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Sustainable Development: Balance in service of the Sector

Reflections on the foundations, successes, and pitfalls of sustainability in the performing arts.

Maintaining balance is a fundamental skill in dance: suspending the grace of a movement for a moment requires an astonishing blend of rigor, strength, and abandonment. The same holds true for sustainability in the performing arts sector: to achieve a greener, more profitable, and more inclusive environment, it is important to strike a balance between economy, inclusion, and eco-responsibility. In the wake of new measures implemented by various governments to encourage the arts sector to make greater efforts towards sustainability, it becomes necessary to understand what sustainable development entails and - most importantly - to adequately distinguish it from eco-responsibility, the excesses of which can undermine sustainability. To this end, CAPAS offers some factual reminders and personal observations that point towards a broader consideration of sustainability in order to patiently achieve a prosperous and enduring sectoral balance.

A Reminder: The Pillars of Sustainable Development

Defined in Quebec as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, sustainable development rests on three axes - known as pillars - which are seen as complementary and inseparable.

  • Environmental Pillar Preservation of natural spaces and biodiversity, and renewal of natural and energy resources.

  • Economic Pillar Creation of wealth and continuous improvement of human quality of life.

  • Social Pillar Satisfaction of education, health, inclusion, equity, and solidarity needs of individuals.

However, symbolic inequalities skew perceptions of the different pillars. Indeed, the general tendency to prioritize the environmental pillar is evident in the use of the term "eco-responsibility" as synonymous with sustainability. Thus, initiatives that focus solely on significant environmental outcomes are often built without regard for the social and economic aspects, which are sometimes neglected or completely disregarded. Is an inclusive and profitable show that tours internationally less sustainable than a creation presented for free in nature just once? We will come back to this.

Avoiding the confusion between "Eco-Responsibility – Sustainability"

While it is true that we must keep in mind the ecological impact of actions taken in the development of the performing arts, this single barometer cannot guarantee the sustainability of our sector. Thus, while the performing arts continue to adjust to government demands to become more sustainable, national and international tours are quickly criticized for their high ecological footprint. And rightly so: as we have previously observed, the circulation of performing arts cannot always implement its eco-responsible strategies in reality due to a lack of certified suppliers and accommodations in host cities, as well as a lack of access to electric vehicles for transporting teams and materials.

But while tours may still need several more years to substantially reduce their environmental impact, they already contribute greatly to the "livability" of the performing arts by deploying the social and economic pillars of sustainable development. Thus, representing a dance performance in multiple cities allows for the profitability of production costs, remuneration of multiple artists, and economic growth of several regions (economic pillar), while also fostering dialogue with different communities, valuing jobs in the cultural sector, and enriching audiences intellectually (social pillar - often enhanced by cultural mediation activities). Building a company's reputation through expanded exposure also ensures the longevity of its participation in the vitality of the arts community and its ability to capitalize on investments, avoiding the constant need to start from scratch and build new careers at great expense. The connection created between societies through the sharing of culture also promotes better local and international relations to facilitate collaboration and alignment of development objectives. Finally, while it is true that a tour invariably involves the use of polluting transportation, the reuse of sets, costumes, and props over several months - or even years - avoids the need to constantly produce new stage objects, thereby reducing the environmental impact of the arts sector.

Conversely, an initiative related to the arts that focuses solely on eco-responsibility may encounter various challenges that reduce the sustainability of its contribution to the arts domain. A programmer who relies on an older target audience and decides to no longer produce paper promotions may see attendance decrease to the point where some shows are received at a loss, thus reducing the social contribution of a work to a community. In the same vein, the overly specific technical requirements of a company that demands overly specific eco-energy technologies may prevent its creations from touring and force it to rely solely on the production of new works – and thus consume more human and industrial energy to bring its vision to life – to survive. In the long run, if too many works fall flat due to trying too hard to be eco-responsible rather than overall sustainable, we may discourage emerging talent, diminish the voices of established artists who have a strong connection with the public, and weaken the place of performing arts in the Quebec cultural landscape. Therefore, it becomes essential to enhance the image of social and economic sustainability – and especially of a balance that includes all pillars – in order to ensure responsible and solid growth of the sector. And this valuation must begin within the sector itself.

