The Arts Extension Service held the first Women in Arts Leadership Symposium (WALS) on October 27th, 2018. Nearly one hundred arts professionals, five college students, and nationally recognized speakers gathered to crack open the conversation about what women recognize as the barriers to their leadership in the arts, and how these barriers can be mitigated and broken down. The tone of the day was one of building community and mutual effort to uplift each other, while at the same time acknowledging that women’s experiences vary and the systemic oppression of women and non-binary people of color must be tackled in concert with gender equity.
Storytelling, interactive art, panel discussions, and workshops filled the day – encouraging attendees to forge relationships with peers as well as potential professional advisors and advisees. Speakers hailed from Americans for the Arts, MassCreative, UMass Amherst, Westfield State University, Goddard College, and non-profit organizations across the region. Barbara Schaffer-Bacon, Arts Extension Institute’s Board President and Co-director of Animating Democracy, received the prestigious Robert E. Gard Award. Workshop topics ranged from Artists Undoing Racism to Making a Living While Making a Difference. Participants self-selected into lunch discussions that focused on different art practices and applications, from educators to programmers to historians.
Arts Extension Service’s co-presenters and partners were essential to the event representing and supporting such diverse perspectives. The Symposium was presented with UMass College of Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA) and HFA Advising and Career Center in partnership with UMass Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and the Center for Women and Community’s Women of Color Leadership Network.
One of the strongest elements of the Symposium was the involvement of students in the ten months of organizing and executing the event. Arts Extension Service’s Planning Committee of driven student interns conducted interviews with arts professionals leading up to the Symposium while the Humanities and Fine Arts Student Leadership Board provided essential logistical support. One student, Angela Yu, who joined the board in her senior year, saw the event through as Assistant Project Manager following her graduation. Her reflection below offers more insight into her experience and shares the importance of events like the Women in Arts Leadership Symposium to the education that students receive at UMass Amherst.
Angela Yu (UMass Art History Major, Arts Management Certificate ’18), WALS Assistant Project Manager, Planning Committee Co-Chair, Advisory Committee Member:
I was very lucky to have the opportunity to be involved in WALS from its early beginnings to the day of the event. This has been a process of relearning about my strengths and weaknesses, as well as my community here at Western Massachusetts.
I must be honest. It seemed intimidating at first to reach out to local arts leaders because I feared that I would not be taken as seriously as a student and emerging professional. My experiences and knowledge appeared inconsiderable compared to the professionals I worked with. However, throughout this journey, they showed me nothing but kindness, generosity, and enthusiasm. They spoke to me as an equal with honesty and understanding. They showed me the incredible strength to power through the day-to-day demands at home, work, and school. That is something much to aspire to.
I started out as a spring intern deepening my understanding about the status of women in the arts from statistics of gender inequality in the arts to understanding what these numbers really mean by interviewing local female leaders about their path to leadership. This was also a time to reflect on my own experiences, privileges, and bias that I had normalized. With each interview, it became clear that we need more spaces for women to share these stories and to be heard. The symposium is one of them.
As a committee member and Assistant Project Manager, the amount of time and effort far exceeded my expectations and I was dealing with only a small portion of them. Everyone was willing to take on what they could, and we had each other’s backs. Every decision - small and large - was carefully thought out with diversity and inclusion in mind.
As moderator of the Intersectional Identities roundtable discussion, I struggled with finding the “right” approach to opening a discussion for participants to speak out about their struggles. From the speakers and WALS team who helped shape the roundtable, I learned what is most important is to keep the discussion authentic and conversational. Systemic inequality has been going far too long and our participants are more than ready to dive into these issues. The overflow of interest and support from the arts community spoke exactly just that. We shared a commitment to address issues of the barriers to women’s leadership in the arts and celebrate our achievements. We did on October 27, 2018, and we will continue to do so moving forward.
Reflections from participants revealed the Symposium succeeded in fostering greater connection between women leaders, organizers and artists - across different organizations and sectors, and across the Western Massachusetts region. The excitement around this inaugural event portends future events involving many more members of the community.
The Women in Arts Leadership Symposium was presented by the UMass Arts Extension Service, College of Humanities and Fine Arts, and HFA Advising and Career Center in partnership with UMass Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and the Center for Women and Community’s Women of Color Leadership Network. The Symposium was generously funded by Women for UMass Amherst, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency, and Radical Tea Towel.