Sustainability, resilience or both

by Jini Stolk

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, again, about how to help arts organizations grow stronger. This time, I’m working with Charles Smith and CPAMO (Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario) to look at how to develop sustainable organizational support structures for CPAMO members and other Aboriginal and ethno-racial artists, collectives and arts companies. We’re hoping to do this by means of shared learning, mentoring, skills development, fundraising and a collaborative search for new and innovative solutions.

I definitely believe that the search for solutions lies in our court more than in the funders’. If we ourselves are not looking for new pathways to long term health, and if we’re not working hard to ensure fair access to culturally diverse and emerging artists, we’re in trouble.

Is the new era for the arts, as Richard Evans argued at a thought-provoking session last year, one in which companies are structured for resilience, not sustainability (and certainly not stability)?

What’s the difference? And what makes a healthy arts organization?

Evans argues that we have to move away from the expectation/assumption of gradually growing seasons, budgets, stature of board members, and fundraising success – to acceptance that the truer need is for open, nimble structures that change from year to year and enable the work that needs to be done, both artistic and in the community. This seems to define how many arts organizations currently work, although I suspect that many feel that this way of working is a kind of failure – a failure to graduate to a more predictable pattern and structure.

Adaptability at this level has to be based on community involvement and engagement rather than the “approval” of funders. It requires leaders fueled by creativity about how to get things done. Innovation becomes a core competence for anyone working in the arts.

Andrew Taylor in the Artful Manager post What, exactly, are we sustaining?, says that sustainability should be seen less as an organizational strategy (focusing on the survival of individual organizations) than an ecological strategy (sustaining our community’s access to a broad range of creative experiences.)

The consultants at WolfBrown, in a paper titled Is Sustainability Sustainable?, call for a new focus on community relevance, artistic vibrancy, and capitalization as a hedge against financial risk. They say that strong organizations will excel in a permanent state of flux and creative tension.

This is exciting stuff, and I’m sure we can do it…but wouldn’t it be nice if this creative balancing act also came with a living wage and a small pension?

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