The current turbulence in the arts (and every other) industry has driven me back to reading about complex ecosystems, how they work, and how they evolve over time. My current inroad is Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, which Robyn Archer mentioned during her brilliant remarks at the Arts Presenters conference (here’s another speech she made elsewhere that engaged similar themes).
This book, and others on the subject, build upon the idea of the ”adaptive cycle,” a recurring pattern that appears in most natural, social, economic, or other systems, at different speeds and scales over time. In considering the current state of the economy, and of the arts, the cycle seemed eerily resonant.
Says the book:
By studying ecosystems all around the world, researchers have learned that most systems of nature usually proceed through recurring cycles consisting of four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. The manner in which the system behaves is different from one phase to the next with changes in the strength of the system’s internal connections, its flexibility, and its resilience.
”Resilience,” in this context, refers to any system’s ability to absorb disturbance and still behave in essentially the same way, rather than shifting to a distinctly different state of being. Just a quick review of the four phases in the adaptive cycle should bring some arts industry insights into focus:
- The Rapid Growth Phase — a period in which ”species or people…exploit new opportunities and available resources…. The systems’ components are weakly interconnected and its internal state is weakly regulated.” Think start-ups, product or category innovators, scrappy young upstarts. Think the arts world in the 1960s and 1970s.
- The Conservation Phase — ”energy gets stored and materials slowly accumulate. Connections between the actors increase….and competitive edge shifts from opportunists to specialists,” who are more conservative and efficient in their use of resources. New entry becomes increasingly difficult, as energy in the system becomes more and more bound up in unavailable forms (in nature, it’s bound up in physical biomass like wood or organisms, in social systems, it’s bound up in formal organizations and established social structures). Think about the rise of professional arts organizations in the 1980s and 1990s, the boom of more formal corporate behavior among nonprofits, and the rise of endowments and family foundations (forms of economic biomass that pull cash out of the system). Favorite quote from the book: ”Such a system is increasingly stable — but over a decreasing range of conditions.”
- The Release Phase — ”a disturbance that exceeds the system’s resilience breaks apart its web of reinforcing interactions. The system comes undone. Resources that were tightly bound are now released as connections break and regulatory controls weaken.” In natural systems, think fires, drought, insect infestations, and disease. In the arts industry, think market shock and rapid shift in wealth, credit, and financial options. In other words, think now.
- The Reorganization Phase — with the massive release of previously unavailable energy, ”all options are open…. Novelty can thrive. Small, chance events have the opportunity to powerfully shape the future. Invention, experimentation, and reassortment are the order of the day.” In nature, this is when new species emerge, or non-native species invade the ecosystem. It’s not all roses…it’s chaotic and unpredictable. In the arts world, recall the collapse of traditional social values and constructs in the 1950s that made the 1960s possible. Or think of what might happen in the decade to come.
Not all systems move through this cycle in sequence. Some skip steps, some loop back upon themselves, some experience multiple loops at multiple levels simultaneously. But the utility in exploring the adaptive cycle comes from its suggestions about opportunity and challenge, about when smaller groups can have larger impacts, and about how crisis and collapse are distressing but also entirely natural.
The concept of the adaptive cycle isn’t likely to make insolvent arts organizations feel any better about their current state. Nor is it likely to pay the bills of the unemployed. But it might help us understand where we are, what might come next, and how we might productively engage the challenge.
UPDATE: Lots of great comments coming related to this post. Be sure to read below. And I find myself returning frequently to the closing paragraph of Robyn Archer’s speech to the AnzArts Institute (linked above, but also here) as a far better closing than my own. Says she:
”A creative society is one which is flexible and generous and values all
parts of its collective enterprise and activity — one which ultimately
prizes resilience, and to that end the positive and continuing support
not only of the tallest and most celebrated trees, or the sexy new ways
in which one promotes, deploys their strengths and profits from them,
but also the small and vital but as yet largely un-noticed new growth
at the bottom of the forest. It is from this floor the future emerges.
Neglect it, deprive it, and render it less important and less worthy of
investment and despite your best efforts at the canopy, your forest is