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  • Jim Bessman

APAP|NYC+ 2021 Conference goes virtual in looking past pandemic


Normally there would be thousands of international attendees gathered at New York’s Hilton Hotel Midtown for the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals’ (APAP) trade conference—where they’d visit hundreds of exhibition hall booths and artist showcases in between participating in professional panel sessions.


But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, everything at this year’s APAP|NYC+ 2021 Conference is virtual, and with a dramatic sense of urgency.


“It’s different this year,” said Baylin Artists Management president Marc Baylin at the start of the Jan. 8 opening plenary session. And while he joked that there would be no $7 cups of coffee in the hotel lobby or jockeying for position at the ground floor elevators, he also stated the obvious: All performing arts professionals have faced “unimaginable challenges” together.


National Endowment for the Arts chairman Mary Anne Carter likewise noted that of all the artistic disciplines, performing arts have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, “and even almost a year in we’re all still trying to figure out what we have to do to revive them.”


Carter hailed national service organizations—particularly APAP—for their increased importance. Amidst anxiety and uncertainty, she said, artists and arts organizations have found ways to continue sharing their art—mainly virtually, and globally, online.


“I’ve seen few things more moving than artists coming together in their living rooms,” she said, “so although venues have been empty, few have been idle–and there is new access to the arts as never before. People who have never seen performances in theaters are now seeing them online, or taking classes in their living rooms.”


Karen A. Fischer, president of Pasifika Artists and chair of the APAP board, observed how the Covid pandemic had “disrupted every performing and touring artist, agent, manager, presenter, venue and vendor”—but unfortunately, there were other factors that contributed to the disaster that was 2020.


“The murder of George Floyd mandated attention to social justice and racial reckoning,” Fischer said, then cited Wednesday’s violent insurrection and attempted takeover of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., where APAP is headquartered.


“The shock of Wednesday forces us yet again to face hatred and inequality,” said Fischer, “but we can affirm the value of each voice, and the collective voices of our humanity.” And while many have been devastated by the loss of family, friends and colleagues because of the pandemic, as well as loss of livelihood “and daily life as we knew it,” she was heartened by the arts professionals coming together and demonstrating ingenuity in moving forward.


But a year ago, as APAP’s new CEO/president Lisa Richards Toney noted, 4,000 of those arts professionals at the Hilton “never imagined that in a few months going to performance venues would be off limits–but it is.” Like Fischer, she also noted “the loss of loved ones, cherished colleagues, and beacons in our fields,” along with over $15 billion in business due to cancelations by 99 percent of the trade’s presenters and producers.


Toney further seconded Fischer in referring to the violence Wednesday at the nation’s capitol, along with the accompanying hatred and racism. Here she invoked “our revered spaces”—performing arts venues that offer refuge and comfort, which are needed “now more than ever.”


“If we were together in a physical space,” Toney added, “we could grab, hug and embrace.” But the digital platform at least offers a fortunate alternative in being “always open” with live streaming and replay options for showcases, plenary and artist pitch sessions, and even virtual exhibition hall booth meetings. Such digital access, while not replacing the live APAP conference experience, “opens us up to new possibilities.”


With a focus on three “core tenets” of equity, advocacy and innovation, this year’s APAP, then, provides a “rare opportunity to strengthen from within and emerge stronger than ever,” concluded Toney.


“Getting through this requires resilience,” she stated. “We know what it means to struggle, and we also know there is a light ahead: the vaccine coming, and audiences are looking to come back–and they will. The cultural sector is a bigger economy than sports, transportation, construction or agriculture. If cities are going to rebound, they won’t do it without the arts and cultural creatives.”


“Yes, we are in need—but also deeply needed,” said Toney. “The arts are not going to go away.”

She asked: “Why hope for ‘back to normal’ when we can aim for more? There is opportunity: The arts are essential. Arts workers are essential–and we are worth it.”


Then, expressing her eagerness for “gathering in person again,” she noted, “but if our shift to digital allows you to join us today, I say, ‘Welcome!’”

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