A new beginning

Ben Wolford

Akron Art Museum is a place to find great ‘beauty and comfort’


Credit: DKS Editors

A six-foot pink blob greets visitors in the Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby in the new Akron Art Museum.

The big red-blood-cell-esque piece of modern art might be obtrusive in a family room, but in the three-story glass lobby that looks like the Louvre’s strange younger brother, it fits right in.

The Akron Art Museum has made pieces of modern art such as this a focal point of its collection.

“Our collection is from 1850 to the present,” museum curator Barbara Tannenbaum said. “Since the 1950s, our focus has been on modern to contemporary art.”

This focus was kept in mind when selecting the architecture of the new wing.

Coop Himmelb(l)au, an architecture firm based in Vienna, constructed the dominantly glass and steel addition to the original nineteenth century Renaissance-style building.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony July 17 marked the new building’s first official day of operation. Vivian Celeste Neal, program director of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, talked about another reason for the construction.

“We hope that the new museum will increase the city’s bid for tourism and lengthen visitors’ stays,” she said.

Tannenbaum said the Akron Art Museum’s collection, at one point, had to be rotated every six months because not all of it could be displayed in the 21,000-square-foot older building. The 63,300-square-foot expansion allows all the art to be displayed at once.

“We owned art in Los Angeles that had no room until now,” Tannenbaum said.

For three months during the construction, the pieces they did have were sent to the nearest climate-controlled storage facilities for art in Baltimore and Youngstown.

Now that the dust has settled from construction, the museum’s entire collection is on display.

The most-celebrated piece is Chuck Close’s Linda. Close constructed the nine-foot picture in magenta, cyan and yellow layers using an airbrush to create one of the greatest examples of photo-realism.

Also on the more well-known side of Akron’s collection are a few pieces by pop-art artist Andy Warhol.

His Mao Tse Tung features nine separate color schemes depicting the communist ruler with make-up. Warhol took advantage of the mole on Mao’s chin, which makes a lovely beauty mark.

Brillo Boxes and Single Elvis make up the rest of the Warhol section.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of the art museum’s collection is its number of local art pieces.

“We cover regional, national and international art, but we try to involve area artists in many respects,” Tannenbaum said. “And we don’t segregate area artists as if they’re second best.”

On the contrary, area artists sometimes segregated themselves as being more interesting to viewers – especially those living in Northeast Ohio.

One gallery called “A Modernist Approach: Northeast Ohio’s Artists and Collectors” showcases pieces belonging to the Cleveland School of Art. This was a loosely affiliated group of 20th century Ohio artists.

Raphael Gleitsmann, born in Dayton, painted Winter Evening, an impressionist view of Main Street in Akron, and August F. Biehle’s work Untitled depicts a rainy day in the Flats.

It’s not unusual to see an artist’s impression of the Champs-lys‚es in Paris, but how often can people see North Hill Viaduct Under Construction as they can through the painting of Roy E. Wilhelm of Mt. Vernon?

“(Art) allows you for just a few moments to view the world through another’s eyes,” Tannenbaum said. “It’s a way to think about the world through a broader perspective.”

Speaking of broader perspective, Tannenbaum said the Akron Art Museum likes to think of itself as a “cultural community” and not just a place for visual art.

That’s why for eight Thursdays, starting Aug. 9, the museum will host “Downtown at Dusk” featuring music, drinks and entertainment.

What Tannenbaum expects to bring a lot of attention, however, is “The Art of Norman Rockwell,” starting Nov. 10, which will be the first traveling exhibition, she said.

Despite the loud music on Thursdays, aggressive modern art on display and the intense concrete and steel of the new building, Tannenbaum speaks of the more relaxing aspect of the Akron Art Museum and art in general.

“The gallery is a great place to find beauty and comfort,” she said.

Contact features correspondent Ben Wolford at [email protected].