Spotlight on Sustainability?!

The climate crisis can no longer be neglected. And so do cultural professionals look for answers and solutions to deal with it. This article discusses two aspects of sustainability with which they can have an impact: Indirectly and directly sustainable; synergy effects on top. It answers the following questions: Why is it not only important and necessary but also worthwhile to be more environmentally-friendly? What opportunities and which added value emerge from it? This article is about setting an example with an environmentally-friendly culture.

The context

According to UN Climate Secretary Patricia Espinosa, the climate crisis is one of the most urgent challenges facing humanity today. Since 2018, the Fridays For Future (FFF) movement has stirred up the civil society and politics and significantly raised awareness about its relevance. The FFF keep reminding us that the issue is far from being off the table.

They put pressure – also on cultural institutions. After all, cultural institutions are places of mediation, encounter and critical debate. They can not only create social realities, but also question them and suggest alternatives. They have an influence on ways of behaving and thinking among the public.

The German momentum

An increasing number of artists and cultural professionals address climate and the environment in their work or exhibitions. Some also turn away from environmentally harmful behaviour such as flying. They stand in solidarity with the FFF, declare their support and organize themselves in groups (i.e. Artists for Future or Filmmakers for Future).

In addition, in November 2019 directors of German art museums advocated for a “Green New Deal” in the public art sector. They called for more freedom of decision-taking on their own behalf in order to better implement ambitious climate mitigation measures. In 2021, Stefan Charles, former managing director of the Art Museum Basel, follows up on this initiative and calls for a “Green Museum, now!”.

Society needs art to get irritated, at times to be even disturbed by it. It also needs art to learn from it and to get inspired by its creativity for new ways of thinking and new directions to take.

Andreas Beitin – Director Art Museum Wolfsburg

The Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes) recently ran a pilot project (Klimabilanzen in Kulturinstitutionen) where 19 cultural institutions were supported to analyse their environmental impact. The goal: to elaborate a climate assessment and one’s own carbon footprint. The project is linked to the question of how ecological sustainability can be incorporated into the funding system of the Cultural Foundation itself.

Coming up on the 12th of April 2021, it hosts a workshop day directed to German theatre professionals (Klimawerkstatt Theater). Don’t miss out on this opportunity!

Last but not least, in 2020 the cultural sector welcomed a Network for Sustainability in Culture and the Media (Aktionsnetzwerk Nachhaltigkeit für Kultur und Medien – in short: ANKM) among its midst. Its aim is to assist cultural institutions, meet the need for practical knowledge and stimulate exchange on the common path towards a 55% reduction of carbon emissions.

1. Indirectly sustainable: Talking about resonance

Emotional involvement

The first aspect is about showing art that addresses the environment or climate (“Environmental Art”). Art brings a human voice to the debate. It manages to break down the complexity and makes it more tangible and understandable for everyone. Moreover, art communicates on a more subtle and much deeper level. In contrast, spreading information through facts and reports, whether heard or read does not achieve adequate engagement. Art manages to bypass the rational mind. It stimulates emotions which in turn lead to reflecting on one’s own attitude, responsibility and role within this situation. Emotional involvement is a predictor for behaviour change.

Art is an accessible medium, one that moves us in a way that statistics may not.

Zaria Forman – Artist

Value affirmation

Arts and culture also convey values such as justice and respect, compassion and harmony, belonging and responsibility. The latter also includes sustainability and the protection of our natural world – not only for its aesthetic value but also because we depend on it. Sustainability is more than just a new green concept. It explores “the good life” within the boundaries of our ecosystem. It requires a profound social transformation.

Arts and culture can not only create awareness but also inspire new ways of thinking and behaving.

New narratives?!

According to sociologist Harald Welzer, the arts and culture may function as a “New Deal for societythrough its innovative strength. Or it can also be the source for attractive narratives about a different reality. The key here? Its power of imagination! Narratives must shift from the currently still dominant focus on sacrifice and loss towards one of a better quality of life and opportunities. What will be possible in a future in which we live in harmony with our environment?

A cultural institution thus fulfils – at least to some extent – its task of contributing to current developments and enabling participation. It also takes a stand. It signals openness, not only to what is happening but also to taking responsibility. The mediation work, i.e. how the art is presented, described and (pedagogically) accompanied plays a role here, too. Ultimately, the audience also acts as a multiplier. Once out of the door, knowledge and values can be passed on. So are reflections and emotions – a snowball effect is created.

