What can arts organisations really do to maintain survival? Show adaptive resilience, says Mark Robinson, which means change and not just persistence
Darwin said that it’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change. The arts sector certainly looks like it’s going to have plenty of opportunity to test this theory as the public sector shrinks, the digital realm matures and mutates, markets shift, new spaces and uses for the arts open up, and people look to us for, well, some things we know well and some we can only imagine right now.
RESILIENCE AND REORGANISATION
That’s why Arts Council England has just published my paper ‘Making adaptive resilience real’, researched and written during my last weeks at ACE. Resilience can be defined as the ability to cope with what the world throws at you, but it has to be more if it’s to be a truly positive thing for organisations as for individuals. Combining insights from psychology, organisational thinking, disaster planning and social-ecological thinking, I reach my own definition for the cultural sector: ‘adaptive resilience is the capacity to remain productive and true to core purpose and identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in changing circumstances’.
The paper explores theories drawn from ecological thinking. If the arts sector moves through an adaptive cycle like other ecologies, from the excitement of the Growth phase to Consolidation as things become more stable but also more fixed and therefore vulnerable, into the disturbing Release phase (sometimes known as ‘creative destruction’) where things simply have to change, then how do we best design the ‘Reorganisation’ phase? What do we need to keep, what do we let go – and most importantly what do we need to invent?
These are important considerations for ACE, especially in reacting to the recent cuts, but also for the whole sector to debate. There is a need to develop a better picture of the arts ecology – something I make a stab at, highlighting the centrality of the artist, and the importance of how an arts organisation positions itself in its locality and ‘how the place works’. There are, of course, other things affecting the whole ecology – economic and social cycles and the development of artforms or creativity more broadly. This needs more research and more brains applied to it to improve my sketch.
Although I personally feel there are few things as practical as a good theory, I know there are some who like things presented in a more obviously practical way. During my research, which including interviews with some fantastic organisations, I developed a list of eight characteristics of resilient arts organisations:
• A culture of shared purpose and values rooted in a strong organisational memory, avoiding mission-drift but consciously evolving.
• Predictable financial resources derived from a robust business model and a range of activities and ‘customers’, retaining some financial flexibility.
• Strong networks (internal/external), with an absence of ‘silos’ and collaboration at all levels making the organisation vital and connected.
• Intellectual, human and physical assets, used to maximise impact in pursuit of core purpose, with appropriate investment in the creation and exploitation of new assets.
• Adaptive capacity: innovation and experimentation are embedded in reflective practice, with change seen as natural and actively prepared for.
• Leadership, management and governance provide clarity internally and externally, with clear roles and responsibilities and strong improvement focus.
• Situation awareness of environment and performance, with good gathering, sharing and
consideration of intelligence and information to inform decisions.
• Management of key vulnerabilities is regular and integrated into planning and preparation for disruption.
Organisations that consistently display these characteristics will tend to prove more resilient, be more productive and have more impact. Therefore, support should be focused not simply on subsidising excellent activity or quality experiences, but on enabling organisations to become sustainable and resilient. This means being clearer about when money is an investment used to build a sustainable business, or revenue given to buy (or part-buy) products or services (such as plays or exhibitions).
This greater clarity about ‘building’ or ‘buying’ is much needed on all sides of the funding equation if we are to use available money well. Does your organisation actively use its existing assets to create new revenue to create fresh assets, for instance – or do you do whatever activity funding enables? (All talk of alternative business models seems to boil down to this binary – the rest is technical info and risk assessment.)
My recommendations focus on developing understanding and debate about adaptive resilience, and increasing sectoral understanding of its importance through experimentation and sharing of best practice. I also recommend that funding programmes are shaped to consciously develop adaptive resilience, recognising the distinction between building organisations through investment and buying activity through revenue support for programmes of work.
This week Mark saw Northern Stage’s fantastic version of Richard Millward’s ‘Apples in Middlesbrough’, ‘You Tell Me’, an installation by some ex-heroin users and ‘Unfolding Theatre’ in an empty shop in Stockton. He’s still loving the new Field Music album.