From childhood, we learn to put people in boxes: You're good at art. I'm good at math. He's great with his hands. She's an organizer. She's going to grow up to have a career in business; he'll probably be a teacher.
From the beginning, Allyson Esposito defied all boxes. If she was curious about something, she pursued it. And because she had a single-minded focus and limitless energy, she was usually successful at whatever she pursued.
Esposito is now the executive director of the Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange (CACHE), a new organization funded by the Walton Family Foundation that is tasked with "building the system-wide capacity of the region's arts and culture organizations, professional development, convenings, small-scale grants and advocacy," according to a press release. As the first executive director of the fledgling organization, she's building it from the ground up, a seemingly daunting task until you consider that her resume includes a role as senior director of arts and culture for the prestigious Boston Foundation and director of cultural grant making for the city of Chicago. Oh, and she founded and ran her own dance company in Chicago. Lest you're mentally checking the box next to "arts administrator," she also spent over a decade working in information technology with Deloitte and Touche, later serving as the senior privacy and data protection consultant for that same firm.
And, somewhere in there, she found time to earn a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago.
"In my family, that's normative," says Cameron Esposito, Allyson's sister and a well-known comedian, actor and writer. "But I don't know it's normative elsewhere. Being a stand-up comic is also being a salesperson of ourselves; it's being a small business owner. Our dad is a small business owner, and our mom is really into the arts and was a teacher. I think that those things, for us, aren't mutually exclusive. That's what makes Allyson specifically good at her job. I think it might be unusual to be organizing, fundraising, doling out grants, all those sides of things when you've been a practicing artist yourself. But I think that's what makes her awesome at her job."
"While many artists have a long history of being 'interdisciplinary' in their artistic practices and their professional resumes, Allyson's mix of experiences is extraordinary in its breadth and relevance to understanding a vibrant and growing cultural ecosystem like ours," notes Joe Randel, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. "I think that background also helps her relate to the entire spectrum of organizations that make up our region's arts community, from individual artists to large cultural institutions. Allyson speaks numerous professional 'languages,' which is a great asset when bringing together all of the voices from our diverse arts community and stakeholders who might think of themselves as outside the arts, like the business community or local governments."
Esposito assumed her new position in July 2019 and was tasked with supporting, amplifying and linking Northwest Arkansas' vibrant arts scene -- with no way of knowing that, within seven months, a global pandemic would be shutting down arts organizations all over the world.
"I think the question that's being asked here now is, 'What is the arts council/arts service organization for the new time?'" she observes of this particular moment she finds herself in. "'What is the new model for this kind of organization?' Because we all probably know that the models that have been around for a really long time are no longer going to work. And so it's exciting to be developing something new at a moment when we can think alongside really interesting folks, globally. The needs have always been great within all of our wonderful creative communities, and, right now, they are absolutely more so. I try to spend as much time as I can with the community, just really processing what's going on, because it's really devastating, and that time is absolutely critical to our moving forward."
Illinois To Ohio
Esposito grew up in a suburb of Chicago, the oldest of three siblings. Younger sisters Cameron and Britton both make their living in the arts field, too.
"My parents both grew up working class, and I think they're both inherently creative people who have spent a lot of their lives working really hard but also being creative on the side," says Esposito. "My mom is a 35-year veteran of preschool teaching so, for her, just all day long, she's coming up with creative ways to talk about stuff and do stuff and engage. My dad is a self-trained singer with an incredibly powerful voice who is known to just burst into song at any moment. Throughout my childhood, we all loved to make up stuff and perform, and we would show it to anybody that might walk in."
One art form that fueled her passions early on was dance. Her first lesson was at 3 years old, and it turned out to be the first step on a path that would bring her joy for the rest of her life.
"Dance felt like home from a very young age, the structure of it, the physicality of it, and also the intellectual [stimulation] -- it's just hard, you know?" she says. "It's 100 percent the hardest thing I ever did. So you need to love the challenge of it."
When she was only 7, she made the decision to study at an "intense Russian ballet school," where she spent 60 hours a week learning dance.
"She's pretty brave," says Cameron. "She was taking dance classes, biking there when she was a kid, and then taking a train downtown to take classes at Hubbard Street or ballet with the Joffrey when they taught open classes. At our young age, a lot of people were into sports, but Allyson decided she was into dance. I think that was brave, even from a young age, going after something she wanted that was outside the norm."
Esposito didn't have a lot of time left for things outside of school and dance, but by high school, her natural gregariousness was in full bloom. Though she had a foot in two vastly different worlds, she had wide social circles in both. The diversity provided by her family's proximity to Chicago, as well as the international students at her ballet school, she says, "opened my eyes to the fact that diversity is beautiful."