Example: ARTEFACTS exhibition @ Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

ARTEFACTS was an exhibition by and with photographer J Henry Fair. His large-scale photographs are at first sight bright, aesthetic, beautiful and absolutely fascinating. They appeal to your curiosity and draw you closer. But if you have a closer look and find out what they are about they turn to be disturbing and shocking. They are eye-opening.

The purpose of doing these pictures is to make change. We have to change our behaviour.

J Henry Fair

Henry’s photographs show evidence of the destruction of the natural world caused by humanity. They demonstrate the consequences of industrialization and constant economic growth: Left-overs of toxic waste in our environment. “Industrial Scars” is the name of the photo series by the artist, who is also called a “cartographer of the hidden misery and disaster“.

I had the pleasure to talk J Henry Fair about his life and work. Find the whole article here.

Oil Tank – refinery on the Gulf Coast @ Pascaguola, Mississipi USA © Foto: J Henry Fair, courtesy of the artist

The Museum für Naturkunde Berlin did not only want to confront and irritate its audience (and dismiss them totally frustrated). More importantly, it wanted to enter into a dialogue and offer solutions. Solutions that are downsized to the individual level to make clear that everyone has the power to do something about climate change. For example, we can (and have to) question and change our consumption behaviour. Hot topics are our diet, how to avoid plastic and excessive number of waste (“zero waste”) or the concept of minimalism. Furthermore, we can actively use our political voice and/or support one of the many initiatives and campaigns that strive to bring about change.

2. Directly sustainable: Talking about business practice

Key areas

The second aspect to consider is the concept of “Betriebsökologie”, a term coined and circulated in Germany by the ANKM. It basically puts the spotlight on the operating system of a cultural institution. It includes everything that happens behind the scenes, thus all organisational aspects and operational processes. Major attention is paid to the use of resources such as the procurement and consumption of material and energy (electricity, water, heating/air-conditioning). This relates both to one’s production and the facilities.

Another important factor is mobility and transportation which means the travel of staff, artists and visitors as well as the shipping of artworks. Then there are the aspects concerning waste management and recycling. Guiding principles could be “reduce, reuse, recycle” or the concept of a circular economy of which the “cradle to cradle” model has become quite popular. Last but not least, institutions might consider a plant-based catering with a vegetarian and regional assortment for visitors and staff.

Responsibility & Self-regulation

Improving the operating systems under the aspect of ecology implies a commitment to institutional responsibility and an enhanced self-regulation. It involves to measure, control, reduce and monitor one’s own environmental impacts. It can also imply to set own environmental targets and formulate a code of conduct or a green manifest.

Of course, this entails additional work but cultural institutions need to see this as an opportunity.

First of all, experts agree that regulations and requirements for a sustainable practice are coming up. Many institutions and practitioners even ask for these regulations, i.e. in the form of a climate budget. Then, the funding criteria will also most likely be adapted (see the pilot project of the Federal Cultural Foundation).

I simply see it as a necessary regulation to find a viable, resilient and sustainable path in cultural production.

Christoph Hügelmeyer – Environmental Management Officer at KBB 

Resilience vs. Criticism

Furthermore, criticism of the art industry as a major CO2-emitter is becoming louder and has led to heated debates about the “hypocrisy of the art world“. Collaborators, artists and visitors are also increasingly asking about approaches to environmental protection. They make those a criteria for cooperation or visits. So why wait until five to twelve? Those who already understand, pierce and improve rigid operational processes can build resilience and better plan for the future.

They also make a statement: They want to be part of the solution, not of the problem.

Credibility & Proximity

If the statement is followed by concrete numbers, it inevitably leads to more credibility. Thereby it is not necessary to only focus on resource consumption or a successful reduction of emissions. It is just as important to point out to areas that impose challenges or that you do not have much influence on, i.e. standards for humidity and air-conditioning in the exhibition context. This can exert pressure on those who introduced these old standards. 

Especially admitting honestly and transparently one’s own weakness in some areas builds rapport and proximity. It demonstrates a clear attitude and a clear promise. It does not only have an effect on the outside – on the audience, peers and society – but also on the inside – on staff and collaborators. You become a role model. And you motivate others to come along.

Moreover, it is important not to see sustainability as an “all or nothing” decision. Start wherever it is possible for you. This will create momentum into the right direction.

It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you do it.

