The first speaker was writer Jay Griffiths, author of 'Wild', followed by myself, James Marriott, speaking for Platform. You can watch an interview I did after the presentation at the bottom of the text.
Thank you Jay for a beautiful exposition of the relationship between art and nature. I’d like explore this further in what we can call the practice of creating art, and in specific, the role of the Arts Council.
As Jay’s explained, all art has a relationship to nature, indeed all art is environmental. Regardless of whether the artist identifies the work as ‘art addressing nature’ or ‘art dealing with environmental issues’, the work itself will have an impact on the environment, locally and globally. Questions that arise from this include:
“Is the relationship between the artist and the environment one in which there’s a committed attempt to lessen the negative impacts of arts practice on the Earth?”
“Is the artist trying to draw attention to, or celebrate, nature and the wounds that humanity inflicts upon nature – such as the alteration of the Earth’s climate?”
“Is the artist trying reduce the impact of those wounds?”
I’m speaking here not because of the work of Platform alone, but also that of other artists and arts organisations who are committed to attempting to lessen the environmental impact of the arts and to creating, or fostering, art works that draw attention to those wounds, in particular climate change.
In March 2011, Platform, like many others, did not have its RFO status renewed in the form of becoming an ACE NPO organisation. Not surprisingly we were somewhat dismayed, but when we looked around it seemed that NPO status had not been awarded to any of the other arts organisations in London Region that have an explicit environmental focus. So we gathered together with Cape Farewell, Julie’s Bicycle, Tipping Point, Live Art Development Agency, ArtsAdmin, plus John Hartley – former ACE Arts & Ecology Officer – and Michaela Crimmin – former head of the RSA Arts & Ecology programme – and wrote to Moira Sinclair, Executive Director, ACE London. Working collaboratively we raised our concerns that the Arts Council seemed to be turning its back on this field, after having been its champion. Indeed just months before, Liz Forgan (Chair of ACE) when launching ‘Great Art for Everyone’, had talked of the necessity of addressing climate change in her opening paragraphs. So we requested a meeting and last July, thirteen of us met with seven ACE staff, four of whom were at Director level. We strongly delineated the changes we felt that ACE needed to make.
Three weeks ago, all parties met again, and to our delight we could salute some substantial shifts that had taken place. The agreement which each NPO body has to sign with ACE, now has a specific set of environmental deliverables. Julie’s Bicycle have been contracted to assist all the NPO’s in reducing their carbon dioxide emissions. ACE have supported Cape Farewell’s programme and the Tipping Point event in Newcastle next week. There’s a ‘Green Team’ in ACE at a national level and this subject area – Artist & the Environment – was added to the State of the Arts programme. As I say, neither I, nor we, would be sitting in this session if it weren’t for the collective labour of those organisations that demanded a meeting with Moira.
Part of the intent of these organisations has been to assert that ACE, as a key funder of the arts in England, has a fundamental role in driving artistic practice in a way that reduces environmental impact and draws attention to the wounds of the Earth, in particular climate change. By analogy, there was a time when questions of diversity and disablility were considered peripheral to ACE’s remit – now they are questions which stand at the core of ACE’s policies. Just as they should do. The aim, and hope, of those who’ve been pushing in the past year – and we’re determined to expand this group – is that the environment will become equally embedded in ACE’s practice. The new requirements in the NPO agreement, is an important symbol of a shift in direction.
It is especially heartening that ACE is making these moves when it is having to undergo very substantial cuts in its overall budgets, decimating its staff numbers and reducing the scale of the funds that it can disberse. On account of these changes, and in the light of the ideological inclinations of the Minister for Culture, ACE is pushing hard to encourage arts organisations to raise funds from private and corporate sources. For example through the Catalyst fund, which seeks to increase ‘philanthropy’. At this point when ACE is requiring NPO’s to monitor and reduce their carbon footprint, and ACE is itself endeavouring to act with greater environmental responsibility, it is important to consider the social and ecological impact of those other bodies which arts organisations are being encouraged to approach for support.
Consider the corporate sponsorship of the the Royal Opera House, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and Tate – the lead sponsor of these four commanding heights of British culture, is BP. Meanwhile the National Gallery, the National Theatre, the South Bank Centre – along with the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum – all receive key sponsorship from Shell. Both of these oil companies are explicit in their intentions with this sponsorship. There is an important distinction here – whilst arts organisations are encouraged to seek ‘philanthropy, these corporations do not see what they are giving as ‘philanthropy’, but rather describe it as a means to building ‘partnerships’.
They see it as making an investment and understand that they receive something in return – what they receive is ‘the social license to operate’. This is a term used by the oil industry. It means the active creation of acceptance, or support, of a company’s activities by key sections of society, support which then enables the company to carry out its core function. In the case of BP and Shell this core business is the extraction and sale of oil & gas, the transfer of hydrocarbons from deep beneath the Earth into the engines of our society and then out into the air as carbon dioxide emissions. The transfer of carbon from the lithosphere into the atmosphere. This process is fundamental to our ever-growing impact on the Earth’s climate.
We should not underestimate the role of the oil companies in creating this impact. For example, the Kyoto Protocol essentially divides the world’s CO2 emissions by nation state – under this scheme, the UK is responsible for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. By the same analysis BP is responsible for 5.6% of global CO2 emissions. This one company is therefore responsible for more than twice the emissions of the 62 million citizens of the UK combined. Anything that assists BP and Shell in their core activities – such as that which comes through their sponsorship of the arts – assists in this transfer of carbon from the belly of the Earth into the atmosphere, which is driving forward climate change.
What concerns a growing body of artists and arts organisations is the increasing pervasiveness of oil industry sponsorship of the arts, which thereby increases the environmental impact of the arts.
As Jay said: “We need a change in the climate of art to create the culture which nurtures nature, not only human nature but all forms of nature.” Not so long ago few arts organisations considered the carbon footprint of, for example, their touring programme. Now a change has come about to such an extent that considering this is part of the funding requirements demanded by ACE. Now it is time to take this change further, so that arts organisations consider the carbon footprint of the bodies from which they receive finance.
The strapline of this conference is ‘artists shaping the world’, and even the Minister of Culture said this morning “the arts sit at the centre of the changes in our society”. A fundamental change in our society that needs to take place is to take our culture off the use of oil & gas in order to slow down the pace of climate change. The arts can, and must, play a central role in this, but this will not be done unless we cease to finance our arts institutions from the sponsorship of oil & gas corporations, such as Shell & BP.
* one of the parallel sessions, at Arts Council England's SOTA Conference 2012, chaired by Alison Clark-Jenkins, Regional Director Arts Council England North-East