"What I learned pretty early on from being able to navigate all of those worlds was just, 'Make people feel comfortable; let's talk openly. We all have a bunch to contribute.'"
Post-graduation, Esposito attended Miami University in Ohio.
"I just could not figure out what to study," she admits. By this time, she had been working for Deloitte and Touche during summer and winter breaks for a couple of years after an aunt connected her with the company when she was still in high school. "So I was dabbling around in the business school for a while. But what I've always loved is to read and to write, honestly. It's my second passion. So I got very into feminism and women's studies in college, because I had a lot of, I would say, very male-oriented classes in [my all-girls Catholic] high school. I started reading all of these books written by women. I ended up with a journalism degree, which cobbled together my business skills and an English degree to help me graduate on time."
After graduation, she decided to see where her consulting job with Deloitte would take her. The answer was all over the world. She traveled constantly; when she did find herself in one place for any length of time, she sought out opportunities to dance -- as she did in 2000, when she was posted in Nashville, Tenn., where Deloitte's home base was located.
"I knew I was going to be there for a while, so I auditioned to be a part of the National Ballet's Contemporary Company -- and I got in," she says. "And it was so exciting. Deloitte let me work three days a week on the night shift. I did that for a year and a half. They were very supportive of me."
But -- when did she sleep?
"Quick transitions," she says with a laugh. "Quick transitions between things and a backpack, a lot of things with you at all times and sleep all of six hours. I think I have a lot of energy. I don't need a lot of sleep. And I've always been able to fit it all in, and I'm good at keeping the plates in the air. It's certainly discipline, maybe more like just sheer force -- I don't want any of these things to slip or fall off, so I'm just going to do them all and do them the best I can. I think I was like that from a pretty young age, and it's a skill I still apply today."
Chicago And Boston
After about three years of constant travel in the business world, Esposito says she started re-thinking her future -- the work failed to inspire her. With her dad's example as a "fighting-for-justice-in-the-courtroom kind of guy," as she describes him, and her love for reading and writing, she chose law school.
Even after law school, Esposito wasn't ready to leave Chicago, a city she adores. When school and her day job kept her from dancing, she solved that problem by starting her own dance company.
"It was not a brave move I did on my own, I did it with three other women," says Esposito of creating "The Space Movement," which she calls a very "grassroots-y" project. "We did it to hold space for each other, because we all had other things going on in our lives, but we wanted to dance. We formed a nonprofit that is still active today, which became a midsize organization in Chicago that at one time supported 15 different choreographic visions. We inevitably evolved into a fully collaborative, artistic [entity]. We had a great time, we toured a little bit of the country, we toured Mexico, we performed in so many venues in Chicago. The highlight was to perform on the Pritzker Stage, with Millennium Park as our backdrop. Just incredible. I don't even know how the heck we did it other than fear, grit and sweat, but we had a great time."
As the company's executive director, Esposito was slowly learning to navigate the path of an arts administrator in a large urban environment. She discovered that not only was she good at it, but also she liked it. A position at a multi-generational family foundation in Highland Park, Ill., was followed by a position with the city of Chicago, where she served as the director of cultural grant making -- a hands-on position that allowed her to learn more about the myriad arts organizations the city had to offer and foster their success, as well.
But Esposito prides herself on being a lifelong learner, and, despite her love for Chicago, other parts of the country were calling to her. After three years working with the city of Chicago, she started casting about for new experiences to widen her horizons. Her gaze fell on a job notice for a senior director of arts and culture at the storied Boston Foundation, one of the nation's oldest and largest foundations. In her five years there, she made a number of contributions to the arts and culture scene of the city -- perhaps the most high profile one being Live Arts Boston, a program Esposito spearheaded meant to "address the lack of resources directed to individual artists and small arts organizations in Greater Boston," according to a press release from the foundation. By 2019, the program had distributed nearly $3 million in grants, as well as wrap-around support services and professional development opportunities, to the city's artists.
Esposito loved living in Boston and raves about the team with which she worked there, but a job notice for an executive director position in Arkansas caught her eye. She was intrigued. By the position's description, she knew she would be creating a brand new organization and helping to foster the arts and culture scene in a part of the country that many still didn't realize existed. That old feeling of wanting to see what was beyond the horizon was tugging at her sleeve. So when she was invited down south for an interview, she came.
"I was here for three days for the interview, and it was my first visit to Arkansas," she says. "The way the interview process was handled was that tens of arts and community leaders interviewed me on behalf of the Walton Family Foundation. So I got to meet all of these inspiring and beautiful creative humans. I had fallen in love with the people by the time I left."
