Size Matters

Published originally on March 8, 2010 as part of Kathleen Cerveny’s Arts & Ideas blog for the Cleveland Foundation.

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about sustainability in the arts recently. This includes the sustainability of Cleveland’s arts sector as a whole and of individual organizations.

But what does sustainability mean? At face value it seems to imply that anything that currently exists should figure out a way to keep existing. I’m not sure that is always a good idea – or even possible.

Times change, economies change, people change and communities change. Programs that worked well in the ‘90’s may not be filling the needs of a community or even an organization’s mission in the 2010’s.

What?! Missions should change?! Maybe. Sometimes. If an organization is producing work for a narrow and shrinking audience of ‘appreciators’ eventually the art being produced will die with this audience.

I think that’s what’s happened, in some cases, to classical ballet – an elegant but mannered art form and a necessarily acquired taste for a minority of individuals who were fortunate enough to have been introduced to it at an early age. And the sense of entitled elitism that too often is associated with the arts – be it ballet, classical music, contemporary art or opera – does more than shut out new ‘appreciators.’ It keeps an organization from making the internal cultural shift necessary to seek and seed relevance beyond its own traditions.

Change is a required nutrient for the sustainability of a healthy arts sector itself. Art is dynamic – it must be to be alive. An arts community or sector must also be dynamic if it is not to lose vibrancy and relevance over time. While there is no barrier to entry into the nonprofit realm (generally a good thing) it is completely unrealistic to expect that new nonprofit organizations can continue to come into an already crowded field unless some others depart. This is particularly true in communities like Cleveland, where the supporting population continues to shrink.

For existing organizations, the pressure to sustain their existence too often pushes them into unrealistic expectations for growth. Bigger budget, new programs – sometimes even co-opting the programming of other organizations, or going off-mission just to attract funding. Rarely do organizations look to right-size themselves within the funding and artistic capacity they know they can sustain.

Funders too often add to this problem with the constant desire to fund new programs rather than providing steady and flexible support for organizations consistently doing a good job. Recent Arts Journal blogs on this topic are worth reading.

So size matters – of organizations and of an arts sector itself. And size, plus the ability to change with the times are issues intrinsically linked to sustainability. In my view, the capacity for dynamic adaptability is far more valuable and desirable for individual organizations as well as arts sectors as a whole, than is the static and often misleading concept of sustainability.

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