Crafty Mart, an indie handmade marketplace, and is one of the largest stops on the Downtown Akron Art Walk.
Further, Summit Artspace recently took over administrative control of Nine Muses and ACoT in Barberton, which Weber feels will provide more coordinated programming between two artistic outposts that are only about 10 miles apart – another signal that Akron’s art scene is coming together and growing.
“There’s certainly a lot more energy, visibility and connectivity among the artist and arts organizations – and our funders are making investments in the arts, which is great to see,” Weber says, adding that changes at Summit Artspace have paralleled those in Akron’s larger arts scene. “If you were in the building two years ago, you wouldn’t recognize it now. There’s a lot more activity. Come and check it out.” CV