"In addition to her wide-ranging professional background inside and outside of the arts, I was struck by her curiosity and enthusiasm for Northwest Arkansas's creative community and the region itself," says Randel. "During her interview process, Allyson had an opportunity to meet with numerous local arts community representatives, whose feedback afterward was overwhelmingly positive. I think that's a reflection of her strong and sincere relationship-building skills, which are critical to her role with CACHE."
Allyson is one of the most driven and creative people I've met," says Maximiliano Perez, director of arts and cultural planning at the Teen Action and Support Center. "The first thing I realized after our initial conversation is that I have a lot to learn from her experience and that the art community is lucky to have her on our side, working to expand the opportunities that we can take advantage of in Northwest Arkansas. More importantly, Allyson is a down-to-earth and honest person that has the best interest of artists at heart."
The organization's genesis is a 2015 report, commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, that examined the cultural needs in Northwest Arkansas. The report found that the biggest gap holding back progress in the local arts and culture arena was a lack of a "central agency connecting the arts community," according to one of the report's lead researchers, Alan Brown. Esposito and CACHE hope to fill that gap.
"I think the vision for this organization is being a part of a community where the arts make a difference to every other aspect of life," she says. "We don't think about the arts as 'on high' or the arts as a particular discipline. We're really talking about creativity, which is something that we all have within us and is inherent in everything that we do, including business and innovation and all of the things that are going on.
"If we can start to talk about creativity as inherent in the way that we experience people, in the way that we economically develop, the way we grow and the way we spend time together, that's really the core and central goal. We have all the raw materials here. It's an incredibly rich cultural region." In fact, a 2017 study found that the arts and culture industry in Northwest Arkansas brought in $131 million in economic activity in 2015.
Esposito is excited -- you can hear it in her voice, a hum of energy that accelerates the longer she talks about the new organization. She has a 3-year-old child, just moved into a new house in a region that's unfamiliar to her and is starting a brand new arts organization in the middle of a pandemic. But if there's trepidation or hesitation in her, there's no trace of it in her voice. Some of her fearlessness, she says, comes from the support system of the people she works with.
"I'm so lucky to have this team," she says. "None of this is me alone, not one minute of it. I learn from my amazing team every single day. They all have incredible backgrounds building and supporting and participating in that they're all artists, really."
But much of the excitement and confidence is just her fearless personality; she is ready to tackle the next mountain the world has given her, by sheer force of will. She plans to do it one connection at a time.
"I am 100 percent dedicated to slowly working to build trust with as many people as I can and to just listening and learning from everybody," Esposito says. "I think we're at a moment where change is inevitable, and so I hope we're not too late to come together and determine collectively, 'What is that change, and how are we going to do this differently?' It really is about us standing behind our community and having its back. I think that's the message I'm trying to share most widely."
"She's the kind of person who can make a meaningful relationship on an airplane," says Cameron. "I have no doubt she'll be able to achieve anything she sets her mind to or bridge any gap. She's been doing it her whole career."
CACHE has been hard at work since its inception in 2019. Here are just a few of the initiatives the arts organization has coming down the pipeline:
• OZCast is a series of online, professionally shot videos meant to boost the diverse arts community in Northwest Arkansas. “This is in partnership with Crystal Bridges, the Momentary and OZ Art, and is a weekly online creative variety show featuring our amazing local grassroots arts community,” says Allyson Esposito. “It’s featuring creativity in all of its forms, every kind of art form — from tattoo artists to cellists and beyond. It’s going to be about 15 or 20 episodes per season, and we think it’s a really exciting, updated, relevant model for what putting work on line in these crazy times looks like.” Find it on the OZCast Youtube channel.
• “Our second project is in Springdale, at the [former] Arts Center of the Ozarks,” says Esposito. “It was just purchased by the Tyson Family Foundation in September, and CACHE has been given the opportunity to operate the building. … It’s not about us — it’s about us holding the space for as many organizations and artists and creatives and creative businesses in one space to foster collaboration and connectivity and diversity right there in the downtown area. [The theatrical company that has been in the space for decades] is absolutely a part of that fabric and, I think, will continue to perform there.” Espsosito says that the ultimate goal is to have a similar creative hub space in Bentonville, Rogers and Fayetteville.
• The Bridge Fund, says Esposito, is “a relief fund that we’re really happy to be able to offer our arts and culture nonprofits regionally, in partnership with the Walton Family Foundation in response to immediate distress” caused by covid-19.
• ARt Connect grants “support the development of our grassroots, nonprofit arts organizations, many led by BIPOC communities,” says Esposito.