It's Time For Sustainability in the Arts To Be a Priority

I was in Scotland presenting at the Association of Arts Administration Educators conference with colleagues from two other countries on Sustainability and the Arts when Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accords. While I could have been flooded with anger, humiliation, frustration, and resignation, the reality is that it has been our states, communities, organizations, and individuals- not our Federal government- that have been diligently creating opportunities and making efforts to address climate change. The conference became a timely moment to share that not only is it incumbent upon all of us to step up and save the planet, we have to lead and show how.

My co-presenters Ben Twist and Ian Garrett partner in presenting the Edinburgh Fringe Sustainability Practice Award for the shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which “engage their audiences with sustainability; take responsibility for their environmental, economic, and social impacts; and think big about how the arts can help to grow a sustainable world”[1]. Ben Twist is Director of Creative Carbon Scotland, which connects culture with sustainability and climate change through training, research and artistic projects. He highlighted the reasons why we must go green, why he believes that the arts and arts organizations can, and are, leading the way forward, and he showcased several of the tools that Creative Carbon Scotland offers to support arts organizations. Ian Garrett, teaches at York University in Toronto, and is Co-Founder and Director of Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, located in Los Angeles, CA.  In his virtual talk, Ian focused on three key areas, Environmental, Economic and Sociopolitical, and cited examples of how arts organizations are supporting society, are vital to the economy, and are meeting the climate change challenge by becoming LEEDs Certified - or using tools such as those that score arts exhibitions - to become green. 

Short of spending precious carbon miles by attending a conference far from home, how do you get information to trim your arts organization’s carbon footprint? This is where I came in.

At the conference, I presented how my online course, Greening Your Arts Nonprofit Organization (offered this fall) works, and how I teach my students to:

  • Increase efficiencies that can reduce their arts organizations’ electric bills by 50% or more.
  • Eliminate use of toxic chemicals.
  • Trim water use, or address runoff or water capture.
  • Engage and support a healthier staff, patrons, and community.
  • Create local alliances to support arts institutions.
  • Personally and collectively work to save our planet. 

In addition, students focus on areas unique to their institution, geography, budget, facility, as well as programmatic concerns such as researching which art supplies are safe for children or which concessions purchases are cleaner options.

This past winter members of my state legislature, professors, and local leaders held a climate change gathering to underscore the dire need to address climate change. A professor from a local college said that to have any hope of passing a livable planet on to future generations, each US citizen has to cut their carbon footprint by 50% starting now. If we each went green, our collective effort would be important, but if we greened our arts institutions as well, our impact would be exponential. Many of our organizations are enormous consumers of a wide array of products, electricity, heating oil, water, and we instigate a lot of patron transportation activity. Arts organizations are leaders in their communities, and they can lead by example and inspire individuals and other organizations to also do their part.  By making our communities better places to live, reducing the need for energy, water, and fuel, we free dollars that could be spent on better pay for staff members, more scholarships, additional open hours, and additional green initiatives that will cut costs going forward. Many arts organizations, particularly in other countries, are doing their part to cut their carbon footprint. It is time for American arts organizations to step up and do the same. Fortunately, this is not hard to do, and while I welcome you to enroll in my class, other resources also exist.

In the new 6th edition of the Fundamentals of Arts Management[2] Sarah (Brophy) Sutton and I have mapped out a step-by-step process for how to transform your arts institution into a sustainable one, regardless of scale or budget size. In fact, the smaller the budget, the more we believe you should adopt our money-saving practices. The recent break of the ice sheets in Antarctica, methane craters forming and peat fires burning in Siberia, and temperatures that hit 120 degrees in Phoenix are reminders that climate change is upon us, and without federal leadership to guide us, it is incumbent upon each of us to act, and act now.