Akron Art Museum director Kahan draws praise as he nears retirement

By Dorothy Shinn
Special to the Beacon Journal

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Mitchell Kahan is stepping down as director of the Akron Art Museum after 26 years. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal)

He built a community a collection, collaboration and a building.

You could say that Mitchell Kahan, who is retiring Jan. 2 after 26 years as the Akron Art Museum’s longest-serving director, is the architect of the museum’s present and its future.

He has certainly left his mark on the museum, and on Akron.

“Under Kahan’s direction, the art museum has become a civic focal point for our residents,” said Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, “and its offerings continue to receive worldwide recognition and will have a lasting impact on Akron and Northeast Ohio.”

“Mitchell has been a valued colleague in the effort to revitalize downtown Akron,” agreed David Lieberth, recently retired Akron deputy mayor. “As the most prominent voice for the arts in Akron, he has been the one constant in a changing and challenging arts community. He has developed great collaborations, and each year has done more to reach out to the larger community to make arts relevant in the lives of the people of greater Akron.”

When the new wing of the museum was unveiled in 2007, Kahan made certain that the world knew about it with a press conference in New York City. “This brought national attention to Akron, and for the first time, allowed a national art audience to gain a new image of Akron,” Lieberth noted.

Past museum board President Fred Bidwell, of Bidwell Projects in Cleveland, said, “The director of an art museum has to be flexible, and Mitchell certainly has the ability to adapt. He can take tea with the most proper ladies of Akron and still breakdance at opening parties. …

“As flexible as he can be, when it comes to upholding the highest standards and daring to take risks, Mitchell does not bend,” Bidwell noted. When he championed the design by Coop Himmelb(l)au for the new building, with its daring architecture and “roof cloud” that extended over the museum’s 1899 building, “more than one important patron threatened to withdraw support. But Mitchell stood firm behind a design without compromise, and critics and the community now agree that the result is one of the most inspiring and yet functional museum designs of recent times.”

A firm foundation

Asked to cite his proudest accomplishment, however, Kahan, 63, demurred. “Everyone says the facility is obviously an enormous accomplishment. It was first proposed in 1977 and wasn’t realized until 2007.

“It took a generation to be accomplished, and to do that so many people had to work together,” he explained. “It was an enormous community accomplishment.”

And so, he reasoned, he couldn’t claim all the credit for the new building.

What he can and does claim credit for, however, is putting the collection on a firm footing with a generous endowment, giving it room to grow and providing a steady, knowing hand at the helm.

Looking at the museum’s early history, “they didn’t have any money — no endowment — back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s to buy art. They had $1 million to spend when [previous director] Michael Danoff came, and he spent it and left. … You can’t keep people at an institution like this if you don’t give them money to spend.”

Under Kahan’s tenure, the museum has established four endowment funds for the purchase of art, generating about $250,000 a year, “which makes the future of this museum completely different.” The sale of the Cindy Sherman photo Untitled #96 this year gave a $2.5 million boost to the acquisitions fund.

Among the works recently acquired thanks to these funds are Seer (Alice I), by KiKi Smith; Landscape With Yellow Clouds (circa 1915) by William Sommer, which Kahan thinks is the best thing Sommer ever did; Brillo Boxes (1964) by Andy Warhol; and Dzesi II, (2006) by El Anatsui. “We were lucky to get that,” said Kahan. “Two years later and we couldn’t have afforded it.”

Finding art works that the museum wanted at the right price is the challenge; it takes patience and nerves of steel, he noted. Under his watch, the museum’s collection has grown from 2,000 objects to more than 5,000.

Prepared for the future

The second thing Kahan is proudest of is giving the museum room to grow, acquiring “land enough to expand for the next hundred years,” with help from the city. It allows for projects like the new sculpture garden, for which planning will begin in 2013 after the new director is named.

“Long-range planning is so important so the institution will remain viable for the next century. You have a plan, it takes a long time, but you work it, and you don’t give up.

“You build on what was there before. I didn’t throw out anything that my predecessors did,” Kahan noted.

Another thing Kahan has brought is continuity.

“We are so fortunate to have Mitchell leading the museum for 26 years,” said Mark Smucker, president, U.S. Retail Coffee of the J.M. Smucker Co. and chairman of the museum’s marketing committee. “It is highly unusual for a museum director to have that kind of tenure in a community.”

That committee has worked on the museum’s public image and membership growth. Kahan was valuable in offering perspective on efforts that did or didn’t work in the past, Smucker said, and allowed others to have a voice.

Kahan also can claim credit for making the museum the center of the arts and culture renaissance in downtown Akron.

“We want to be a center for culture, to bring together all the artistic and cultural interests — the Boys and Girls Club, Tuesday Musical, the symphony, the library — the list goes on and on, and to me, that’s something that’s uniquely successful in Akron, because of this community’s eagerness for people to work together,” he said.

“People here aim for collaboration, not competition — that’s what it’s all about. Museums have to be about connections to the community, and art is a connector.”

Trials and triumphs

Kahan grew up in Virginia and attended the University of Virginia, Columbia University and City University of New York Graduate School. He was curator of painting and sculpture at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama from 1978-82 and curator of American and contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art from 1982-86 before coming to Akron.

The museum has had its share of controversies during his tenure. The one that sticks out most clearly in Kahan’s mind is the reaction to the 1992 Robert Colescott exhibit, especially for the sexual and racial commentary in his painting Bye Bye Miss American Pie (1971), which is now in the museum’s collection.

“There were billboards protesting that show, letters to our board, letters to the editor — oh, people were very upset by his work. But we ultimately won over his critics, and two years later he represented the United States at the Venice Bienniale.”

And there have been runaway successes. “When we did the Dale Chihuly glass show, people showed up in the lobby and they didn’t even know the name of the artist, but they came because people had told them they had to see that show.”

He’s had a great time working with some of the world’s greatest artists — Lisa Lou, El Anatsui, Harry Callahan, the Starn Twins. “I got to have Harry Callahan to lunch at my house, and people came to meet him,” he reminisced. “We have had some of the world’s greatest photographers. People who have been coming here for the past 30 years have met an extraordinary range of artists.”

And he has had setbacks. “Of course the stock market crash of 2008 has been just terrible for us,” Kahan admitted. “We will never get that back. It’s a permanent loss. We raised a lot of new endowment for the new building so we would have money for the increased costs, and immediately after the new building opened, the stock market crashed.”

His biggest regret is not getting the Mary and Louis Myers art collection for the museum on the death of Mary Myers, which he called “a terrible loss for this institution and for the community.”

What would he like to see happen in the future?

“This community is going to have to develop a coherent and effective way of adequately funding arts organizations. Now, it’s too unpredictable and all the arts organizations are struggling. … There are so many different models of what can be successful, and different communities have come to different conclusions.

“There needs to be broader public, government and business investment in the arts, not just investment by a few people.”

Kahan plans to remain in the Akron area with his partner, Chris Hixson, and will work on his own art and writing projects in his retirement.

“When you look at the museum’s first 25 years, it was an unmitigated disaster — they had to fire the staff because they didn’t have any money, the museum burned down, they had to move over and over again because they had no home — but the last 25 years have been pretty great.

“Being in this position has just broadened my perspective about how a community works,” he added, “And I am very grateful for that. I have learned so much beyond what I was trained for academically.”

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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