Sustainability is the new, magic curative word whispered in boardrooms. It invokes visions of swelling balance sheets, happy, generous donors, and full seats. Sustainability is comprised of more than a balanced budget, however, and it does not happen overnight.
To be sustainable in arts business means understanding that nothing is forever. Just because a tactic worked yesterday or last year, does not mean it will work this time. Neither failure nor success is permanent, only the learning. Just like a sports match, which involves a series of plays in which strategy, skill, and endurance play a part, an arts organization is constantly engaging in a series of campaigns and experiments. Excellent arts management is not linear, but flexible. It is a constant zooming-in and zooming-out.
The best, most successful organizations embrace this reality, become self-aware, and institute smart planning. They anticipate factors they cannot control, and leverage factors they can, and at which they excel. They approach the business of art as an unfolding and sometimes surprising process, like the scientific method or the creation of an artwork, in which the “mistakes” are sometimes the best part. These unplanned insights sometimes unleash new discoveries and unfold new programs or directions that may become even more important or satisfying than what was planned in the first place.
Of course, implementing this approach can be challenging if the organization does not value or allow time for thoughtful assessment and experimentation. Under all of the day-to-day pressures of what needs to be accomplished, many arts managers lack the luxury of even one hour per month to zoom out and think – either alone or with a trusted group of advisors – about how the organization can and should be moving forward, and how it can accomplish better work overall. Many produce incredible art, with more creativity and less money, fewer resources and/or people than one would think possible but cannot look beyond the next meeting, the next engagement.
Part of being sustainable is being people-focused; the people, after all, do the work. To make this happen, arts managers and boards must make time and be able to really step back and understand on a higher level what is working and what is not, what is standing in the way, and what are some actionable ways to chip away at the larger and very important goals. It is so easy to push ahead get lost in next week’s payroll, tomorrow’s performance, or next month’s board meeting, but the organizations that really get ahead and flourish are those that embrace sustainability by making time to address the long-term view and provide managers and boards the space to learn. Experimentation is often a big part of success.