The Sustainability Buzz

Why The Arts Should Care About Sustainability

Chicago Symphony OrchestraEven before the recession, arts organizations were dealing with the challenges of rising costs and shrinking budgets.  They were searching for ways to do more with less and plan for a future where the flow of grants and donations is uncertain.  So it should come as no surprise that a number of these organizations have begun turning to sustainability as a solution.  After all, financial and organizational stability has been on their radar for years.  And by nature, arts organizations serve society through their work.  It was only a matter of time before they started to embrace the third component of sustainability—the environment—to reap the benefits of being holistically sustainable.

From embracing new technologies to increased collaboration to building green to recycling and reusing materials, arts organizations are showing us that being more sustainable is not only a way to cut costs, but a path to ensure the long-term viability of the organization.  Notable museums such as the Getty in Los Angeles, the Boston Children’s Museum and the recently completed Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia all operate out of LEED-certified buildings.  Reuse of theatrical set materials is alive and well in Philadelphia thanks to The Resource Exchange, and forward-thinking schools, such as the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts, have started finding ways to use electronic choral music instead of purchasing, storing—and eventually having to dispose of—vast quantities of paper in their music cabinets.

For the organizations that have been fortunate enough to build new LEED-certified buildings, they’re betting on the assumption that, over time, these buildings will cost them less to operate than the old energy-inefficient buildings that house so many of our venerable arts institutions.  (The Metropolitan Museum of Art specifically comes to mind here.)  And there’s good reason for them to make that bet.  The Department of Energy has reported that LEED Gold buildings in the government’s General Services Administration consume 25% less energy, 11% less water and have 19% lower maintenance costs than their non-certified counterparts.

But there are many other ways that arts organizations that can’t afford to build new, green buildings are implementing sustainable practices to drive operational savings, which means there’s more money that can be directed towards program goals and staff support.  For example, large and small theatres in the Philadelphia region are using The Resource Exchange to help them disassemble and reuse theatrical set components instead of sending these items to the landfill.  It saves these theatres money in disposal costs, and it also allows other theatres and performers to purchase those materials at a reduced price for future productions.

Numerous orchestras have spearheaded reuse programs where people can donate unused musical instruments that may be destined for the landfill to be refurbished and given to underserved communities or schools.  Programs like this have a tremendous financial, environmental and social impact.

Yet while some arts organizations are starting to dip their toes in the holistic sustainability waters, they are still in the minority.  As we’ve said repeatedly, sustainability requires innovative thinking, and it requires breaking out of the old way of doing things.  This can be difficult for many organizations, especially if they are concerned that it will compromise the quality of their work or result in staff burnout.  However, the potential rewards most surely outweigh the risks.  When the Allentown Symphony renovated their performance hall and support facilities, which had primarily gone unused during the day, sucking energy and increasing costs, they realized that by collaborating with arts organizations like the Community Music School, they could put that space to use during downtime and realize income to cover costs.  This was certainly a shift in the way they had previously operated, but it provided extra revenue, cut their costs, and fostered collaboration.

Sustainability requires collaboration, and the collaborative opportunities that sustainability offers for arts organizations to work with environmental organizations can open the door to new audiences and help retain existing ones.  Similarly, green projects often attract new and additional grants and private support.  Potential donors who may not see the arts as a hot topic for them may be excited about an arts organization’s proposed sustainability project.

So if you’re involved with an arts organization and sustainability—holistic sustainability, that is—isn’t on your radar, it should be.  The current economic climate, the demographic shift we’re seeing in would-be arts supporters to a younger generation that cares about the environment, and evolving public policy make it necessary for arts organizations to act now.  Their very future may depend on it.

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