Arts Council head, Alan Davey

Last week I gave a talk at the State of the Arts Conference in a parallel session on Artists & Our Future Environment. What was inspiring about that session, the one that followed in the afternoon, and the general discussion around the conference, was just how many people were talking about how the arts can, and are, broadly engaging in the climate issues, and more particularly how many people were questioning in this context the controversies of oil sponsorship of the arts. This was one of the points brought up by Kirsty Wark when she was providing an overview of the conference in summary with ACE head Alan Davey (7 mins 4 secs in).


It seems to me that there’s a thirst among artists to grapple with these questions in all dimensions, from how to reduce the carbon emissions of projects, to demanding that arts institutions cease to be funded by companies that extract fossil fuels.  So it’s great that at the Tipping Point conference in Newcastle today, Alan Davey, head of ACE, made a significant speech in which he declared ‘Sustainability has moved to the heart of the Arts Council’s 10 year vision.’

Davey said: “Climate change is an enormous existential challenge, requiring us to address profound and difficult questions about how we live. Many of us understand the horrific impact climate change is beginning to have, but at the same time the scale of the collective action we need to take and the changes needed to avert this disaster seem almost incomprehensibly huge.”

“In many ways the global failure to deal with climate change represents one of the greatest collective failures of imagination in human history, something which I think the arts, and in particular artists, can help redress”

He announced that, working with Julies Bicycle: “Arts Council England is to become the first arts funding body in the world to put environmental sustainability in the funding agreements of all its major funding programmes. From April, every arts organisation or museum we fund will, as a minimum requirement, need to measure and improve their water and energy use between 2012 and 2015”. That ACE recognises: “the potential for arts organisations to lead and influence our communities in taking meaningful environmental action”. And that: “Organisations like Tipping Point, Platform and Cape Farewell are leading the way in providing opportunities for artists to creatively engage with these issues”.

What’s particularly heartening for us is the fact that other people see the logical extension of this statement from ACE as being to increase pressure on Tate and other arts institutions to break their sponsorship links with BP and Shell as part of that same drive to embed sustainability at the heart of the arts. Reporting on the announcement, arts website Spoonfed wrote that:

“Such statements should, one imagines, increase the pressure on publicly funded institutions like the National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, Royal Opera House and Tate,, all of whom continue to take money from oil giants like BP. Sadly, any effect won’t be felt until at least 2016, as all four organisations announced back in December that they would continue to pocket the BP dollar, thereby legitimising the corporation’s devastating impact on the environment.”

Platform has been collaborating closely with Artsadmin, Cape Farewell, Julies Bicycle, Live Art Development Agency, Tipping Point, Michaela Crimmin and John Hartley since May 2011. The Arts Council, over the past few years, had been strongly supportive of artists addressing ecological issues, but it seemed last spring that the body was changing direction. So together with these other groups we’ve been closely engaged with ACE on these matters. We’re happy with the outcome of today’s speech, and have created the following joint statement (below) in response – though, there is of course, much more to be done.

For nearly a year we have been working together to encourage the Arts Council England to support artists and arts organisations who are both addressing climate change as the subject of their work and reducing carbon emissions through the practice of their work.  As individuals and organisations we have many years of experience in tackling these issues and promoting, commissioning or supporting others who do likewise.

We are delighted by this announcement by ACE and its’ championing of this field of practice. We believe that meeting the challenge of climate change will require society, at local and global levels, to engage in decades of profound change and the arts will play a fundamental role in this vital endeavour.

 The arts help shape our minds and show us different ways of living. They can open us to possibilities beyond the reach of other ways of imagining, help us to reframe our collective position in relation climate change and enable us to build a more sustainable culture.

 ACE has a pivotal position in supporting artists over the long term in such a way that addressing these issues becomes a normal part of practice in all the arts. We are committed to helping ACE in this work.