WolfBrown: On Our Minds

What’s on my mind this month is ecological thinking. Researchers in the cultural sector have explored the idea that culture is a highly complex and interdependent ecosystem in which “resources” are exchanged between “species,” much like a rainforest. Bill Sharpe’s 2010 book, Economies of Life: Patterns of Health and Wealth, continues to resonate in my mind and work. Money is one resource that flows between species in the ecosystem of culture, but other resources are also exchanged, such as meaning, legitimacy and fulfillment. Art is a currency in the economy of meaning. This metaphorical leap allows for a critical analysis of the ecosystem of culture using the principles and tools of systems dynamics. Kyle and I are working now with a great colleague, the brilliant consultant John Shibley, on a project to map the ecology of dance in the Bay Area, developing vocabulary for describing the dynamics of the ecosystem, who the species are, and how they exchange resources. This thought process is part of a strategic planning process for Dancers’ Group, a vibrant service organization supporting the ecology of dance in the Bay Area, as a means of reflecting critically on how the ecology of dance can be supported most effectively. The planning work is supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Where can resources be introduced into the ecosystem such that many species benefit, but without disrupting the natural state of equilibrium that characterizes a healthy ecosystem? Ecosystems are constantly changing and naturally self-sustaining. Species persist, but individuals do not. In a healthy ecosystem, there is birth, growth and competition for resources, cross-fertilization, mutation, and regular dying and regeneration. In general, it seems that the cultural sector is becoming more interdependent — new partnerships, alliances, and co-creative relationships seem to spring up every day as cultural organizations embed themselves more deeply in their communities. As time moves on, our ability to understand ourselves — our organizations, artists, audiences, and supporters — as part of a larger ecosystem will emerge as a defining challenge and key to unlocking the potential of the entirety of the ecosystem, not just the species with access to money.


Alan Brown is a leading arts researcher and management consultant worldwide. As a principal of WolfBrown, his work focuses on understanding consumer demand for cultural experiences and assisting cultural institutions, foundations, and agencies in gaining the insight and perspectives they need to fulfill their promise.

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