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Less (Abstraction) is More

“Sustainable is a crappy vision; it’s a negative vision.” That was Peter Senge’s, author of The Fifth Discipline and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, message to participants at the Americans for the Arts gathering last month in Seattle. Why is sustainability a negative? It’s because, he says, when we hear sustainable, we hear “surviving.” If someone asked you how your marriage was going, you wouldn't proudly say it was sustainable, he pointed out.

As a big-picture guy, he tried to get the audience of hundreds of arts administrators to shift out of economic crisis mode, and reconsider the arts (the act of creating, not the category The Arts) as a basic human activity.

"The big evolution," claimed Senge, "is when the arts became The Arts, an abstraction. Abstraction leads to objectification and then marginalization. Art is a thing. A museum is a symbol of that." And the arts become marginalized because you can or can't afford the things we know as Art.

Yes, the arts can show us a new way of living, but we felt that Senge was subtly emphasizing that many of The Arts will not. Senge kept circling art used as a verb--creating versus the thingness summed up by "creativity."

He qualified the problem-solving mindset that came up with sustainability with the creative orientation that asks, "What are we trying to create?" (Dinosaurs, in their way, were probably very interested in sustainability.) Any arts organization wants to matter, to be relevant, but our impression is that Senge isn't betting on any whose relevance is primarily theoretical or abstract. For him, the arts matter if they arise from how we actually live, not from how we like to think we live.

-- From Seattlest, June 19, 2009

That leads me to Red {an orchestra}. Red was a newly minted and vibrant Cleveland-based orchestra I discovered when putting together a workshop on audience development. I was intrigued by how Red used puppetry, art and the audience to create a musical experience. Red was not an abstraction. Red embraced the audience with every multi-media performance. Red asked Clevelanders to write music for it to play. Red walked the talk of creation….creating all the way….creatively.

So, I revisited Red {an orchestra} for this post only to find that it has gone out of business after six exciting years. There’s an old blog that’s still online and the news articles noting its downfall. Red didn’t die for lack of creativity or an audience. It appears governance and management faltered – issues we can explore in future posts. And it seems as though the community wanted to come to the rescue had it had known of the orchestra's predicament. The public death was sudden.

Red's short-lived success was the real deal. But sustainability stopped the music.

Despite my Red digression, I do agree with Senge. Nonprofits aren't about just getting by.

So what is your organization trying to create? Build your strategic narrative around it.

Photo: 213-366b {create:art} by amp'ed (these signs are on a fence at a high school in Cleveland)

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