Jeff Williamson: Sustainability Through Adaptation

Jeff Williamson has been one of the most successful and thoughtful leaders of the Greater Phoenix arts & cultural community for as long as I’ve been working in the field.  A life-long conservationist, Jeff grew up on farms and spent his career trying to integrate the interests of people and nature.  He was appointed CEO/President of the Phoenix Zoo in August 1996 – and President of the Arizona Zoological Society in 2007.  In 2011 he was named Senior Conservationist of The Phoenix Zoo.

When I (literally) need help seeing “the forest from the trees” there is NOBODY BETTER than Jeff to sit & visit with.  I am honored and delighted that he agreed to share in writing his thoughts on critical matters of sustainability & relevance that are commonly shared by arts organizations and cultural destinations.

After reading his remarks, Jeff suggests viewing the following links to illustrate the concepts he discusses:


 Jeff Williamson:  Sustainability Through Adaptation

Jeff Williamson

  •  Jeff, though your background is zoological, let’s begin with the high-level question that challenges arts organizations & cultural destinations of all sorts:  What happened to our relevance?  How is it that so many different types of organizations are so profoundly challenged to re-invent the substance of how and why audiences should want to engage with them?

Matt I will try to respond to your questions regarding transitions and relevancy across the arts and culture communities. The vast majority of my experiences relate to the exhibition and interpretation of living collections (plants & animals). I have had the good fortune to work in academic environments, arts, culture, and museums; and to work with local, state and federal agencies as well as other non-governmental not for profit organizations.

In that context and from those perspectives I think that many of the changes we are challenged to understand and adapt to are complex and not singular. Obviously economies play a role but there is also aggressive competition for time and attention. Electronics have had a dramatic impact on how we define experiences, as well as learn and consume and share information.

Our social and cultural systems are also constantly adapting to rapid change. We live and conduct our affairs in the context of complex and interactive ecosystems that cross sectors and disciplines. Those systems are changing rapidly. We have evolved at an evolutionary pace with a tendency to fear and be hesitant to embrace rapid change. Rapid change can contribute to insecurity. We crave predictability and fine comfort in learned norms. Most of the social, cultural, economic, and environmental norms that emerged from our experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries have been challenged in the last 20 years. Our access to diversity in culture, economies, academics …. is both more complex and continues to define who we are, what we do, and who we serve in ways that may be comfortable but are also antiquated.

  • Now focus on the zoo-perspective on relevance…   When you look out 5-10 years, in what ways must Zoos change to remain – or re-achieve – relevance to future audiences?

How do you interpret nature with living collections in largely urban environments where by definition they are isolated from the ecological communities they evolved from and retain physical characteristics and behaviors that are illustrative of that plant or animals relationship to its ecological community? Your traditional audience have abundant access to habitat and a variety of diverse ecosystems all over the world through a cornucopia of story-telling media that is almost intrusively available with what may be thought of as convenient and less expensive.

No matter how skilled we are or become in our efforts to replicate the complexity of diversity it will be difficult to compete with current and emerging technologies associated with all forms of communications. How best do we convey the values and beauty that derive from effective ecosystem function and do so in a way that encourages people to see themselves as responsible and constructive citizens in that larger community? Is it the tradition of destination exhibition of exotic wildlife in privileged and largely urban context? I think not.

  • The idea of “relevance” is seems to be motivating a number of arts & cultural organizations to inject themselves into leadership roles in their communities – including around issues of economic development, workforce readiness, local business advocacy and cultural tourism.  How else do Zoos approach the challenge to assert themselves into “relevance” in their communities?

Over the last decade or so I have become convinced that we need to seek out and contribute to partners throughout our region and communities of interest across diverse disciplines and sectors to perfect and advance experiential learning opportunities. We need to engage the public in community redevelopment strategies with the collective ambition of enhancing the quality of life across neighborhoods and throughout our communities with strong and sustainable economies.

This strategy would also promote lifelong learning and the individual capacity to contribute to the quality of life. We are not just defined by our exhibition or performance value but also as core assets that are adapting to rapid change in part by promoting literacy, strong economies that reward sustainable practices and don’t condone special interest that does not contribute to the common good. We embrace diversity as the cornerstone of effective adaptation ensuring that the common good spans cultures, geography , and generations. We embrace knowledge and the skilled participation in continuous teaching and learning.

This approach would inhibit destructive completion while rewarding the more effective use of time and money as scarce resources. How this is empowered ,enabled and governed must focus on rewarding stewardship that enhances quality of life and contributes to a rich and more sustainable community.

  • Despite all the economic hardship so many people, communities & organizations are presently facing, what makes you most optimistic about the relevance opportunities of arts & cultural organizations for the future?    

Our audiences are still out there and most want to support and contribute to a rich and rewarding life for their families, neighborhoods , and communities. If we reach across sectors and disciplines that actively explore innovations in collaborations, partnerships, and affiliations that each add shared value, we can thrive, accomplish our missions, and excel at community redevelopment. We won’t get that done if we wake up tomorrow and just do what we have done with thus far, using only rote traditional methodologies.

The world we are working in is very different and we need to create new and more effective ways to engage and communicate. We must be productive in the use of limited resources, to include time and money, through innovative and mutually productive relationship management.

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