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Arts and Culture: The Work of Sustaining Vibrant Human Existence | Clara Miller

17 Nov 2021

Arts and Culture:  The Work of Sustaining Vibrant Human Existence | Clara Miller

On 25th March 2021, we gathered practitioners, researchers and funders to talk about the future of the arts ecology in Northern Ireland. 'Horizons: Re-Imagining Cultural Sustainability’ thought about how organisations can sustain themselves financially, the role of business models, how funders should invest, how strong transformative leadership can drive change internally and externally, and how place-making and supporting communities are at the heart of our sector. 

Ultimately, the topics and conversations within Horizons dealt with the same considerations that informed our new Blueprint programme, as both posed questions about how we guarantee the best possible future for our arts sector. As we welcome applications for Blueprint, it felt timely to share a series of blogs from three valued Horizons contributors and attendees, all of which consider how we build a more sustainable sector, together. 

The first of these contributors is the formidable Clara Miller. 

Clara advises, writes, and speaks on investing and enterprise finance. Clara acted as our keynote speaker in Horizons, given her insights on ‘Capitalisation: The role of funders in helping to develop financial resilience in the arts and cultural sector’. She also holds a wealth of knowledge gained through the Grantmakers in the Arts National Capitalisation Programme in the U.S.

“Sustainability”: a word that is suddenly present everywhere. What does it mean? Is it the ability to scrape by over time? Or factors that promise a more reliable existence, with support from society for the hard parts? What is “sustainability” for the arts sector? Is it mere survival of organizations, jobs and routines, or something more vigorous? And why do we feel so challenged now, and so tired. Will this feeling go beyond this long COVID twilight? 

It goes without saying that creativity is fundamental to humankind. It has always been present, irrepressible, and non-negotiable. Artists are remembered long after the bankers, politicians, soldiers and billionaires are long forgotten. Posterity is assured as long as humans exist… It’s just the day-to-day that’s a challenge! 

The pandemic erased many cherished assumptions, but social upheaval from a revolution in information technology, global financial crises, climate change and the advent of COVID (to name just four) simply accentuated and accelerated trends that were already present, not only in the arts sector in Northern Ireland, but in the world. 

One of these is a weakening of the “pull of place.” Where the location of natural resources or markets once dictated the location of labor, management, businesses, and economic value, those forces are now much diminished. Steel is more likely to come from Tanshan or Jamshedpur than from Sheffield or Pittsburgh.   

We are also experiencing the hollowing out of gathering places alongside the dissolution of intermediaries such as high street retailers, banks; even newspapers and broadcast media as commerce goes online. Many of these businesses are stressed or have vanished; audiences have shifted. 

In the performing arts, for example, “live performance” by professional companies and enterprises is central. But, beyond the arts, surgeons, nurses, teachers, child care providers, preachers, chefs and hair stylists (for starters) put human skill and personal interaction first. These activities play out in central places, and in the era of COVID, we have missed them.  

Yet well before COVID, meta-trends such as changes in the meaning and pull of place, disintermediation of markets and performances, and the online revolution have meant that place-based commerce of all kinds, including arts and culture, has been challenged with a rapidly-changing environment.  

The arts and its cousins in other sectors are burdened twice: through a deeply place-based, skill-based, in-person delivery model, and as a part of a larger economy that is shedding “intermediary workers.” These trends have both loosened the bonds that pull audiences and customers to places, and driven customers online, leading to job-shedding up and down the economy.  

Even while confronted by these difficulties, however, culture has, paradoxically, become more critical to place-based economies. As the magnetic pull of physical location has declined, the allure of culture has grown for a range of location decisions. Some workers can live anywhere. Some knowledge industries look for amenity. In short, culture is a new pull of place, a competitive advantage both in local communities and in the global economy.  

The cultural community in Northern Ireland is rising to that challenge. It is transforming its ways of working. It is refitting its enterprises to respond to, benefit from, and in turn sustain a new set of expectations given a connected, online world. And it is rethinking how to respond to demand for live performance and vibrancy in the real, physical world as well. Adaptability, agility and creativity are abundant in the sector, and change is underway.  

Changing enterprises takes capital, however, and growth is fed by what is called “change capital.” This is not the familiar “bricks and mortar” capital—buildings that house shows, for example.  And this is not regular income that pays for day-to-day operations, even though the right mix of each of these is critical to cultural organisations’ financial success. This is capital on top of regular income. It is needed to change any enterprise, to alter a business model in response to opportunities and threats. 

“Change capital” pays for the inevitable deficits that enterprises experience as they reset their business models and build reliable net revenue on the way to a new strong and sustainable business model. And even if capital for COVID recovery is available, enterprises in arts and culture will need a good dollop of the change capital to adapt to dynamic environment, and to build the strength to make muscular and dependable contribution to a place. Change capital builds one kind of sustainability.  

But there is another. Culture and the creative economy build sustainability at the heart of humankind. It is vital for social cohesion, for community, for personal growth, for fun—in short, for contributing to vibrancy and sustainability of human existence itself. Let’s invest in that. 

Arts & Business NI has just opened applications for our new support programme Blueprint.

This ground-breaking 5 year programme will support a group of NI arts organisations in building their sustainability, helping them to claim creative freedom by building their financial resilience.

Interested in being part of this transformational project?

Find out more and apply for Blueprint by downloading the brochure and application form here.  

Watch Clara's full keynote address from the Horizons conference below

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Arts & Business NI is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.