Since even before we first started C4 Atlanta, we have had a long-standing connection with a group that calls itself APASO, the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations. The group is more of a network than it is an organization. It began approximately 35 years ago as an initiative of New York-based Theatre Development Fund, which you may know as that organization that runs the tkts booth in Times Square.
APASO has evolved since its roots. Despite the name, the network now includes arts service organizations of every kind. This year’s conference was held in Baltimore. The timing of the conference was coincidental, but a significant point for all of us who attended. On April 19, Freddie Gray died while in police custody, sparking daily protests in West Baltimore. On April 22, the APASO conference began. By April 24, protests were spilling into the heart of downtown Baltimore, where we witnessed the protests.
Before the conference officially began, several of us went on a cultural tour of the city. We became familiar with Maryland’s Arts and Entertainment Districts program. 22 of these districts throughout the state use tax incentives to attract artists, arts organizations and related creative enterprises. Through these districts, and a number of other efforts, hundreds of abandoned homes in Baltimore are getting bought, renovated and revitalized.
On April 23, Liz Lerman encouraged us to look beyond the traditional boundaries that tend to be part of our everyday assumptions: “The borders are conventions, not traditions.” Gwydion Suilebhan challenged us to look at technology as a practice, rather than as a product, and for arts organizations to see themselves as platforms rather than as “castles on mountaintops.” Finally, Carmen Morgan served as the facilitator for a session on equity in the arts. We considered some tough questions around diversity in the arts and in our organizations.
If I could, I would share everything I learned and observed at this year’s conference. The cultural tour, speakers and protests all came together in my mind as an illustration of the role arts organizations and artists can play in the revitalization of communities. Bring the power of arts organizations to convene communities together with artists who can bring out the voices of communities, and you have the start of a powerful movement toward revitalization.
We often speak of reasons to support the arts. As practitioners, our call is to live out those reasons by looking outside the boundaries of the arts as simply self expression or as something pure. Instead, our call is to make connections that extend beyond the arts — to other industries, to communities, and to people. It is in that way that artists serve as a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to community revitalization.