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Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Nature of Arts Ecosystems

From Flickr: Coconino National Forest. Nobody 
necessarily wants a fire, but they're actually
important to the forest's health. 
When studying animal or botanical health, researchers generally talk about the health of the "ecosystem". Dictionary.com offers two definitions: 

1. a system, or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment;

2. any system or network of interconnecting parts, as in a business.

"Ecosystem" is a relatively recent word, only dating to the 1930s. Before that, everything was just a "system": "an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole."

Seeing an ecosystem-- interconnected elements/parts/organisms-- is challenging. In recent arts attendance research, barriers to attendance are discussed, but there is little evidence that any changes are being made by organizations with this new knowledge. The few that do make changes (I'm thinking specifically of Mixed Blood Theater's Radical Hospitality) are either derided as crazy or put in a corner for "safe viewing" by the establishment.

The elements are there, just no interconnections.

Even more so (or less so, I suppose) is the interconnections between art forms. On a local scale, my larger community has been known for decades for its music scene. It's odd when people are surprised that a North Carolina artist can win a Grammy and be hailed the next big thing when we've been turning out award-winning, boundary-pushing, musicians for... a century, probably, but since I'm not quite that old let's keep it to the mid 1960s when James Taylor (Chapel Hill, NC) came to prominence.*

But what has this art form to do with mine, theater? Or dance? Or the literary or visual arts? How are we connected? How do we influence each other? How are various artists commingling? How does the success of one art form locally influence the other forms? OR NOT?

In animal/botanical ecosystems, a lot is made of the fractal nature of the system: one smaller part looks like a larger part, ad infinitum. The way one tree's elements mimic the way the forest's elements work together. How a natural stasis driven by internal feedback loops will further the goal of the region's health.

Looking at the arts' health through a systems lens is very different than what most of the current conversation (i.e. money, either from public agencies or from audience members) asks. When former NEA Chair Rocco Landseman caused a furor by saying "maybe there are too many small theaters" he was looking at the situation from a systems viewpoint: reinforcing feedback loops of stranger and stranger art was driving audiences away.

The Culture Wars of the early 1990s were NOT a systems analysis, even if some of the critics wanted to portray funding as something that would increase the stock of "evil" art or the flow of youth to Satan.** That was simply a knee-jerk reaction that got blown way out of proportion.

I'm setting out to examine one element of my local Arts Ecosystem: the theater scene, how it came to be, and what our elements/interconnections/purpose AND events/behaviors/structure are. My hope is that by identifying how this system works (or doesn't), we can then see how the larger local arts ecosystem works (or doesn't) so that we can strengthen it, for both artists and audiences.

So forth and so on, ad infinitum.



*Please, send me other, older, diverse examples. I will update as necessary.
** Do remember, I am from Jesse Helms' home state.

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