Diane Ragsdale raises some fabulous and fascinating points in her latest blog entry on ‘sustainability’ in the arts. Rather than accepting the common-knowledge-but-impossibly-vague use of the term ‘sustainable’ we hear at conferences and read in project reports, she digs a bit deeper into the concepts that lie beneath. When we talk about making an arts organization ‘sustainable’ in the quality, quantity, and revenue/expense balance of its work, we tend to mean that it will remain about the same — despite dramatic shifts in its environment. The same number of productions at about the same quality, with a similar number of staff.
Back in the day, success or sustainable meant ‘growth’ in some significant metric (output, reach, quality, revenue, contributions, etc.). But since 2008 or even before, ‘sustainable’ has meant flat. I recall at the Arts Presenters conference following the 2008 market collapse, a common meme was ‘flat is the new growth.’ If you could retain your position and not lose ground, you were winning.
But Diane draws on the insights of an economist to question whether ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustained’ really mean the same thing. For one thing, everything in nature is subject to cycles of growth, conservation, release, renewal (for more on this, see an earlier post). Striving to break that cycle or extend one phase actually goes against nature while delaying (and likely increasing the destructive power of) the next phase. This is why preventing ALL forest fires leads to a greater threat of a MASSIVE forest fire.
Further, since all systems are themselves part of and parent to other systems — larger ones, smaller ones — our effort to stabilize one system will most certainly have an effect on systems above or below the one we’re working on. This certainly happened in Madison, where a single, professional theater company was consuming more and more energy, attention, and money as it fought its ‘release’ phase. And that struggle withheld food and energy from the smaller theater artists or ensembles that might have found their way. After the professional theater finally imploded, a whole new ecology of theater found root.
And no, I’m not heading toward the obvious but now rather tedious discussion of ‘thinning the herd’ or ‘we have too many arts organizations’. I’m just suggesting, as Diane seems to be, that we’re clear and precise not only in defining what we mean by ‘sustainability’ but also what system we’re striving to sustain.