Nothing About Us Without Us: One Millennial’s First Time at APASO
Before I started at ArtsBoston six months ago, I hardly knew what an arts service organization was. I knew that ArtsBoston did amazing work, but what I wasn’t aware of was the network of similar groups across the country and the world that do similar, holistic programming for audiences and arts organizations alike.
The Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations (APASO) is a conglomerate of the ArtsBostons and StageSources of the nation, both local and national, from a plethora of cities including San Francisco, Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. The organization doesn’t have a chair, a board, or even a single paid staff member. Entirely volunteer-run, APASO is fueled by enthusiasm, an ad hoc programming committee, and show tunes.
Now in its 34th year, a group of colleagues formed APASO in 1984 as a space to talk about their specific and important work, a labor which few outside their small community truly understood. That first circle of friends built the conference from the ground up with an innovative spirit that still flourishes in APASO today. Though none of the original members were in attendance this year, I met conference junkies who had attended every year for the last five, ten, and even nineteen years. It’s a tight-knit group. But does that mean new folks are welcome?
The Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations (APASO) is a conglomerate of the ArtsBostons and StageSources of the nation, both local and national, from a plethora of cities including San Francisco, Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.
This year’s conference theme (I’m told the conference doesn’t usually have a theme) was Relevancy and Responsiveness, encouraging the amalgamation of arts service organizations to explore how they might respond to the changing cultural field and stay relevant to their constituents. APASO mainly sought to do that by focusing the discussion on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion with the larger group and in breakout sessions. How can we move the needle toward cultural equity? What even is cultural equity?
Boston’s own Arts Connect International kicked off the conference presenting their study on just that – how we can we close the equity gap that prevents full cultural representation in leadership roles in the arts? As Arts Connect International ran through figures and best practices, ArtsBoston’s Victoria George got a shout out for her work as the founder of The Network of Arts Administrators of Color (NAAC) Boston, which continues to build a community of POC arts workers for professional development and networking purposes.
Kaisha Johnson, the founder of Women of Color in the Arts, has also successfully built a network on the premise that anyone, regardless of station or position, can demonstrate leadership. Her plenary session addressed the perpetuation of racism in arts service organizations, stemming from a late invitation to the table for many women and people of color. She insisted that there should be “nothing about us without us.”
This rallying cry, a contribution to the field from the disabled community, pulsed under the full three days of programming at APASO. There were breakout sessions too numerous for even the largest delegations to tackle. The first afternoon was split between conversations on access, affirmative consent in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the role of data in creating systemic change, and implicit bias. By the time I got to the opening night party in Austin Creative Alliance’s courtyard, my head was spinning. The breadth of offerings and passion behind each presentation showcased the strength of this collective.
The heart of APASO, as it stands now, is in its networking opportunities. My fondest memories of the week revolve around connecting with community members from all ends of the continent I would not have met otherwise. Sent as the lone delegate on the first day of programs, e-introductions from our team preceded me, as did stories of my boss tearing up the music scene in every city APASO had visited. ArtsBoston has a legacy in this group, one I was now trying to live up to. In spite of my nerves, the support in the room was clear, if a little strained. My face was far from the only younger, browner one in the crowd; APASO made an intentional outreach effort for this edition of the conference to diversify the demographics of the typical white, mid-career group. I ended the first night with a small huddle of fellow millennials and Gen X-ers, a mixture of first-timers and old pros having drinks and exploring food trucks.
My colleagues joined me for Day 2 and continued their tradition of APASO superstardom. Fellow APASO first-timer Victoria and our fearless leader Catherine Peterson presented ArtsBoston’s work with NAAC Boston and the Audience Lab, a data-driven, experiment-led effort to diversify audiences in greater Boston. Though the rest of our delegation was dividing-and-conquering at other breakout sessions, we heard admiration for and fielded questions about both programs for the rest of the day. With persistence, the conversation was opening up to include more participants.
APASO’s willingness to discuss what their attendees are interested in is best demonstrated in the tradition of Open Space, which allows for anyone to pose a question they would like to discuss in a small group. I had one pushing on my mind, so I volunteered it: how do we advance and retain millennial talent?
I was enjoying my time at APASO, but I had to wonder if my peers would ever be fortunate enough to experience it. APASO had offered some scholarships for the first time this year, but without that resource, even a discounted Early Bird registration was $390. Add $145/night to stay at the hotel where breakfast is and flights, and you’ve got a substantial business expense. I knew of several (mostly younger) attendees staying at nearby Airbnbs and even one hostel to save on costs either for their non-profit employer or themselves. These events are naturally expensive, but I know that if ArtsBoston wasn’t sponsoring my attendance, I would have no way of fronting the money required to get me to Austin.
This all ran through my mind as I had the exhilarating opportunity to lead a conversation with about a dozen attendees in Open Space about what was going to happen to people like me in our industry. Generational thought differences, economic disparities, and the misplaced belief that one needs to “pay their dues” ensure early career employees are further separated from their supervisors in organizational hierarchies that disadvantage and sometimes impoverish young arts workers, increasing the rate of burnout and causing an early exodus of those who are unable to make a livelihood in the industry. The under-resourced laborer who sticks it out and succeeds is viewed as the rule, when they are in fact the exception to the silent departure of administrators in crisis.
Our discussion didn’t solve any major industry problems, but it did come up with practical small fixes that organizations could institute immediately. Discouraging millennial-bashing stereotypes, discontinuing unpaid internships, and sponsoring younger colleagues outside of work were popular suggestions.
Here, the conference took a turn for me, as did APASO’s own agenda. How could we actually create change when we got back home? No other question seemed important anymore. Other Open Space groups must have felt the same electric charge, as fiery calls-to-action dominated the next morning’s business meeting. The new voices in the room were notably no longer holding their tongues.
The conference was closing faster than we could create a revolution, but a programming committee for the Dallas 2019 APASO conference formed before us, plenty of new folks jumping onboard to lead next year’s charge. The real inspiration for me came from the closing plenary session led by Courtney Harge and Lauren Ruffin of Fractured Atlas, a national collaborator with strong ties in Boston. They’ve been on a two-year journey to create institutional change and were ready to share their experience with us.
The “courage to be unfair” is a central tenant of their methodology. In the process of dismantling oppressive power structures in the organization, Fractured Atlas has created separate affinity groups for their white employees and employees of color with equal budgets. The white affinity group has spent the funds on a facilitator to lead them through anti-racist training and difficult conversations around bias; the POC group, exhausted from everyday EDI conversations, spent last year’s funds on their own holiday party. The white affinity group must report back to the whole organization their progress, while the POC collaborative doesn’t report to anyone. This radical, yet totally logical attempt to level the playing field showed that while growing pains are unavoidable, organizations can stretch themselves to overcome their history of oppression. ArtsBoston member organizations can be sure that I’ll be inviting Fractured Atlas to bring these lessons to our learning cohort soon.
Seeing a model where a brighter and more equitable future was possible was truly groundbreaking for me. It was like finally finding something you’ve misplaced – the satisfaction, pride, and hope for the group that witnessed this moment overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t shut up about it even after the bar opened at the closing night dinner. There was work to be done for sure, but we also had a lot to celebrate in our new coalition. I celebrated so hard I missed my flight the next morning.
In my conference hangover, I still can’t help but hope there is a place for me in the future of APASO. I went into the conference fearing I wouldn’t find another attendee under 30; I could have spent my time exclusively with twenty- and thirty-somethings if I desired. I have a draft email in my outbox asking to join the programming committee waiting for me to hit send.
The heart of APASO, as it stands now, is in its networking opportunities. My fondest memories of the week revolve around connecting with community members from all ends of the continent I would not have met otherwise.
A week with the champions of the arts service world is nothing short of inspiring – both in the sense of what has come before, and what we all still have to work for.