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Sustainability in the Arts: The Opposite of Avant-Garde?

The following article is part of our lessons in sustainable business series by students at the Presidio Graduate School.

By Valéria Miranda

Artistic production has always been on the cutting edge of cultural change, giving voice to society’s aspirations and discontent. From Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of early flying prototypes to science fiction books that give us a glimpse of what the world could be like, artists and art organizations have always channeled new ideas and criticism of society. Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup Cans (ironically now on sale at a Target store near you) warned us about the growing commercialism of popular culture in the 1960s. Robert Smithson Land Art of the 1970s laid down the seeds for so many current artists’ work that discuss the future of the planet.

To be clear, the definition of sustainability used in this article is one that encompasses people, planet, and money. It is inspired by the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s proposition that we should strive for “environmental, economic and social well-being for today and tomorrow.”

When asked by Presidio Graduate School students about what could help tip the United States towards a more sustainable society, Rebuild the Dream’s Van Jones answered that the arts must lead the way, as they have always done throughout history: the Renaissance led the Scientific Revolution in the 15th century and Impressionism expressed the ideas of the fast moving 19th century.

As someone who has worked in the arts for almost 20 years, I couldn’t agree more with Jones. But I have also become very intrigued by the fact that the conversation about sustainability in the arts is still scattered: artists are still primarily focused on environmental sustainability, while arts organizations tend to focus on financial and environmental sustainability. Seemingly absent is human and social sustainability. Well, not completely absent, of course. Photographers such as my fellow Brazilian, Sebastião Salgado, have for years been documenting the effects of globalization on the poor around the world, from the gold mines in Brazil to coffee workers in India.

The world of arts organizations is not that different. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), established in the 1960s by Congress, are the U.S. government stand ins for a Ministry of Culture, an institution commonly a part of most government administrations on the planet, but absent in this country. Of the two, NEA is the only one with a sustainability plan that focuses on environmental sustainability.  The American Alliance of Museums, the leading professional development umbrella organization for art museums includes only financial sustainability in its most recent strategic plan. Here in California, the California Association of Museums (CAM) published a great report on the role of museums in environmental sustainability.

That is not to say, however, that the arts have ignored human sustainability. Quite the contrary: many arts organizations have been heavily involved with creative projects in the intersection of arts and economic development, for example. Minneapolis’ organization Springboard for the Arts was highlighted in a Triple Pundit article for their innovative approach to creating market channels for artists with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)-inspired model. For almost 20 years now, Project Row House in Houston, Texas, has connected artists and community activists in revitalizing an African-American neighborhood.

 So why is it, then, that despite lots of interesting artworks and projects continuing to pop up and thrive nationwide, there isn’t a more holistic approach to sustainability in the art world? It is possible to argue that such approach is not even fully embraced by the corporate world either. Given that the triple bottom line approach in the U.S. has been a voluntary one, American companies “have had the luxury of defining and interpreting their own view of responsible business within the context of their own company,” according to a Triple Pundit editorial piece.

But that is changing as well and corporations more and more have to justify what author Bob Willard calls their “social license to operate.” A UN Global Compact and Accenture study, survey of 766 worldwide CEO revealed that 96 percent of respondents believe that sustainability should be fully embedded in strategies and operations. How will this growing commitment to sustainability seep into the art world? The answer might be the same for all spheres of our society: people!

Just as we, as consumers of products, have increasingly demanded that companies we buy from become more sustainable, the same will have to be true for the artistic expressions we consume, be they artists or art organizations. Whether we are board members, volunteers, or members of the audience, it is imperative that we pressure them to use their resources wisely and create good work environments for their employees.

In the meantime, large arts organizations such as NEA, NEH, and Americans for the Arts should work on incorporating a triple bottom line approach to their planning and advocacy efforts. A coordinated sustainability push between artists, arts organizations, and their audiences would move the arts to the forefront of the fight for a sustainable world.

Valéria Miranda is a consultant and social entrepreneur in the arts in Santa Cruz, CA.

image: cobalt123 via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

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