It’s a striking contrast that the Akron Art Museum’s CEO and director, Mitchell Kahan, is surrounded by such magnificent modern art playing out in the spacious galleries, yet the desk in his office is a nondescript wooden behemoth showing its share of scars.
That desk seems to play testament to the dedication of Kahan, who’ll soon be stepping down after 26 years, that his thrust has always been about furthering the museum and everything else seems just peripheral.
He arrived in Akron in 1986 when he says “things were just terrible here,” a time when there was virtually no funds to grow the museum’s collection, citing, however, that the former director spent the money “very wisely.”
But since that time he’s managed to refurbish and enlarge the museum space from 25,000 to 83,000 square feet, overseeing its $35 million expansion. Additionally, his efforts brought about a nearly $5 million endowment fund for art purchases, and with three endowment campaigns raised more than $20 million from just $2 million.
This from a guy who says,”in high school, I didn’t even know art history was a discipline.”
And as with any organization, there’s been challenges, to which Kahan is no stranger.
Though some larger cities are investing in their arts and culture, not so much the infrastructure but the “intellectual software,” Kahan says, obtaining funding has been a bane for others and Kahan, who’s currently working on growing the museum’s exhibits and educational programs.
“It’s very competitive now in the cultural world,” he says. “None of the arts organizations in Akron have the luxury of being well-funded. People have no idea how difficult it is to keep these places going.”
Along the way the museum has become more than just a place to saunter through the galleries and take in the talent.
“I think we’ve become more of a community center for lots of different activities,” Kahan acknowledges. “We’ve got the Tuesday Musical, Head Start programs, and we’ll be doing a collaboration with the Cleveland International Film Festival. This larger facility has given us the opportunity to expand our relationships and programs.”
Lakewood native and former CEO and director of the Dayton Art Institute, Janice Driesbach, has been the Akron Art Museum’s curator since August.
At this time a director has not been chosen.
One of Kahan’s favorite contributions to the museum has been working collaboratively with other organizations along with his world travel to increase the collection.
“That’s what art museums are all about, to introduce you to things you haven’t seen before,” Kahan says. “I’ll miss the fun of coming up with new ideas and working with other people to execute them.”
Khahan’s 26 years in Akron is one of the longest tenures of art museum directors in the U.S.
“It’s been a long time with a lot of cool things, and I worked miracles giving people extraordinary things on a very modest budget,” he says. “It’s unusual to be doing such enormously high quality programs in a small city. And nationally, people know us for doing things you’d never think would be done in a city this size.”
Growing up in Virginia, Kahan, who initially thought he would be an academic working as an English or history professor, received his master’s degree at Columbia University and his Ph.D from the City of New York Graduate School.
Before Akron, Kahan was curator of American and contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and the curator of painting and sculpture at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama. Some of Kahan’s favorite museums are the Neue Galerie in New York and the Musée National Picasso Paris.
After he leaves the Akron Art Museum in early January, Kahan will be its director emeritus. He plans to stay here with his partner Chris Hixson. He’s considering a teaching offer, plans to write and paint, and is toying with the idea of starting an online art magazine, but first wants to take off for about six months.
Kahan enrolls in painting workshops periodically, working with oils and acrylics. He once described his style as “organic abstract,” but waffles a bit.
“Organic’s not right,” he adds. “How about organic neurotic? No, let’s say it’s abstract with a lot of circles and squiggles.”
He pauses. A quiet hum fills the empty museum on Monday, when it’s closed.
“We’re known all over the country,” he says. “I knew about the Akron Art Museum before I ever came here, and the reputation has only grown. But we haven’t had much controversy and we need to change that. You gotta get people upset or you’re not doing your job.”