Valuing realistic and conclusive strategies

Because symbolism lies at the heart of artistic practices – as much as a creative material as a communication tool to engage with audiences, colleagues, and funders. In this regard, it may happen that certain strategies presented as strong gestures in terms of sustainability actually create the opposite effect, met with human resistance to too drastic a change. Thus, in this necessity to implement sustainable models, it remains essential to consider the context in which these models are deployed to avoid the repercussions of too drastic a change.

Environment: Equip rather than impose

Thus, several organizations implement initiatives seen as eco-responsible without gauging their real impact. How many festivals now offer reusable plastic glasses, only to have to produce them each year because the public keeps or disposes of them?

A concrete (and anonymized) example: In 2023, a European arts market decided to offer only vegan meals to professionals from around the world who came to pitch new shows. On paper, such a strategy reduces the ecological impact of the festival, which does not rely on the polluting meat industry to feed its guests. However, the theory encountered two major practical obstacles:

  • By offering only vegan meals, the festival excludes the cultural differences of its professionals who have not adopted or are not sensitized to vegan practices (social pillar).

  • But above all, by changing its menu without being accompanied by nutritionists, the festival did not provide professionals with sustaining and varied meals. Result: many presenters, agents, and actors often had a second meal outside the festival's premises, canceling out the eco-responsibility efforts of the latter, increasing the quantity of food consumed, tapping into per diems already affected by inflation, and – most importantly – causing the absence of many professionals from showcases and performances (economic pillar).

The radical change in the festival, despite its good intentions, thus undermined its mission to create encounters in the international performing arts and to promote their dissemination on a large scale.

Economy: Avoiding extremes

While we are all too familiar with the pitfalls of excessive focus on the economic health of a project (is not the climate emergency a glaring symptom of profit at any cost?), the situation in the cultural sector is different, as many shows struggle to be financially viable. Poles are created between the pursuit of profitability at all costs and day-to-day living, giving rise to strategies that unwittingly place money at the heart of every action (or inaction).

Social: Inclusion beyond appearances

The performing arts sector must continue its efforts to offer an ever-greater place to women, groups from culturally diverse backgrounds, and Indigenous peoples. Their place on stage as well as in the stands is essential to advance art, educate populations about their specific issues, and open up social dialogue (thereby actualizing the pillar of the same name), as well as to rectify past and present oppressions. To ensure a solid, lasting, and visible place for these artistic expressions, it is essential to ensure that their inclusion is done properly to avoid instrumentalization or dilution of the issues at hand.

Sustainability as a competitive advantage

Avoiding an abundance of works that – by leaning too heavily on one of the pillars of sustainable development – become unprofitable, socially irrelevant, and not eco-responsible not only paves the way for a sector that contributes more to a healthy future, but also becomes a way to address current issues. While webcasting platforms and online shopping sites are still banking on the public's home-oriented shift, theaters have everything to gain by investing in the medium term in a limited number of companies that have demonstrated their ability to rally crowds beyond the pandemic crisis. In a society where fast consumption reigns supreme, culture can stand out by advocating for art that encourages its audiences to show their commitment to productions that lead them to invest in local culture.

Balance is by definition imperfect: it involves compromises, instabilities, and changes of position to keep one's footing and avoid falling. Thus, the future of culture lies in supporting projects that may not be entirely sustainable, but that balance the three pillars to keep the train on the tracks. Running a single wheel of a tricycle certainly creates movement, but no progress.

It is by pledging imperfection that CAPAS is therefore setting out towards the future, continuing to activate sustainable strategies in substance rather than solely for appearance. If CAPAS knows that the international showcases of its artists require airplanes and catering for a single performance, it does so when the economic and human benefits – such as ensuring the career of a promising company – are in line with sustainability. If the label knows that the tours of its artists mobilize fuel and food, it pushes them because the ecological cost of a show that tours often often exceeds that of a work presented only once while promoting financial and social sustainability. And this, always knowing that its administrative activities are paperless, favor active travel, and take place in eco-energy-efficient premises. Thus, for the years to come, CAPAS will nuance its actions, reflections, and messages to show a realistic, solid, and truly sustainable face of culture. Is not nuance a form of balance?


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