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New director making mark at art museum

1/2/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Mark Masuoka is the new executive director and CEO at the Akron Art Museum.
Photo courtesy of Akron Art Museum
DOWNTOWN AKRON —Growing up 20 minutes from a beach in Hawaii, it wasn’t art that inspired Mark Masuoka in his early years.

“I was a surf bum,” said Masuoka, who this past summer was named the new executive director and CEO of the Akron Art Museum. “I was not that interested in art, even though I was exposed to it.”

The son of an architect and an American history teacher, Masuoka spent as much time as possible from the age of 8 until about 25 catching as many waves as he could, even competing as a high-schooler.

It wasn’t until he took a ceramics and glass class in college in Oregon, while he was a political science major, that something clicked in him and set him on a course for his future career.

“It changed everything,” he said of the class. “Something sparked inside of me.”

He transferred back home to the University of Hawaii, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in visual art and then a master of fine arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

“Having very little art experience, it pushed me to get up to speed and move quickly and work harder,” he said. “I fully submerged myself into the art world. The more I did, the more I loved it.”

He met his wife, Debbie, a sculptor, at Cranbrook. When the opportunity came to move to Las Vegas and start up a gallery, the two jumped at the chance, Masuoka said.

“Most of my friends decided to get teaching jobs, and for some reason I decided not to go in that direction,” he said. “I always had a lot of curiosity about the business side of the art world.”

During that time, the late 1980s to early 1990s, Las Vegas experienced an explosion in population that allowed Masuoka to witness the changes to the city. And running his own gallery allowed him to learn all aspects of that side of the art business.

After a few years, the opportunity to move into the nonprofit aspect of the art world arose, and Masuoka became the executive director at the Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art.

“What I loved about that job is that nonprofits are mission-driven and have many stakeholders,” he said. “Business was easy — you focus on your artists and customers. But in a nonprofit, you have a broad audience that you have to address.”

After five years, Masuoka headed to Denver, where he led the Museum of Contemporary Art. He again returned to the private sector to run a gallery there after an opportunity arose.

Masuoka then took the job as executive officer and CEO at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, which he led for 10 years.

The opportunity to apply for the job in Akron came after a couple of his friends who live in Ohio alerted him to the opening that arose when longtime Akron Art Museum executive director and CEO Mitchell Kahan retired at the end of 2012.

“The more I read about the museum, the more I was interested,” said Masuoka, who had first heard about the museum when its extensive addition designed by Coop Himmelblau was completed a few years ago.

Once he was hired this past summer, Masuoka decided he could either take some time to consider what he wanted to do at the museum or he could jump in feet first and start making an impact. He decided on the latter.

“For the first initiative, we looked at the entire museum and public spaces, anywhere there could be public interaction,” he said.

What he felt needed to be addressed immediately was the café space in the lobby, which was not being used.

“We needed to do it in a unique way that makes sense to sustain it and connect with the visitor experience,” he said.

The result is that the museum has partnered with Akron’s Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. and Urban Eats, and Bent Tree Coffee Co. in Kent, to present local fare that is unique and high quality. The café is also featuring pastries from the Blue Door in Cuyahoga Falls.

The museum was also able to expand, with corporate support, its free admission days to every Thursday (rather than once a month) and align many of its special events to take place that day, Masuoka said.

“This was about increasing access and giving people a reason to come to the museum and doing it without a financial restriction,” he said.

Also doing more is the museum’s education department, which is expanding its offerings, Masuoka said, especially for children. So far, the museum is seeing more people coming on both the free days and at other times, he added.

“We are giving people more reasons to come and come back,” he said.

He said the new year will feature many more opportunities for community engagement. One of the other shifts will be a new policy that will allow visitors to take photos in some areas. And security staff are also being trained so that they will be more like ambassadors for the museum, Masuoka said.

The new director, who just moved into a home in Fairlawn Heights, said so far he’s delighted with Akron and the reception he’s received from the community.

“I love it,” he said. “I’ve met probably the most genuine people I’ve ever met here. They mean it when they offer help. I don’t feel like we’re doing it alone. I’ve gotten a lot of support in the city.”

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