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Akron Black Artist Guild plans parks project and more collaborations in 2022

Akron Black Artist Guild members. Top row: Josy Jones, Bronlynn Thurman, Diane L. Johnson, Dominic Moore-Dunson, Dara Harper, and Charlee Harris. Seated: Floco Torres and Ashley Pippin
Dara Harper
Akron Black Artist Guild members. Top row: Josy Jones, Bronlynn Thurman, Diane L. Johnson, Dominic Moore-Dunson, Dara Harper, and Charlee Harris. Seated: Floco Torres and Ashley Pippin

Over the past year, Black artists in Summit County have come together to better promote their work and make arts connections. The resulting Akron Black Artist Guild now has about 100 members as well as support from the Knight Foundation and the advocacy organization ArtsNow.

Guild co-founder Dara Harper said the organization grew out of a frustration with Akron’s art community. She spent over a decade establishing her career as an artist, and she said she's been fairly successful. Harper and her mother, Diane Johnson, set up Art Only Boutique, selling their paintings privately and working on commissions. Plus, sales come in from across the country thanks to the web. Still, Harper said they felt disconnected.

“We just had that conversation to ourselves about having something where we can bring artists together in our area and kind of see who was doing what,” she said. “Who does what in Akron that looks like me?”

Akron Black Artist Guild Co-Founder Dara Harper
Akron Black Artist Guild Co-Founder Dara Harper

Harper started networking with other black creatives across the city, including at a meeting sponsored by ArtsNow, Summit County's arts advocacy and support agency. At that gathering, Harper said she heard people voicing some of the same issues that she and her mother had experienced.

“So, I made mention of, ‘How about a guild, like create a guild, a Black artist guild?’” she said.

And that was the spark that led to the launch of the Akron Black Artist Guild (ABAG) in February 2021. ArtsNow and the Knight Foundation provided funding to cover startup costs as part of a larger Akron cultural plan. Harper teamed with Akron choreographer Dominic Moore-Dunson to organize the guild.

“What came out of that was we did a speaker series, which brought in professional artists in the field to talk to the guild, and also just the community in general, as to what they're doing, what is important as an artist? Why is it important? How is it helping the community? All of those of those type of things,” she said.

Despite pandemic restrictions, ABAG hosted virtual sessions featuring speakers such as Chicago arts entrepreneur Theaster Gates and Connecticut arts advocate and consultant Lisa Scails. The group also sponsored a marketing workshop, targeted to artists struggling to get their work seen in a time when many galleries, theaters and other venues were shut down.

ABAG funder event at East Avenue Market
Akron Black Artist Guild
ABAG funder event at East Avenue Market

Another achievement for Harper this past year was her appointment as the first director of programming for ArtsNow. Harper said the goal is to use her personal experience to help others in the community sharpen their organizational skills and to encourage collaborations.

Harper and Moore-Dunson recently kickstarted an ABAG collaboration with Summit Metro Parks, thanks to a $128,000 grant from the Knight Foundation.

“We got the most money out of six winners,” Harper said, describing the two-year project called the Art in the Park Collective. The idea is to put performances, workshops and other arts activities outdoors in the park system and accessible to all.  

“We will hire the artists. We will do the digital recording, the streaming, the building of the portfolio for each artist we hire,” she said.

And that’s a key point for Harper – she wants this experience to be a springboard for the artists.

“Hopefully, it opens the door for more professional work to come their way,” she said. “Helping them to be at a professional level in some areas. Putting those people that they are going to work with on the list of people that they can work with in the future.”


ABAG promotional video featuring co-founder Dominic Moore-Dunson [Akron Black Artist Guild]

One of the reasons that Harper, Moore-Dunson and their collaborators created ABAG was due to the difficulties local Black artists were having in being seen and heard. In its first year, ABAG attracted both attention and financial support. 

“I want everybody to feel that way,” she said. “And then, once everybody just gets out there, then I think it will be much easier to collaborate, because then there is no screen or line. Everybody knows everybody, and then it becomes harder to stay in your little bubble or in your own little space, when you begin to work with other people that you would normally not come across.”
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David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.