What is a sustainable arts organization?

Sustainability is such a big word. When speaking of sustainability when it comes to arts practices, this word explodes to mean many things.

Google defines “sustainable” as such:

  1. able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
  2. able to be upheld or defended.


Certainly with regards to the organizations I have worked with, and with respect to my own practice, “sustainability” has primarily meant maintaining a level of funding to keep the practice alive and performing at a standard set by the integrity of the practice. The communities that support the arts come to rely on this integrity, and also work towards making their beloved organizations sustainable.

But what if sustainability is a concept that goes further than this?

Fundraising and keeping an organization or practice alive is critical to the practice, but does this go far enough for the community that supports it? Or even more so, the total community this organization can serve?

Sustainability is also about growth. The creativity that sparked the genesis of our organizations and practices was never meant to be kept in a nutshell, and even if the organization is in a fixed building – bound by bricks and mortar – the notion of growth must be seen in every aspect of keeping our arts culture alive. It’s about reaching new audiences, generating new ideas, exploring concepts that challenge, and presenting it to a community. It’s about stretching past the bricks and mortar, the reach of our cultural groups, and pulling new people into new ideas. Diversity is key to innovation.

Sustainability is also about responsibility – the making defensible and upholdable. Arts organizations are at the vanguard of new ideas and problematizing the old and in this role they must also be stewards setting examples for the communities they serve. Arts organizations require resources given to them by communities, and must be responsible to those community resources. From consumption to getting the message out about change and new ideas, arts organizations must work within their mandate to communicate. Part of this communication, whether implicit in their practices, or explicit within their messages, must be about the broader world and community.

I am not stating that artists must be on the forefront of the political. Neil Young and others have chosen to add their voices to the indigenous communities about respecting treaties around oil sands and pipelines. Not all artists need to be spokespersons about issues. Indeed for some, it may be damaging to their careers. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do as a broad artistic community to further meaningful change (or preservation!).

Sustainability is also about how we behave within our practices. Can we reduce our own footprints? Certainly small organization and practices are thrifty, frugal and reuse as much as they can – dictated by their budgets. Larger organizations who have bigger budgets are also bound by their bottoms lines with regards to consumption, and therefore, waste. But there is more we can do than just consider our own place in the cycle of consumption.

Do I have the answers to any of this? Not at all. In fact, these are questions and problems that have troubled me. How can I build more, grow more, and be a responsible citizen within the creative economy?

At the Staging Sustainability conference – in Toronto Feb 2-5 – these questions, and many more will be addressed.

We make work, but we want to reach new audiences. Tours are expensive, and require some of the most taxing resources. How do we shift an entire cast, some crew, and everything that makes a show in the least harmful ways? From New York, Broadway Green Alliance is an organization that works to educate and motivate environmentally conscious practices in all aspects of theatre. Working on Broadway, their influence stretches from the most famous theatre district in the world, across to several allies all over the planet. Their co-chair, Charlie Deull, will be presenting in a session on how to move and tour work more sustainably – on February 4th.

Another speaker that has me excited is Marie Zimmerman – the artistic director of Hillside Festival. For locals, I don’t need to say much here. Hillside is known for its all-star lineup combined with heavy hitting new talent, and a deep commitment to maintaining high environmental standards in a large festival setting. She is presenting in two sessions: the first on the 3rd of February is about how programmers are thinking about sustainability, and on the 4th, she is talking about how to integrate sustainability into audience experience – how to communicate.

And to move away from ecological questions in arts, and dive into building arts ecosystems, Fractured Atlas‘s Tim Cynova is coming to us from New York. As a mission, Fractured Atlas indicates that “empowers artists, arts organizations, and other cultural sector stakeholders by eliminating practical barriers to artistic expression, so as to foster a more agile and resilient cultural ecosystem.” They state this as the “unsexy stuff” and yet, these are the foundational pieces of making a healthy arts cluster… and something that me and my Waterloo Region colleagues could likely use help with. Cynova will be speaking on how to integrate sustainability as a core value in artistic practice. Read a blog post of his here: 7 ways to build a sustainable art career this year

Theatre is resource heavy in the arts. It requires a community of people to create anything, and budgets to match. With the crystallizing of my career around creating theatre, this conference seems like a great way to broaden my practice into deeper consideration. Certainly, with presenters like these, I will be given plenty of food for thought on my own practice, and how to more deeply engage the broader community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *