Sustainable to Vital

From Sustainable to Vital

For more than 25 years, our AMS team has had the good fortune to engage with many of the world’s most thoughtful and successful arts and culture enterprises, leaders, and supporters. Behind all the complex questions we’ve helped them answer over those two and a half decades, a short and simple question has been the most persistent: “What’s next?”

Sustainable to Vital

Photo by Dave Campbell

Artists, professionals, supporters, and advisors across the sector have become increasingly proficient at a now traditional understanding of arts and cultural enterprise. But many among them are seeing a need to consider and embrace systemic change.

In an era where there is nearly universal, on-demand access to all forms of content, thanks to the tremendous technological advances of the last few decades, and where traditional means of support and art-making are challenged, the sector is in a state of flux. Art forms are evolving, new strategies to grow audience participation are being tried and tested, alternate delivery mechanisms are emerging, new business models are rising and falling, and fundamental economic assumptions are being re-thought.

At AMS, we’ve been working deeply with our clients and colleagues in these developing strategies and tactics. But we’ve also been discovering a larger and more cohesive opportunity not only to rethink the work and the traditional delivery system, but also to “rethink success.”

Viable, Sustainable, VitalTo our way of thinking, it is no longer enough to deliver the best possible “art” in the most “efficient” manner. In our review of research (from our sector and others), and in work we have conducted with hundreds of clients and communities, we have come to believe that the 21st century arts and culture enterprise must move beyond the now traditional notion of sustainability to become vital. We must not only do our work differently, but do different work. Success in the next era means becoming an “effective” organization that has an impact (causes change) on the people it serves, and becoming so deeply “entangled” in the community that it is recognized widely as a “vital” contributor to its community’s success.

In work first commissioned by The Columbus Foundation (Columbus, Ohio) and developed further in Providence, Rhode Island, AMS was asked to assess the depth, breadth, and sustainability of these city’s cultural sectors. Columbus Foundation CEO Douglas Kridler challenged our team and the entire community “to better understand the opportunities for the arts sector in Columbus, and how to implement a strategic vision and generate resources to help the market succeed.”

By analyzing fourteen peer or competitive cities to Columbus, and later ten for Providence, we identified key drivers for the success of the arts and culture sectors in those communities. Not only were we able to identify these key variables of success, but also to develop a logic model that revealed the characteristics of “vital” cultural enterprises.

“The arts have enormous and unique public value in our community,” Kridler said. “AMS helped us to identify critical investments, position our agreement for engagement and refine how we defined success.”

Building on a framework from United Nations community development efforts, the two studies demonstrated that the arts and culture sector could both deliver excellent art and be an effective partner in community success by: 1) securing access to resources – including leadership, human and financial resources, 2) building internal return on capital – including financial, social and political assets, and 3) maximizing “public value” by aligning with community goals.

By seeking to become “vital” players, individual organizations and the entire arts and cultural sector can be re-positioned as essential actors in a community’s success, and could enter a virtuous cycle of more resources, more connections, and more impact.

This first article launches a series of posts, links, and conversations around the concepts of “rethinking success,” where we hope to share what we’re learning, and to learn from your insights as well. There’s an essential journey ahead of us in the move from “sustainable” to “vital” cultural enterprise. We hope you will join us as we explore that road together.

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