What does “sustainability” mean in the arts and culture field?

Watch the following video in which Diane Ragsdale, a faculty member of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders, asks some important questions about sustainability in the arts – what does it mean for organizations and for the field.

 

 

Add your voice to the discussion. Use the comments below to weigh in with your thoughts on sustainability.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Diane, your ideas have a compelling logic but who decides whether an organisation lives or dies? Government, funding bodies, the market? Or if they survive by their own wits and ingenuity, isn’t that good for the cultural sector as a whole if others can learn from their successes? Or do we risk having only culture of the lowest common denominator? the equivalent of ballet companies always dancing Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty as these tickets always sell, consequently the dancers get stale?

    • Diane Ragsdale says

      Hi Hilary,

      Great question – and, truly, “THE” question in a decentralized, indirect subsidy system like the US where no single stakeholder (government, for instance) has sufficient power to effectively close an organization by withdrawing support. I will post a link to a PDF of the full talk in the next week or so, which goes into this; but briefly, I would suggest that when a nonprofit organization is no longer achieving its goals and delivering on its social mission, but continues to persist anyway, that it is the job of the board of directors to make the determination that the organization to respond to that reality. The response might be to close. The response might be to change leadership and transform the organization. Or there could be other options.

      A board of directors is entrusted with safeguarding the mission – this is different from safeguarding a building and the salaries of all the staff members of an organization (which is often what is “sustained” when organizations persist). Long term, by keeping unsustainable organizations afloat, I believe we push them towards three directions (which I discuss in the video): towards the market (e.g., short term measures of success, more “Swan Lakes,” and a backing away from their critical repertoire, artist and audience development role); towards exclusivity (e.g., very expensive tickets and work that reflects the values and narrow tastes of the upper middle class rather than the diversity of the community); or mediocrity (organizations that did their best work 20 years ago and are now “shadows” of their former selves, as Brian Newman describes it). I’m not persuaded that surviving in these altered states is good for the cultural sector as a whole.

      As I say in the talk, existence is more than breathing. And it’s more than functioning. It’s mattering. It’s relevance. Many nonprofit arts groups can continue to breathe and function (they have, essentially, figured out forms of life support). But do they matter? Are they upholding their social missions? Do they matter at a level that warrants the sometimes significant investments that it takes to keep them afloat? If not, then boards of directors are charged with responding to this reality.

      Thanks for your comments!

      • Diane Ragsdale says

        Just noticed a typo in the sentence above – it should read:

        I would suggest that when a nonprofit organization is no longer achieving its goals and delivering on its social mission, but continues to persist anyway, that it is the job of the board of directors to respond to that reality.

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