Celebrating the 100 Year Anniversary of the Akron Art Museum

How the Akron Art Museum prioritizes community, diversity, and the total immersion in art through the collaboration between the curation and the artists.

Approaching the 2007 John S and James L Knight expansion to the Akron Art Museum, one is greeted with a drama of form and material. The façade is comprised of three distinct elements: The Crystal, which houses public spaces, and is defined by a sense of movement, as planes of glass slide past each other, canting backwards at tight angles, or rearing upwards at a steep vertical; The Gallery Box, which is a Platonic rectangular volume shrouded in brushed aluminum panels housing the gallery spaces, whose tranquility contrasts with the vibrance of the Crystal; and The Roof Cloud, extending past the other volumes in an exaggerated cantilever, hovering above the adjacent street and outdoor public spaces, both a symbol of the institution and a welcoming gesture, inviting the community inward, and extending the museum outwards.

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Inside, the visitor is met by a grand staircase, flanked on one side by a jutting observation deck reminiscent of the prow of a ship, and on the other by the hovering rectangular form of a second-story black-box gallery. The staircase itself is almost Egyptian in its presence, beckoning the visitor to ascend with an almost ritualistic sensibility. It is in front of this staircase that I met Joe Walton (Director of Design), Chris Ross (Lead Preparator), Zach Repphun (Assistant Preparator) and Jeff Katzin (Associate Curator), on a warm and sunny August morning for a tour of the museum.

The gallery spaces have been recently redesigned in honor of the museum’s 100-year anniversary, and the museum is excited not only to pass this milestone, but also about the renovation of the 1899 building, a turn-of-the-century Post Office that the museum has occupied since 1981. Before then, the institution was housed in several locations, including a private mansion and the public library, and maintained a mixed program of collection and education. In 1965, the Akron Art Institute shifted its focus to the collection of art created between 1850 - Present, and in 1980 rebranded itself as the Akron Art Museum.

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The gallery spaces are generous, with tall ceilings and an open plan that gives each piece space to breathe, allowing the viewer to become completely immersed in the works. The exhibit design entices visitors to explore, luring them through galleries using a layout that at once reveals and conceals, shifting points of visual focus to guide visitors through the collection. The galleries themselves are thematically organized, in a shift away from chronological storytelling. The thematic organization allows the art to work in dialog, providing kaleidoscopic perspectives on a topic, where sympathetic resonance and antagonistic dissonance complicate both the interpretation of the art, and that of the theme by means of which it has been grouped together.

In walking the galleries, a recurrent theme is the museum’s interaction with artists. This takes the form of numerous anecdotes regarding the material constitution of certain works, the weight and feel of certain pieces and even the inclusion of an errant yellow-paint splattered trowel donated by the museum and incorporated into a work in the temporary exhibit spaces. The team talks about the rewards of working with living artists, the joy of witnessing the creative process, and learning from their experience with the artists whose works are on exhibition or in the permanent collection.

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In this way, the curatorial narrative is overlaid with a deep tactile understanding of art as object, as resistant, as fragile, as stubborn or pliable. This close interaction with art supports the museum’s emphasis on art preservation and conservation. Exposure of works is rigorously metered and measured, and lighting is currently screened to ensure that works are presented within conservation parameters. The switch from halogen to LED is welcome in this regard, since the latter emit little to no ultraviolet radiation, and while the initial cost of LEDs is considerably higher than that of halogen, savings in terms of labor (due to the longevity of LED lamps), energy consumption and even air-conditioning (due to the high heat load of halogen lamps) make up for the initial cost increase.

The museum’s collection balances pieces by well-recognized artists from around the world with a focus on regional work, regularly inviting local artists to exhibit alongside Warhol, Lichtenstein, Close and Rothko. This focus on community, which is embedded in Coop Himmelb(l)au’s design, manifests itself in a certain openness, a generosity of spirit that imbues the museum’s culture, and which takes the form of actively bringing the community into the museum. As Joe informs me, the museum receives funding to reimburse area K-12 schools for school buses and substitute teachers so that students can visit the museum. Another partnership guarantees that every fourth grader in the Akron Public School System can spend time at the museum.

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This inclusivity entails the collection itself, which actively promotes diversity, and the museum is currently increasing its holdings of works by diverse artists in a way that is more broadly reflective of the city’s demographic, if not the country’s. The museum’s focus on community and inclusiveness can also be seen in the regular events that it hosts, and on its website, where you will find guides to art production (Studio Hours), podcasts, games and stories — extending the offerings of the museum to a global audience.

At the end of my day at the museum, I was left with the sense that what makes this particular museum special is not only its collection, but the care of the people who work there. This care can only be fostered by kindred spirits, whose affinity for art extends beyond consumption, and embraces the deep knowledge of long exposure to making. Commitment to the embodied understanding of making is even more evident when Jeff shows me experimental images that he took (in collaboration with the photographer Gregory Vershbow) during his dissertation in an attempt to replicate the aesthetic of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photographic portraits of Ezra Pound, and his detailed explanation of how he achieved his results.

Even as the museum may have shifted focus from the type of art training provided in its pre-1965 embodiment, the tradition of the Akron Art Institute lingers on in the museum’s dedication to making and makers, the sensitivity of its staff to artistic creation and the institution’s long-standing and on-going commitment to community involvement.

Read more about the Akron Art Museum on our project page.