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'Visionary' three-decade Ohio Arts Council leader Wayne Lawson passes away at 82

Former Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Lawson
Ohio Arts Council
Former Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Lawson at the 2011 Governor’s Awards for the Arts, where he was awarded the Irma Lazarus Award – the most prestigious of the Governor’s Awards.

Wayne Lawson, who many considered a "giant" due to his work in the Ohio arts community, died on Wednesday, June 19.

Lawson was the longest serving director of the Ohio Arts Council for almost three decades from 1978 to 2006. Lawson revolutionized the agency in terms of what it stood for and what it accomplished, according to many.

His work brought his knowledge and advocacy to a national and international stage, reaching as far away as Chile and Japan. The South American country honored him in 2009 for working on cultural and arts exchanges between the U.S. and Chilean governments.

Lawson was also a professor emeritus at The Ohio State University.

Those at the agency he helped grow remembered Lawson fondly.

OAC Deputy Director Dan Katono said he considers Lawson to be one of his mentors, as do many others in the state.

"(Lawson) was a visionary. He had big, bold ideas. He thought about the arts. He thought about other countries and Ohio's place in the world and how to connect people to one another, and the role that the arts played in that, what role government should play in that," Katono said.

Katono said he first met Lawson in 2001 as he left graduate school and was hired by the OAC. He said he was immediately taken with Lawson's leadership at the agency.

"We're mourning the passing of this giant of our agency and this legend in the arts field, in Ohio and around the country and around the world. It's like we've lost a member of our family a little bit," Katono said.

Former Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Lawson
Ohio Arts Council
Former Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Lawson in 1990.

Katono said he most remembers car rides with Lawson, which many people loved and dreaded.

"You knew that you'd laugh a lot. You'd have these wild conversations about his latest trip, or where you know what he was up to, what he was doing. But, you'd probably also end up back at your desk the next day with a big list of new projects that he'd dreamed up on the car ride that you had to get to work on," Katono said.

One of those projects was bringing acclaimed Japanese taiko musician Eitetsu Hayashi to Ohio and building relationships between him and the state. Katono says Hayashi is visiting again later this year.

Katono said he will most remember Lawson's humor and he leaves a legacy of pushing arts in Ohio as a nonpartisan issue amongst lawmakers and garnering the respect of those in power.

"I can remember the feeling of kind of watching him in a room full of elected officials or government leaders...or powerful, influential people and watching them respect him and value him, and then having him come back to the office and just sit around with us and chat with us kind of away from the bright lights," Katono said.

Current OAC Executive Director Donna Collins said in a statement that Lawson built the foundation for how public arts agencies can best operate in Ohio, across the country and internationally.

“He was an innovator who positioned Ohio as a leader in the arts. Many other states continue to model the Ohio Arts Council’s practices, thanks to the visionary ideas that Wayne turned into reality," Collins said.

Collins said Lawson helped to open up the grantmaking process, instituting public panels to evaluate applications and provide greater transparency. Collins said Lawson pushed the agency to be an early adopter of technology, reducing bureaucracy and paperwork by moving applications online.

“Wayne cared about reaching everyday Ohioans. Under his tenure, the agency surveyed residents and found that, while Ohioans supported public investment in the arts, many didn’t realize those investments were already being made through the OAC. That gave Wayne an opportunity to spread awareness of the OAC’s unique role in state government, building on the public’s mandate for our work," Collins said.

Collins said the OAC is proud to carry on Lawson's legacy.

Katono said he is not aware of any memorial or funeral plans at this time, but said the arts community will find a way to celebrate Lawson's life in a "sad and hilarious way. Just like Wayne was."

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.