Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sustainability v Relevance

If I lived in a perfect world I would be in Austria at the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders co sponsored by National Arts Strategies and Salzburg Global Seminar. There I would be with fellow arts colleagues exploring the hard questions cultural non-profit organizations around the world are wrestling with. But thanks to blogs and You Tube I can be an observer if not a participant.

The McAninch Arts Center is struggling with this idea of sustainability and Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow Diane Ragsdale has been writing and speaking on the topic in her blog Jumper and in Salzburg. If you have 10 minutes I highly recommend you watch this You Tube interview with Diane at the seminar.

I saw Diane speak several years ago at the annual Arts Alliance Illinois convening. Ra Joy had the good sense to bring Diane to Illinois who at the time was with the Andrew Mellon Foundation.
Her presentation (link to 2010 speech) focused on surviving the cultural change and was profound for me. She reminded me that art and arts organizations live in relation to audience and that while we strive for sustainability we lose sight of relevance. That we should focus less on selling better and more on seeing better. Her thinking on sustainability and relevance has continued to evolve as she has pursued a PhD in the Netherlands. Her ideas in this most recent interview raised several questions for me and for the McAninch Arts Center.

Diane references the work of scholar Alexey Voinov in her idea that sustainability is an unnatural state. In the life cycle of an organization or any living being there is first Emergence followed by Growth that comes to a Plateau and then inevitably begins a period of Decline, which can either lead to New Growth or Death. The point being it is a cycle. Sustainability seeks to pause the cycle at the Plateau and hold the organization at a certain level. Voinov and Ragsdale would suggest that to live and thrive we must allow for death. Their analogy is of the forest fire. Without the death that the fire brings the forest would not be as healthy or able to thrive in the future.

Diane points out that striving for sustainability may have several pitfalls. In order to be sustainable we either drive our organization more towards the market putting greater emphasis on box office revenue and return on investment, or we turn to wealthy donors and away from the middle class patron. Worst of all we artistically settle for mediocrity and live in a sustainable “walking dead state”.

Questions I will be asking…
What should be our purpose? Are we looking out for the best interests of the organization, the artist or for the community at large? What are we trying to sustain that might otherwise be dying or need to die At the expense of what else?

What is our relevance?

Would love to hear your thoughts – comment or email

Be well

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