What does “sustainability” mean in context of the arts, and who pays the price of preservation?

Earlier this month, I heard Diane Ragsdale speak at a Twin Cities metro-wide Arts Learning Xchange symposium for arts administrators, artists and arts advocates in Minneapolis’ scenic Nicollet Island Pavilion by the river. A writer and scholar with a background in both arts administration and funding, Ragsdale is best known for her public speaking and writing for Jumper, her provocative, big-picture-arts-issues blog for the indispensable

Diane Ragsdale, veteran arts administrator, scholar and the writer for the blog, JUMPER, on Photo courtesy of

She raised scads of important, provocative questions over the course of her information-dense, two-hour presentation. I’ll not go into all aspects of her talk here, but I urge you to browse through the articles on her blog. It behooves all of us working in this field to seriously consider the issues she’s exploring.

Two weeks out from the talk, I find myself still wrestling with some deceptively simple questions Ragsdale raised that morning. I can’t shake the feeling that she’s really on to something. She’s put her finger on a crucial and perhaps not so benign paradigm shift: a fundamental change in how we frame the central tenets of what organized arts programming does and should do. I’ve seen philanthropically and publicly funded local arts organizations shift gears in recent years, away from notions of intrinsic, but stubbornly hard to measure notions of worth, and toward more instrumental, even market-based, “return on investment” sorts of justifications for civic cultural support. This sea change in our collective thinking about the role of arts in society speaks to our evolving conversations about where value resides, to whom we designate as principals seated at the table when we negotiate the give-and-take in relationships connecting communities and artists.

Ragsdale begins with a bird’s eye-view: What’s the role of the arts organization in the 21st century? Can we sustain what we’ve created in recent years? After building more elaborate administration systems and edifices for our organizations in the boom times, how do we manage all this extended infrastructure and keep our programming and daily operations humming along as usual? And how can we do so with much leaner, and ever-more-precarious streams of revenue?

Then there’s the more pressing question, I think: Should we?

Are we growing, or in a number of cases saving, some arts organizations at the direct expense of others? To use the language of environmentalism and “sustainability”: How do we decide which organizations are worthy of sustained (and sometimes Herculean) support, and which have simply reached the natural end of their life cycles? When does well-meaning intervention to preserve an ailing, but resource-hungry arts organization become counterproductive to the health of the whole cultural ecosystem? What is the cost of such “too big to fail” thinking, and who is paying it?

She quotes Susan Sontag: “Existence is more than functioning, more than breathing. It’s mattering.” This is the question Ragsdale raises that haunts me most: Are we so focused on tweaks of emphasis in programming and mission and donor development, for tomorrow’s survival’s sake, that we’ve neglected to take the artistic risks necessary to ensure our efforts matter today? I’m interested in your thoughts on these issues. Please, weigh in below in the comments section if you’re so moved.

Read more from Diane Ragsdale on her blog, Jumper. Find out about upcoming symposia like the one I attended by visiting