What might sustainable arts practice look like?

This is the sixth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…


Sustainability in terms of arts practice is a confusing arena of competing perspectives and endless recommendations to employ ‘adaptive resilience’, collaborate more, form partnerships with academic institutions, grow audiences, etc. Much discussion is aimed at larger arts and cultural institutions, but what might sustainability of socially engaged practice look like? The section looks at a range of different perspectives in an attempt to situate sustainability within the discourse of social change.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks conference, Changing the Conversation, explored artistic practice in participatory settings and sustainability was discussed in terms of taking ‘the long view’ – a position linked with the role of universities (Nicholson, 2013, p. 3). Nicholson described sustainability of socially engaged art as follows:

‘Artists working in participatory settings have always sought change, interrogated artistic convention, questioned social orthodoxies and challenged injustice. If this important aspect of our cultural landscape is to survive and flourish, it will be sustained by artists who not only understand the knowledge and skills they bring to each setting, but use their creativity to re-imagine and re-shape the world as they would like it to be’ (Nicholson, 2013, p. 6).

This position is important because it defines sustainability in a rather non-institutionalised manner as an independence of spirit interconnected with social change in similar terms to those used by Gablik and discussed above (Gablik, 1984 & 1992). Tambling also explored sustainable practice but from a much more skills-based and business-focused outlook. She saw universities as playing a pivotal role in developing ‘a genuinely sustainable business model’ in which more artists educated as participatory practitioners could ‘drive up demand’ so that more ‘schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons will allocate their budgets to buying this work’ (Tambling, 2013, pp. 2-5). Tambling’s vision of sustainability chimes with a consumer-driven approach in which the side-effect of an increased ‘market’ for participatory art is more artists getting paid work whilst participants get to take part too – a position directly contrasting with the autonomous role described by Nicholson above. It has an air of ‘corporate instrumentalism’ rather than ‘state instrumentalism’ but their rationales are similar in intention.

An excellent example of an academic approach to the issue of sustaining arts and health projects can be found in White and Robson’s Finding Sustainability (2011), a report that reflects upon the apparently successful Happy Hearts lantern parade in Gateshead which took place annually between 1994 and 2006. The academic authors found sustaining projects in the field of arts and community health for ‘long enough to understand and consolidate the practice and to undertake longitudinal research that can utilise and analyse participants’ testimony in a more rigorous ethnographic framework’ proved a major challenge given the short-term nature of project funding (White & Robson, 2011, p. 5). The lantern project was designed around an ‘asset model’ which, contrary to the traditional ‘deficit model’ previously used for health promotion ‘looks at communities’ capability and capacity to identify problems and activate their own solutions, so building their self-esteem’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 6). The authors are happy to make claims about evidencing instrumental outcomes that are achievable if participatory art projects are sustained based around the principle that ‘creativity can make committed expressions of public health, simultaneously identifying and addressing the local and specific health needs in a community’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8).

Clearly stating the case for arts, community and university partnerships, the report finds that participatory arts can address ‘the social determinants of health’ via ‘a process of engagement that goes beyond the health services themselves and builds alliances for social change’ which creates ‘a significant opportunity for a university to engage meaningfully with its host communities in the development of social capital’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8). The authors conclude that long-term sustainability leads to better quality and quantity of documentation as well as better dissemination of an ‘interdisciplinary analysis’ that can create ‘a richly detailed evocation of the process of the work, so that participants’ tales become vital testimony’ which contributes ‘persuasive advocacy for an arts in health project to be sustained through difficult times’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 17).

Another perspective common in the arts is that of sustainability as being ‘a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely or as relating to the length in which human (ecological) systems can be expected to be usefully productive (Paul, 2013); the author here does, however, point out the maintaining the status quo can lead to entropy. The prevailing attitude with many arts and cultural organisations at present is arguably one of sustaining what has already been created. This is a position critically questioned by Ragsdale in a recent conference keynote speech delivered in 2013 entitled Holding Up the Arts. She provocatively states that:

‘Sustainable gets tossed around quite a bit in the non-profit arts world these days, along with words like ecosystem and ecology. But… these terms seem to have become a bit of a panacea. We’re not sure exactly what sustainability of the arts ecosystem means, or how to achieve it…’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 1-2)

Referring to cultural institutions, Ragsdale, suggests the sector may be ‘seeking the “unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die”’ whilst neglecting to consider other levels of the arts ecosystem (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 7). The implication here is that, in the fight for ever-reducing funding, large institutions are being sustained at the expense of newer, smaller organisations and individual artists. The danger could be perceived as cutting the arts tree off from its roots. Ragsdale explains this as:

‘an assumption embedded in the logics of foundations, government agencies, boards, donors, service organizations, and leaders of the arts and culture sector that the “supersystem” we are trying to sustain and grow is the infrastructure of existing arts institutions, beginning with the oldest and largest organizations and perhaps working our way down from there’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 7-8).

She fears, perhaps with good justification, that by ‘upholding our institutions’, the sector may be ‘holding up necessary renewal and adaptation in our sector that might lead to more meaningful engagement by the public in the arts’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 8). Ragsdale implores arts organisations to drop elitist stances by engaging fully, honestly and openly with everyone in communities; by clearly stating that:

‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).

Ragsdale also warns against arguments in favour of economic impact because ‘[t]he more we use them the more we commodify what we do’, thus making it harder to convince policy-makers that the value of arts and culture does not relate to ‘directly spurring economic growth but in building the social cohesion and trust that underpin civil society and make (among other things) economic trading possible’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).

Perhaps, then, socially engaged art with its roots in interdisciplinary practice and community activism is or can be at the forefront of an independent mode of working which is inherently flexible and sustainable by a process of constant grassroots renewal?