Monday, 10 March 2008

What does sustainability in the arts look like?

This question underlies most of the themes I’ve touched on in the first month of this blog. Making ‘excellent’ work, building audiences and participation, creating a meaningful cultural offer, having deep meaningful experiences or even superficial ones: all of them are dependent on a level of sustainability in the sector. They also contribute to achieving it.

A new paper published in Australia by Cathy Hunt and UK-based researcher Phyllida Shaw, ‘A Sustainable Arts Sector: What will it take?’ explores this issue in revealing ways. It takes us away from a sterile debate that sees organisations look to funders to ensure their sustainability, and funders look to organisations to ‘simply’ diversify their earnings to enhance their sustainability. (Although funders and organisations are no doubt right to do both of these at times.)

Really interestingly, the paper sets out a list of characteristics for sustainable arts organisations, but also those of a sustainable sector. These are as much about vision and purpose, and a product that reflects them as they are about money, although a diverse financial base is noted as necessary. Managing risk, investing in staff and board, and the regular renewal of products though learning from consumers are central for organisations. For a sustainable sector, balance, diversity of specialism and scale, and adaptability to change are key to a healthy ecology. I am summarising clumsily and urge you to read it. There are different challenges within for funders and arts organisations, but they are things we are all dealing with. Sometimes everyone involved can slip into convenient, often mutually agreed, fictions around sustainability. This is an understandable and excusable syndrome, but one to be avoided.

It’s no surprise, of course, to put this into the bigger context of sustainability and see that the arts sector needs to develop the core principles of sustainable development, because it’s simply how the world needs to be if we’re going to survive. This is a connection Money Mission Models, another project looking at sustainability, has made at times, most notably in ‘Invitation to an Alternative Future’, which I always think of as Kahlil Gibran meets Arts Management. (For the avoidance of doubt, as the saying goes: I mean that in a good way. It sits provocatively alongside the more traditional papers they share on their site, which I also recommend.)

No comments: