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Features Published 14 March 2017

How arts organisations are fighting climate change

From oil sponsorship of the arts to ethical pensions: Daniel Perks attends Julie's Bicycle's Energising Culture seminar to learn more about how arts organisations are looking to save the planet.
Daniel Perks
Julie's Bicycle hosted the Energising Culture event at the Barbican on 9th March, 2017

Julie’s Bicycle hosted the Energising Culture event at the Barbican on 9th March, 2017

“Aren’t we doing enough good by doing art?” is one of Bridget McKenzie’s many opening questions when delivering her presentation on ethical sponsorship. The founding director of educational consultancy Flow Associates delivers a biting 15-minute damnation of oil sponsorship for the arts as part of Energising Culture, a seminar hosted by environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle that focuses on energy, ethics and finance for the cultural sector. She continues: “The ethos of the fossil fuel industry is not just opposed to arts and heritage, but also to peace and security, justice and democracy. Can it be said to even have an ethos?”

McKenzie is the most inflammatory speaker of the day, but with 23 years’ experience in delivering and evaluating arts and heritage education, she draws on a wealth of knowledge. She talks about the various demonstrations that the Art Not Oil Coalition have spear-headed, ‘BP Or Not BP’ and ‘Liberate Tate’ among them.

Founder and Co-Director of the ONCA Gallery in Brighton, Laura Coleman, also speaks about the ‘Fossil Funds Free’ pledge that the gallery has signed up to – a commitment not to take any oil, coal or gas corporate sponsorship for cultural works and to call on all peers and institutional partners to refuse fossil fuel funding too. But these pledges aren’t enough for Coleman, who also encourages the gallery members to protest by participating in collaborative, DIY rituals: “It taps into the deeper craving to feel both joy and grief and the state of the world. Last year we got tattoos to protest the BP sponsorship of the Tate, also an act of creativity, grievance, remembrance and celebration. We are here together, now, and we can do something.”

In the appropriately leafy setting of the Barbican Centre conservatory, the Energising Culture event shines an environmentally friendly spotlight on the cultural sector and asks questions around sustainability, ethical sponsorship and renewable energy sources. But as McKenzie asks in her talk, isn’t enough good already done by the cultural sector? Aren’t there other gas-guzzling companies, such as in the automotive, tobacco or manufacturing industry, that should be paying attention to climate change? McKenzie argues that now, everyone has to pay attention. The world is at a tipping point, an apex of peak meddling in the planet that has caused it to exhibit a critical state shift – the phenomena known collectively as global weirding. “Fossil fuels are at the heart of a tangled web that leads to war, pollution and displacement of people. The fossil lobby funds climate denial, kills regulation, pushes for subsidy and organises & funds military protection for its supplies.”

McKenzie and Coleman both highlight a widespread problem that can severely impede progress in environmental sustainability and social values – that of the Business As Usual mentality, “the looking away rather than looking at” according to Coleman. This is particularly prevalent in the cultural industry, where funding is limited to the point of rejecting all the “nice-to-have” options. McKenzie calls it constructive denial, deferring responsibility and actions with the commonly heard phrases “It’s not in my remit” or “Things can’t be that bad”. Artistic companies or buildings are at risk of silencing their social and environmental considerations, since so many other financial factors must be accounted for.

Runacres advises managers pitching to their board of trustees to “Go with multiple reasons – ‘Invest to Save’ is a great one and should always be used. There is a clear statement in the Arts Council funding agreement saying that we value organisations who reduce their energy consumption – it can’t harm your reputation as a charity. Additionally, there’s the issue of social responsibility to your community. “We’d love to, but we don’t have enough money” really means “We value something more than this”. So, you can afford to be a bit challenging on the back of the value that is attributed to it [environmental investment], as well as the great art that comes from it.”

Despite everything that must still be done, there are a number of positive social investments currently in place. Lisa Ashford (director of not-for-profit investment agency Ethex) points to the work of community energy scheme Brighton and Hove Energy Services Co-Operative as “a great example of an organisation is looking at holistically all of the measures they can take to reduce carbon.” Community-owned energy cooperatives such as these are fast becoming a popular way for communities to ensure their energy supply is green and renewable, maintaining control on where their investment goes. Hammond, former head of the UK’s renewable energy programme, is now CEO of The Low Carbon Hub. As a community-owned social enterprise, the Hub provides renewable energy to Oxfordshire residents and to date has invested over £4 million in solar photovoltaic projects since its inception in 2012. Hammond is a strong believer in making a local difference that will force those higher up to take notice. “When I was doing international influencing work, it became very obvious that on this issue, politicians would not lead; politicians on this major cultural change follow. So, if we are going to make a difference that would have to rest on grass-roots action.”

For arts organisations, this could mean “offering your roof to a local community energy organisation” for solar panels. But an equally bold solution lies in helping local environmental community organisations to tell their story and engage more people. Part of theatre’s strength is its power to put together a narrative and shine a light on new ideas.

But the theatre industry’s already contributing to environmental sustainability and social responsibility through positive investment. Lauren Peacock, campaign organiser at ShareAction, highlights how the industry’s UK trade union, Equity, runs its pension scheme to ensure a more environmentally friendly investment portfolio; “A good pension should listen to members [and] invest well through adapting to a 2 degree Paris Agreement Scenario. The Equity Union pension is with Aviva pension fund, but its members want a responsible default fund (the automatic fund that a pension will go into unless otherwise stated), a fossil-free ethical fund and annual member meetings where they can ask how the investment is progressing.”

The defining quote of the Energising Culture seminar is taken from Kate Tempest, spoken-word artist and curator of the 2017 Brighton Festival: “Art should be part of life. No big deal. Just Life itself.” For Energising Culture and Julie’s Bicycle, that means holding art to the same standards as the rest of life, and using it to address climate change, ethical dilemmas and environmental sustainability.

Energising Culture was held at the Barbican on 9th March, 2017. For more info on Julie’s Bicycle, visit their website.

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Daniel Perks

Daniel has been involved in theatre ever since moving to London and is now a full-time freelance journalist and writer, focussing on the arts and culture sector. He has written for a number of publications and is currently the Theatre Editor of Miro Magazine, as well as a Super Assessor for the Off-West End Awards (The Offies). He is particularly interested in fringe work ranging from operas to new musicals to solo theatre performances. He blogs at Culture By Night (danielperks13.wordpress.com).

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