Allyson Esposito heads new regional arts organization tasked with cultivating a vibrant, creative economy

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 1,975 views 

Allyson Esposito was hired in the summer to head up a new regional arts service organization backed by the Walton Family Foundation. (Photo courtesy Kelly Davidson Studio).

Allyson Esposito is a connector. She’s one of those people that author Malcolm Gladwell identified in “The Tipping Point,” who knows many different worlds and has a special gift for bringing them all together, making “connections between very different and disparate people and ideas.”

“I’m a person that loves people and loves gathering people and figuring out how we can all work together,” Esposito said. “I’m pretty good at reading people and bringing them into the conversation. I like people to feel included and welcomed.”

As a dancer, choreographer and founder of a dance company, Esposito understands the art world. As a lawyer, change management consultant and arts administrator, she understands systems and business.

She speaks the language of both worlds and can translate between art, business, government and philanthropy to bring about change.

Esposito was successful in doing that in Chicago as director of cultural grantmaking for the city and then as senior director of arts and culture for the Boston Foundation.

“Allyson transformed the way the Foundation approached its arts grantmaking,” said Paul Grogan, Boston Foundation president and CEO. “Her creation of Live Arts Boston, with its targeted approach to supporting individual creators, presenters and producers of new works, reinvigorated our connection with Greater Boston’s burgeoning, but often underappreciated, artistic communities in neighborhoods throughout the city.”

Esposito now uses her skills in Northwest Arkansas, where she is tasked with creating a regional arts organization — name coming soon — that is part of the Walton Family Foundation’s 2020 Home Region Plan. She started as executive director in July.

The organization will focus on “building the system-wide capacity of the region’s arts and culture organizations, professional development, convenings, small-scale grants and advocacy,” according to the Walton Family Foundation website. “It will create a strategic plan to attract and retain practicing artists and cultural organizations of all sizes and disciplines. It will showcase Northwest Arkansas as a premier destination for the arts, to encourage additional public support, cultural tourism and economic development.”

Four months into her new role, Esposito is eager to build connections between Northwest Arkansas groups.

“I am particularly excited to connect the business community of NWA with the rich local cultures and communities that have been built here over the past several decades,” she said. “They will continue to grow as the region creates and continues to support nationally significant creative infrastructures like Brightwater [A Center for the Study of Food], Crystal Bridges [Museum of American Art] and The Momentary.

“Connecting these two sectors at all levels will foster quality of life in this region. Arts and culture have proven to improve lives and increase community cohesion, inclusivity, openness, livability and public welfare.”

Esposito, the oldest of three daughters, grew up in the Chicago suburbs and calls herself “an artist at heart.” She comes from a family of artists. Cameron Esposito — her youngest sister — is a nationally known stand-up comedian, actor and writer. Their middle sister Britton is a conservatory-trained actor and singer.

Starting dance at age 3, Esposito practiced four to six hours every day after school at a ballet conservatory.

“Dance early on became a thing for me,” she said.

After graduating from Miami University of Ohio, she worked for Deloitte and Touche, continuing to dance in her spare time. She obtained her law degree from DePaul University College of Law in 2005. She then returned to Deloitte as a senior privacy and data protection consultant, continuing to dance for different companies in Chicago. She eventually started her own dance company, The Space Movement project.

Realizing she wanted to use her skills in philanthropy, she directed grantmaking for Mayer Morris Kaplan Family Foundation in Chicago. In 2012, she took the job with the city of Chicago, overhauling the city’s art and culture grantmaking to focus on local artists and small organizations.

Moving to the Boston Foundation in 2015, “Allyson came in and helped connect people,” said Kate Gilbert, executive director of Now + There, a nonprofit dedicated to creating impactful public art projects in Greater Boston.

“She was always connecting me with other artists, especially artists of color or other groups that weren’t on the radar screen of the top arts organizations in Boston,” Gilbert said. “She not only helped with visibility and connections, but she helped support them with funding. She helped translate what they were saying and doing in their work into ‘funder-speak.’

“The long-term effect is that the arts community is much more connected. There are innovative and exciting projects and programs that have happened because of Allyson. The connections she helped us form as a creative city and the unrestricted funding support [she advocated] helped create a more vibrant Boston.”

Esposito said the new arts organization in Northwest Arkansas would use community engagement vehicles like focus groups and surveys to look comprehensively at the full picture of the arts in the region.

“We need to understand what’s happening now, what the assets are, what the needs are, and how do our resources meet those needs,” she said. “Those resources can be dollars but also can be spaces, people, workforce, visibility, coverage in the media and all kinds of things.”

She defines “arts’” very broadly to include painting, sculpture, film, media, digital arts, music, dance, theater, fashion and culinary, and more. Esposito said a better term is “creative field or creative economy.”

Connecting people to bring change will be a crucial focus of Esposito’s work.

“I think there is a disconnect between the business community, the arts community, the larger philanthropic community and certainly our municipal governments,” she said. “I think the primary function of this organization is to sit in the middle of all of that and to connect everybody … so that we can galvanize support from different places.”

Gathering business leaders, government officials, key arts institutions, arts educators, artists and the real estate sector from the region’s five largest cities — Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville and Siloam Springs — will help “identify what each community needs, have a shared conversation to decide what they want and then will piece it together in a way creates change,” she said. This process will help each city “identify its unique arts and culture and creative brand.”

“There is a natural linkage between economic development and the arts,” Esposito said. “So, the process will include asking key questions such as, ‘How are we developing our downtown? How are we connecting our downtown to our uptown?’”

City plans will produce a regional program that knits together shared goals. “There will be set metrics and outcomes that we hope to achieve after the first five years,” she said. “We’re hoping to get everybody marching in a shared direction to lend visibility to the region and elevate our brand nationally.”

The new organization will focus on people, Esposito said.

“A healthy arts ecosystem is one that values, supports and develops its artists,” she said. “We have been focused as a region on places to consume art, and they are truly extraordinary. But our local artists and creatives are presently an undersupported asset — the key to a truly thriving arts ecosystem and the lifeblood of a creative region.

“We will focus on workforce development across all creative industries and fields, with a hyperlocal focus. We will support increased creative production with a goal that this region — which has long been strong in certain craft and music forms — will be known for our creative people, not just our creative places.”

A study commissioned last year on Northwest Arkansas’ existing music ecosystem and recommendations for the future, will be released soon, Esposito said. Northwest Arkansas Council is working with the Walton Family Foundation on the initiative, which is guided by a company based in London, Sound Diplomacy.

With plans to add staff soon, Esposito will organize the new venture as a nonprofit, either a 501(c)(3), operated for charitable purposes or possibly a 501(c)(4), run for social welfare purposes. The Walton Family Foundation provides funding for the organization’s first year, with administrative support from the Northwest Arkansas Council. Esposito will work with regional public and private organizations for future financing.

“Allyson brings incredible energy and valuable experience to this important initiative,” said Nelson Peacock, Northwest Arkansas Council’s president and CEO. “A coordinated and intentional strategy to promote arts and music and empower local artists will strengthen our economy and build an environment that values creativity and entrepreneurship. A vibrant creative economy will develop, attract and retain the workforce talent our region needs to thrive.”