1 + 2 = 4: Talking about synergies

The two aspects are not necessarily interdependent: it is indeed possible to work on the company’s operating system without addressing the climate in one’s work or programme. The goal of an environmentally sound business practice is to enable artistic freedom and to continue to guarantee artistic freedom. It is the loss of freedom which sceptics fear the most.

However, in the opposite case it becomes difficult. It is the discrepancy between on the scene vs. behind the scene, hence what is preached on stage and not practised backstage. In the long term, it is neither viable nor trustworthy to make or present art that addresses the environmental crisis without being environmentally-friendly itself. The audience becomes suspicious when 100 artists are still flown in from overseas.

We can only be credible in an event like Down to Earth if we also practice what we preach.

Christoph Hügelmeyer – KBB

If both aspects are integrated, synergies with great potential are created. You are credible, trustworthy and fit for the future. You become a role model par excellence. You positively influence the industry, peers and the public and gain recognition.

The statement is: “I am part of the solution. Who’s in on it with me?”

Example: Down to Earth @ Gropius Bau Berlin

The exhibition Down To Earth, which was shown in the Gropius Bau in summer 2020, serves as a great example here. As a “radical experiment”, it also exercised the topic of environmental protection in its own operating system. In addition to the artworks of environmental artists the exhibition was complemented by a programme of lectures and workshops. What I found exceptional is that voices outside the primary “definition of art” were given a voice, too.

There were no extras; everything took place live and “unplugged”. To minimise the environmental impact, no electric lights, loudspeakers or screens were used and all flights were replaced by train journeys. The materials used for setting up the exhibition were either reused or passed on to external non-profit organisations. All consumption was transparently displayed.

Images from top to down:
Courtesy of Artist Anne Duk Hee Jordan: Into the Wild (Ongoing) in collaboration with Herbarium Leipzig,
Asad Raza: Absorption. Down to Earth.
Lecture with Tino Sehgal and Louise Höjer. Down to Earth
All images: © Berliner Festspiele/Immersion. Fotos: Eike Walkenhorst

Die zur Verfügung gestelltenBilder dürfen ausschließlich für die wissenschaftliche Arbeit und die einmalige Veröffentlichung im digitalen Kontext dieses Blogs am 06. April 2021 honorarfrei verwendet werden. Diese Aufnahmen sind nicht für kommerzielle Zwecke bestimmt und dürfen nicht an Dritte weitergeleitet werden.

Down to Earth received a lot of positive feedback: involved lenders and artists sympathised with the consequences of some new and totally unusual decisions. Then, a lot of approval from the press and experts was received. Down to Earth made an impact. On the one hand, this was reflected in the pleasingly high numbers of a very heterogeneous audience – despite the pandemic. On the other hand, peers said that they were encouraged to do things differently. And other cultural institutions announced that they want to learn from the experience of this experiment. The snowball effect was set in motion.

Audience development & Audience attachment

In general, addressing environmental issues promises to attract the attention of a new target group of (primarily) young adults. They are the ones who are more open to the topic and who want to play an active role in the climate crisis. They are the ones who are open to additional formats such as lectures and workshops outside the primary definition of art.

However, the topic is not only important for new audiences but also for some existing ones. Those who are looking for answers to the question of how we want to live in the future. An institution’s increasing sense of responsibility and credibility will lead to stronger involved and attached audience.

Instead of thinking how to attract new audience into the museum, why not experiment with ways to get the museum into society? Why not move exhibitions into the urban space? Covid-19 has unleashed our creativity and shown what is possible. There are already several benchmark projects, such as ArtCOP21 in Paris, for example. Or the exhibition Ruhr Ding: Klima in the Ruhr area (the largest urban agglomeration in western Germany). They have had positive experiences or expect to do so.

Summary? Conclusion!

An increasing number of artists and institutions address the climate and the environment in their work or exhibitions, thus contribute to raise awareness. Some are looking for ways to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. They improve their business practices, reduce their consumption and their emissions. They become role models and thus exert a significant positive influence on society and the cultural sector. They motivate people to follow their example. For these cultural professionals, sustainability is no longer a “nice to have” but has a clear attitude and statement.

In the end, everyone should ask themselves the question: What role do I want to play?

It is better to start with imperfection than to procrastinate with perfection.

Thomas A. Edison

This article was first published in the Kultur Management Netzwerk Magazin Nr. 158 | Januar/Februar 2021 on the topic “Ecological Footprint”. Find the magazine (in German) here.

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