Linking the world of NWA arts and culture in a whole new way

Linking the world of NWA arts and culture in a whole new way


Seven years ago, on a whim, we thought it would be fun to spotlight some of the people we expected to change the Northwest Arkansas arts scene in 2014. Readers liked it. And here we are, still doing it!

There has never been a fixed list of selection criteria. The people we suggest you keep an eye on are those we think are making a difference and likely to continue to in the new year ahead. You’ll find them throughout this edition of The Free Weekly, beginning with:

Allyson Esposito

This summer, the Walton Family Foundation launched a regional arts organization (official name pending) whose mission is to become a conduit linking the rich arts and cultural tapestry of Northwest Arkansas. In July, arts administrator wunderkind Allyson Esposito came on board as executive director. Esposito has an impressive — and impressively varied — resume that includes a position as senior director of arts and culture for The Boston Foundation. Esposito is also a lawyer as well as a dancer who has trained since the age of 3 and started her own dance company while living in Chicago.

Q. Why does our region needs this new organization?

A. In my short time living in Northwest Arkansas, I have found it to be a region of diverse, culturally distinct communities with complementary assets. However, there has been no central arts organization that exists to unite our communities and cultures.

We have a real opportunity to celebrate local artists and creatives, diverse voices and the rapid rate at which our region is changing. We have the chance to model, elevate and empower — infusing Northwest Arkansas with the highest quality, most representative art and entertainment.

Q. New role, new organization: do you ever find yourself overwhelmed by the tasks ahead?

A. I will admit that I love being overwhelmed. Truly, I am fortunate to be able to work every day to effect change and solve complicated, seemingly intractable problems at a systems level. I am a person who relishes being in the beginning of a new project or job.

I spent the first part of my career in consulting, which taught me to come up to speed quickly and how to talk to almost anyone. Then I got my law degree, which taught me how to deeply analyze every action. For the last 10 years, I have worked to completely overhaul three existing arts philanthropies — a family foundation, a large city agency and one of the country’s oldest and largest community foundations — creating all new, large-scale programs and systems in support of artists and creatives of all kinds. But most of all, I am a creative — an artist and a maker — and the most thrilling moments of my creative process are always two: the blank canvas and when it begins to all come together.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish by the end of the year?

A. There are a few major initiatives and programs we will be launching in 2020.

First, we plan to work with each of the city governments in the largest towns in Northwest Arkansas over the next two years, supporting the cities to develop unique, comprehensive cultural plans.

Cultural planning is a communitywide process used to create a vision and road map for cultural and economic growth. Once the city plans are complete, we will aggregate themes into a regionwide plan for arts and culture that provides a collective vision for Northwest Arkansas as a center for innovative, exciting and equitable arts, culture and creativity at all scales in 10 years.

While conducting cultural planning, we aim to provide grant funding programs and professional and organizational development resources for local artists and arts organizations.

Finally, we will support the development of the local music industry.

By the end of the year, I hope we have a name for this organization!

Q. You’ve worked in Boston and Chicago — will adjusting to life in Northwest Arkansas be difficult for you? Are there any similarities you’re finding, despite the disparity in population? Anything that you’re happy to find here that you did not find in either of those large city hubs?

A. I am a diehard Chicagoan — deeply engrained — and truly thrive in big city environments. But the thing my husband and I most like to do together is to get outside and be active somewhere beautiful. We are really appreciating the increased access to nature and a new part of the country to explore. And moving somewhere previously so unknown to us is the ultimate adventure.

We have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and I am enjoying being able to spend more time with her with a lesser commute. The overwhelmingly family-friendly vibe makes it easier and more fun to integrate her into the other parts of my life and vice versa.

When I came to interview for the job, I was lucky to meet dozens of wonderful people working here in the arts in some capacity — a huge part of the reason I decided to make the jump. Despite knowing the people are awesome, I have been taken aback by how friendly and welcoming most people are in this region.

One major difficult adjustment for me is the lack of a dance scene. I am a life-long dancer and contemporary dance choreographer. Moving to Northwest Arkansas has meant giving up practicing, performing and making dance with other dance artists — something I have done for between four and 30 hours per week, every week of my adult life, in all of the places I have lived.

