Art and Cultural Sustainability: Initial Thoughts Part 1 / by Emma Batman

In January, I will embark on a new challenge as I begin to pursue a graduate degree in Cultural Sustainability. This isn’t a field that receives widespread attention… or honestly one that most people have ever heard of.

For most of my adult life, I have wanted to move my work and education in a direction into which I can more effectively use my knowledge as a dance artist, to shift gears into a more humanitarian and civic-minded field. Especially since last November, I have struggled with concepts of the purpose of art. What kind of change can art affect? How do we make our art matter? Or is all art inherently purposeful?

While I don’t have any answers to these questions now, I find the basic theory behind Cultural Sustainability must certainly be increasingly relevant to the health of civic and humanitarian success on multiple levels. For me, one of the most relevant and engaging elements of the field of Cultural Sustainability, is the precept of culture as a tool to create and build up struggling communities.

With the increased ability for jobs to be completed remotely, and the decreased number of site specific labor and production jobs in the US, creating a vibrant community is no longer guaranteed or determined by the geography of production/jobs. What creates a sustainable economy and healthy and inclusive social network, is having a rich and diverse collection of opportunities for artistic and cultural engagement.

I grew up in rural upstate New York. The closest town of any size, Auburn was nearly 15 miles away and economically anchored by a maximum security prison and not much else. The overall economic health of the area has been poor dating back nearly 50 years. My mother grew up in the area on my grandparents’ farm, and my parents both worked as educators and political volunteers throughout my childhood (and still today). Only in the past few years has the economy of “downtown” Auburn began to come up.

The impetus for what hopes to be the beginning of a more sustainable economy and attractive town to purchase homes in, was the establishment of a non-profit Public Theater in 2007. The theater offers engagements ranging from traditional music performances, to open-mic nights for the young community, to fundraisers and political rallies. The staff and board also make continued efforts to create opportunities and enlist programming for members of all socio-economic backgrounds.

It has become a home to local dance schools, high school cover bands, and annual festivals; it exhibits a stunning example of how one cultural institution can create a safe and inclusive space. In the subsequent years since the theater was established, a number of successful businesses and restaurants opened on the surrounding streets. This is just one small example, but I think a very important one, of how with the right tools and approach you can begin to redefine and re-invent a community.