July 13, 2016

S really should be for Slack…because I haven’t provided an extract from the A to Z for a couple of weeks. Instead, I’ve been marking essays of the rich and varied range of students that I taught in 1st semester. They were arts managers and engineers IT specialists and HR managers; they came from India and Colombia, France and China, Nepal and Italy; they studied arts management but also critical thinking, business communication and human resource development. And in each class room, I learnt as well.

The S topics in the A to Z include Sponsorship, Stakeholders, Strategic Planning, Succession and today’s extract, Sustainability. Given the recent Australian Federal Election and the return to a power of a party that didn’t even both to release an Arts Policy and in the weeks before the election had withdrawn funding from a large number of previously vibrant arts organisations, sustainability is going to be discussed in a range of board rooms in the forthcoming months.


Sustainability is one of the words that has felt ‘popular’ over the last decade without been either well defined or clear about what it should mean to arts organisations. With its origin in discussions about environmental sustainability, the idea is about being diverse and productive but operating in a way that doesn’t cause harm. Peter Ellyard (2015), futurist, describes it as doing things with zero net collateral damage.

In a recent conversation with a colleague who works in the area of ethics, I said that ‘sustainability’ was the underlying rationale for all arts managers. What I meant was a sense that they all want their organisation to exist in the future because of a belief in the arts. This is compared, for example, with a for-profit  manager who is currently investing in making car parts but if that becomes ‘unsustainable’ they will turn their investment to making computer parts. Having said that, there may be arts groups that only want to come together to do a project and don’t want to continue into the future or an organisation that decides to close once its artistic founder has left.  So even that simple approach to sustainability as ‘ongoing survival’ isn’t true for all of us.

Unpacking organisational sustainability leads to thinking about economic, artistic and audience sustainability. For example, for an arts organisation to be economically sustainable it needs to have sufficient income streams, effective governance, financial management systems and good staff. Artistic sustainability requires being open to new ideas and new artists, investing in risk taking work as well as building on the past and creating work that excites and inspires audiences because without them, the sustainability of the art form and the organisation becomes questionable.  The idea of artistic sustainability could also be defined as simply ensuring the artistic vibrancy of an organisation (Australia Council). Audience sustainability is literally wanting more live ones to replace the dead ones.Every Annual Report of an arts organisation is likely to have measures that capture each of these elements although they wouldn’t necessarily be defined under a single heading ‘sustainability’.  And many of those same Annual Reports would comment on the ‘greening’ activities  of the organisation reflecting their concern with a broader definition of sustainability (based on policies such as those found in Julie’s Bicycle’s practical guides (2013)).

As the conversation continued with my ethical colleague, he talked about his work with various industries and their desire to measure and share their sustainability. However, much of that seemed to be driven by a perspective that they needed to justify their behaviour in a way that arts organisations don’t.  For example, the Australian dairy industry clearly feels that they need to demonstrate their credentials because “[o]ur customers and the community are increasingly demanding proof we are doing the right thing by people, animals and our planet” (Australian Dairy Industry Council, 2014). The call for arts organisations to demonstrate their sustainability hasn’t come from outside but rather from within the industry itself with a concern about environmental issues and an ongoing concern about survivability. Images of Islamic State terrorists destroying historic art works in an Iraqi museum remind us how fragile art making can be (ABC, 2015).

As early as 2001 Throsby (2001, p. 161)) described ‘sustainability’ as an ubiquitous term “deployed indiscriminately”. But he did offer a series of criteria which might be useful measures for the managers of cultural capital such as the contribution of the art to well-being[1], intergenerational and intragenerational equity (preserving art for future generations), the maintenance of diversity and culture systems and what he calls the precautionary principle. This is an approach to risk management which says that if an action or policy is suspected of causing harm to the public or the environment then the burden of proof falls on the those planning to take the action. In other words, our policies and actions should be determined within an ethical framework, taking into account our staff and our artists, our audiences and our community, our environment and the future.

In an example of how an arts organisation captures ‘sustainability’ in their strategic plan, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney states that it is one of their four ‘strategic ambitions’[2]. The subheading of ‘sustainability’ is ‘supporting long term relevance’ and the action statements include having sound business modelling, resilience, fiscal sustainability, workforce and stakeholder trust, conserving collections for future generations, continuous improvement in operations and governance, being an employer of choice, well maintained and safe buildings with an agile and efficient workforce (MAAS, 2014). In other words, sustainability is about good management with an eye to the future.


ABC,  2015  Islamic State jihadists appear in video destroying ancient artefacts in Iraq’s Mosul museum,

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-27/is-jihadists-destroy-ancient-idols-in-iraq-museum-video/6267554 [accessed 28 February 2015]

Australia Council, Artistic Vibrancy, http://2014.australiacouncil.gov.au/resources/About-Artistic-Vibrancy [accessed 23 January 2015]

Australian Dairy Industry Council, 2014, Australian Dairy Industry Sustainability Framework Progress Report — December 2014, Dairy Australia, Melbourne

Ellyard, P 2015, Interview on The Conversation Hour, ABC Radio National, 26 February http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programitem/pgJE6g2bLG?play=true ,

Julie’s Bicycle 2013, Practical Guides: Environmental Policy & Action Plan Guidelines, http://www.juliesbicycle.com/files/JB_Env_Policy_Action_Plan_Guidelines_March_v4.pdf [accessed 20 January 2015]

MAAS 2014, Strategic Plan, http://maas.museum/strategic-plan/  [accessed 1 March 2015]

Throsby, D. 2001 Economics and Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[1] Interesting, also one of the criteria measured by the Dairy Industry

[2] The other three are Curiosity, Creativity and Collaboration.