I am beyond thrilled that the gorgeous NWA Ballet Theatre is newly here and working so very hard — and being so kind to let me crash a class when I can get there. And I can’t wait to see what the Momentary brings in its performance season.

Q. You’re an artist, lawyer, philanthropist: few people find themselves with that kind of well-rounded background. Do you have any ideas as to why your career expanded into the varying areas that it did?

A. I am dedicated to my work, and I work very hard. I have been willing to take measured, thoughtful professional risks, putting myself out there and starting over several times. I am incredibly lucky to have been supported and awarded challenging opportunities by mentors and leaders who have opened doors for me as I have learned and grown.

I have never had a specific, mapped-out career plan, and I did not start out knowing what I wanted to do professionally. I did not even know the thing that I do was an actual job. I started off with “safer,” more traditional career choices and honed in on the skills and pieces of each area of study, job or career that seemed most useful. Then, through trial and error, I realized I was most motivated and fulfilled by work that felt helpful to people. Finally, I discovered the platforms that support communities and serve people — nonprofit work, the public sector and, ultimately, philanthropy.

And then there is the subject matter. I am and have always been passionate about artists, having spent so much of my time with them. They study and attempt to reflect the world around them in ways that help us to see. I value curiosity, questioning and critical thought, understanding, and life-long learning — and I find the arts are one of the best avenues towards those values.

Q. Did developing such an early, strong work ethic and passion in dance affect where you find yourself today?

A. Yes. Dancers are some of the most intense people I have ever met. It is possible I am one of the least intense dancers out there — and that is saying something. Dance is the hardest thing I have ever studied — most never truly master it. Right when you finally figure it out intellectually — and it is absolutely intellectual — your physicality begins to decline.

Dance taught me discipline, diligence and perseverance. Sometimes too much discipline.

I feel most alive dancing. And yet, it is nearly impossible to live off of it or make a career of it. Only the truly incredible can. Early on, once I decided that I must always dance, I had to figure out a way to fit it all in. Being an artist has taught me how to be incredibly efficient, to manage time, to juggle right- and left-brained parts of the day and to pack lots of outfits in the morning.

I began dancing when I was 3 and then transitioned to an intensive classical ballet school at age 7. In middle and high school, I danced every day but Sunday until late in the evenings after school and all day long in the summer. My college essay described how I “struck a balance” between aggressive academic pursuits and a rigorous dance schedule.

As a consultant, I supported IT implementations in Asia at a desk overnight so that I could join a company in Nashville that required seven hours of daily rehearsal Monday through Friday. In grad school, I squeezed daily dance training classes between law courses and performed with many Chicago companies professionally. And in 2004, while working very full time for Deloitte & Touche, I co-founded a Chicago-based, nonprofit dance company which continues to be a home for movement creation and performance for a company of dancers.

My point is: I can get a lot done quickly, simultaneously and relatively well. But I am frequently late for dates.


Previous People


In 2019, we looked back at five former nominees:

Missy Gipson, founder of Pilot Arts

Bryan and Bernice Hembree, founders of the Roots Festival

Jason Suel, founding host of “Good Day NWA”

Mark Landon Smith, founder of the Actors Casting Agency

Erika Wilhite, founder of Artist’s Laboratory Theatre


Mark Landon Smith

Michael Myers

Halley Mayo

John Jeter

Samuel Lopez

Jeannie Hulen

Leigh Wood

Houston Hughes

Daniel Hintz

Willi Carlisle



Stephen Caldwell

Jenni Taylor Swain

Laura Shatkus

Kholoud Sawaf

Mike Shirkey

Katy Henriksen

Joseph Farmer

Hannah Withers

Morgan Hicks

Kat Robinson



Jason Suel

Dana Idlet

Jennifer McClory

Kelly & Donna Mulhollan

Sabine Schmidt

Erika Wilhite

Jenny McKnight

Eve Smith

Gina Gallina

Bob Stevenson



Sara Parnell Luetgens

Justin & Virginia Scheuer

Mark Landon Smith

Missy Gipson

John Rankine

Sons of Otis Malone



Zeek Taylor

Eve Smith

Amy Herzberg & Bob Ford

Michael Riha

Amber Perrodin

Kyle Kellams

Zach Denison

Bryan Hembree

Janet Alexander

Categories: In The News