What are you going to do with that?

The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts has three things going against it. It 1) concerns the arts, 2) focuses on environmentalism and 3) is a non-profit. To the untrained eye, a group like this is doomed to fail. It is defined by three things often associated with bleeding hearts, off the wall hippies, and do-gooders with no real direction. No one takes it seriously. How do I know this? Because whenever someone asks me what my post-undergraduate plans are and I talk about sustainable theater or arts and the environment or working for a non-profit, I often get the same reply: “Well what are you going to do with that?” thinly veiled behind a smirk and smiling eyes. It’s a horrible feeling, having to justify hours of work and something I am intensely passionate about. It makes me question the worth of what I and other artists do, as though it is just a waste of time.

I think people feel that professionals in the arts, specifically, are shallow or foolish for a number of reasons. In all reality, it’s not the most stable career path. Unless you can guarantee commissions or roles, it can be difficult to stay in the game and maintain work. But what the layman doesn’t realize is that it is exactly that kind of aloofness, that uncertainty and inconsistency that makes artists resilient and competent workers. I spent a week in San Diego this past August doing some field research for CSPA. I had the opportunity to meet numerous artists, including dancers, actors, designers, and directors. In our conversations and my observations I learned a very valuable lesson: It takes an enormous amount of strength to stay passionate about the arts. Because they don’t always know when their next paycheck may come, artists learn to budget, they work harder to perfect their resumes, they constantly try to improve upon their talents and hone their craft. They are flexible and can think quickly on their feet and survive in the fast-paced, competitive world in which they live. It’s the backstage world of an artist that the general population doesn’t see and doesn’t understand. And artists aren’t dumb. That is another misconception, that artists do art because they aren’t smart enough to have “a real job.” I have met not only some of the most talented, but some of the most intelligent individuals during my time at CSPA. They are well-read, articulate, driven, passionate and funny. They just also happen to work in a field with a reputation.

The image of environmentalism is changing. What used to be considered only for drugged-out college kids has turned into quite the market. From organic foods to solar panels, the term “green” has become a label on which many industries are capitalizing. But there is still a definite aura of elitism around the nature of, well, nature. It just seems so nice to do things to benefit the environment, but it’s not always the most practical. That’s something I’m finding out in this research. When talking to directors at Eveoke Dance Company in San Diego, they were genuinely upset that they couldn’t do more than basic recycling. So in our current world, environmentalists are sometimes considered to have superiority complexes, because we advocate something that is not always readily available or accessible. I also believe this to be an unfair assessment. Am I a better person than someone else because I recycle and use FSC paper? Not necessarily. What must be understood is environmentalism is about doing what you can. Ok, so he or she can’t afford FSC paper or non-toxic paints. Fine. But that person can reuse lumber, or recycle metal scraps or even simply invest in a Brita filter rather than buying bottled water. Organizations like CSPA and the people who run them want to spread information, not beat you over the head with it.

Finally, of course, is the dreaded label of being a non-profit company. I have a limited understanding of what it means to work in the not-for-profit sector but for me, it has always been something deserving of respect. It acts as an agency for change and advocacy, for the benefits of others. Some may consider this charity. And charity is good, but not always respected. It comes back to that idea of the bleeding heart. I think in our society, corporations tend to draw more people and fame than not-for-profits. Being a Good Samaritan or having more than a daily dose of compassion is not always applauded. Some think of it as a waste of energy and resources. Such is the case when dealing with something as obscure and intangible as art and the environment. Providing food and shelter to orphans in Myanmar is one thing. A company devoted to sustainable performance spaces is something completely different.

Or is it? Sure, saving people is wonderful. But saving the environment is just as important. Without it, people couldn’t be saved. Art is humanity’s best way of documenting our existence. Through our writings, our art, our music, we are recorded into history. Without sustaining the practices in which we create that documentation, there is no guarantee that we will be able to continue our human existence into the future. At the end of the day, that’s all the people at The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and other artists and environmentalists are striving to do.

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