Just how big is the arts ecology?

Although it’s been heard much more frequently in recent years, the term ‘arts ecology’ has often been ill defined, if indeed a definition of any sort has been attempted. What the components of an arts ecology are, and how they might interrelate, has been less explored. No matter how detailed or correct any framework is, if it fails to consider how, say, the Arts Council’s regularly funded organisations relate to the whole of the arts, culture or society, it will only be useful in shaping a particular part of the system. Systems-thinking would suggest that this in itself can have negative, unintended, consequences for the whole system.

The diagram above illustrates how different sub-sectors may interrelate. It shows a series of ‘nested systems’ where what happens in one impacts on others. (So arguably what happens in music influences what happens in society, for instance, and vice versa. In this theory, even poetry makes something happen.) There will be adaptive cycles at play in each, operating at different speeds. One could use this as a rough tool for mapping the Arts Council’s funded organisations and their relationships. A number of questions might be asked to assess the health of the ecology for arts organisations:

• Where do they primarily sit?
• Is there a healthy spread across all parts so that the ecology can be productive as a whole?
• Are there gaps or duplications?
• Are there particular parts well served by others, or parts where Arts Council England investment is especially needed?
• Are the factors affecting institutions such as national theatres or galleries likely to impact on the way in which smaller organisations operate, and vice versa?
• How healthy are the connections between different parts of the ecology?
• How are they impacting upon and being affected by economic systems?
• What changes are happening in society that might have impacts within the ecology?

The idea that certain parts of the sector may adapt at different speeds and contribute different things to the larger adaptive cycle offers new ways to conceive the role of, for instance, innovation and infrastructure.

Two other areas are worth emphasising. First, the centre of this schematic version of an arts ecology is the individual artist. Without that centre system – what artists are doing, how they are innovating and evolving – little change will occur elsewhere. Without either romanticising or patronising individual artists, it is important that policies to increase organisational resilience do not marginalise the creativity at the heart of the arts ecology. (The place of artists is interesting when considered through the frontline/back office lens: how do we properly acknowledge the roles of a playwright and a literary manager within most drama, for instance? Is either frontline?)

Second, the role and position of arts organisation in their locality and its systems emerged as strong themes in the interviews. What happens in a town or city – economics, population change, transport, etc – impacts on the arts sector. What happens in the arts or in an arts venue changes the city. (One can imagine Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records, making this argument with regard to Manchester, for instance, or Kneehigh with regard to Cornwall.) This position within local systems is vital to resilience. For arts organisations to properly embed themselves into localities, they must understand the ‘connections’ and ‘how the place works’. The greater connectivity generated drives change and protects against unforeseen disturbance by networking the organisation. This suggests that Arts Council England’s ‘place’ agenda needs to be highly sophisticated and responsive – and certainly needs to be about more than just plugging cold spots by providing arts activity. A nuanced and flexible strategy allowing for regional and local variations will be necessary to support artists, organisations, local authorities and other local partners to develop sustained partnerships, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

I am aware the discussion in the paper is just a start in thinking how to represent and then think about an arts ecology. A far more detailed mapping of the movement of money, people and other resources around the system would be necessary to make it a more useful tool for arts and cultural planners and policy makers. One other research consideration would be the extent to which an ‘arts ecology’ needs to be re-conceived as a ‘cultural ecology’ or a ‘creative ecology’. Both of those are beyond my time and brief.

(To illustrate that this is ongoing, immediately I finalised the text in the published paper I came across Producing the Future by Graham Leicester and Bill Sharpe, which is a really powerful consideration of Watershed’s role in what they call ‘ecosystems of cultural innovation’. It would be great is the various parties involved were to come together to ‘researchcrowdsource’ some better provisional definitions of the arts ecology.)


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