Can the arts address climate change, improve health and the economy?

By Dee Boyle-Clapp, Director of Arts Extension Service

When Amherst Cinema opened its doors to the students in Dee Boyle-Clapp’s Greening Your Arts Nonprofit Organization class, General Manager George Myers had already agreed to serve as their semester-long case study organization. According to Myers, the Cinema works with university students two to three times every semester, so are used to working with a variety of students and classes. What he was not expecting was that, “This class was more robust, and was the only group taking on the important role of sustainability, including looking at what was integral to what works now, and can work long term. The class’ approach was uniquely holistic, and the question of how to become a responsible community organization became real and tangible.”


Amherst Cinema, an independent movie house and a membership-based nonprofit arts and education center located in Amherst, Massachusetts.


Amherst Cinema isn’t your typical movie theater. It is an independent movie house and a membership-based nonprofit arts and education center. When students in the Greening Your Arts Nonprofit Organization class met with George Myers in 2012, they looked at every part of the Cinema’s programming, operations, water use, electrical and chemical use, recycling and trash, and were divided into small groups to research alternatives. Students then spent the semester creating a plan for the Cinema to transform into one that was truly sustainable and able to meet the goal of 50-80% reductions in carbon, the amount needed to prevent a climate catastrophe.

"The class' approach was uniquely holistic, and the question of how to become a responsible community organization became real and tangible."

“We did most of what was recommended over time, as things became reasonable to take on,” said Myers. These steps paid dividends, and as the final plan stated, would become points of pride and opportunities for marketing and fundraising. Students, for example, suggested composting all food items and switching from plastic products to compostable ones. The Cinema’s concession stand made the switch to 100% compostable packaging, so the ‘trash’ suddenly became 70% compost. “The compost removal became an added cost, but then we heard from patrons how happy they were. When the controversy over straws happened, we had already switched to corn-based cups and straws and were composting them. Patrons responded, 'this is so amazing.' When people renewed their memberships, they added notes, and said, 'We love that you compost.'" As the students mentioned, these steps became important markers to share how we operate and another reason why people would support us.” 

"The compost removal became an added cost, but then we heard from patrons how happy they were. When the controversy over straws happened, we had already switched to corn-based cups and straws and were composting them."


The class came at a timely moment. The Cinema was on the verge of purchasing their first-ever digital projectors. Students took the specifications, then researched what projectors met the Cinema’s criteria for image quality, and found the projectors that used the least amount of electricity to operate. As these projectors were the organizations’ largest consumer of electricity, both to operate and fans or air conditioning to keep them cool, this alone offered substantial savings both in terms of money and carbon emissions. The films, which until then were on DVD, became a download, saving additional greenhouse gases from shipping and packaging.

Amherst Cinema, Year In Review following their Going Green in 2016 campaign.


The student group dedicated to concessions took particular interest in sourcing locally produced food items, including popcorn, wine, baked goods, and candy. Students learned that it took less carbon to bring wine over from France by boat than to fly it in from California, and then discovered several local wineries, which created the opportunity to keep dollars in the local economy and reduce carbon. The Cinema has done very well sourcing locally. “We buy milk from Mapleline, fair-trade coffee from Dean’s Beans and the honey is local.” The search for enough local, organic, non-GMO popcorn was challenging and in the end, there was no farm capable of producing enough popcorn at a price they could afford.  They do serve non-GMO popcorn, and the bags are compostable.

Misconceptions that organizations have when considering reducing their carbon footprint include that they must do everything at once, that each choice will cost more, and that the steps to go green will offend some patrons. As Myers noted, the Cinema took on changes when they were ready, and that the process provided many opportunities to save money and to fundraise to pay for them. Amherst Cinema’s Going Green in 2016 campaign to put solar panels on their roof took place during their Annual fund drive. Myers said that they framed their request as an opportunity for the Cinema to see long-term operations savings, and as a values-based request, and saw a $60,000 spike in donations due to this project-based ask. The solar panel payback was 10 years, and the panels provide 60% of their electricity. They recently made the move to purchase the balance of their electricity from wind, a clean, sustainable source. 


George Myers with the Greening Your Arts Nonprofit Organization class in 2012


The student’s final plan was a series of recommendations divided into three sections: no cost, low cost, and some, like solar, that required investment. Some greening changes that require no or very little cost can actually make an impact. Students looked at the basement and learned that the lights were often left on by accident, and one set of very bright lights in the lobby may not be necessary. Timers could take care of the basement, but Myers found that as some bulbs on a strip of six LED lightbulbs went out, two were adequate and they did not even replace the others. 

Can the arts save the planet? Yes, organizations can play an important role by reducing their own carbon footprint and through the arts organization, inform and engage their audience members to participate in making change. “This class was helpful in particular to the current situation. It is easy to know what you know, but there are now a lot of interesting ideas, and ways to explore what you do not know,” explained Myers. All of these changes aligned with the Cinema’s values and mission, including how they treat their staff and offer reasonable pay and health care. Myers reflected, “We face a global health crisis. Being flexible and creative will be essential tools going forward. I see the innovation in the holistic nature of this class; a group of people paying attention and finding teachable moments.”


Interested in learning more about how to make a more climate efficient organization? Take Greening Your Nonprofit Arts Organization this fall with Dee Boyle-Clapp. Watch for news about the Arts Extension Service’s fall symposium Creative Women Leading Climate Action.