Library of Creative Sustainability

Inspiring examples of sustainability outcomes achieved through artistic collaboration

Natural Resources Defense Council Artist in Residence

In 2014 the Natural Resources Defense Council became the first large-scale environmental organisation to have a resident artist working side-by-side with programme staff. The residency involves artists in the overall mission of the organisation and gives them a seat at the table in decision-making. Jenny Kendler used the residency to develop various projects, including Milkweed Dispersal Balloons, which helped local communities to improve habitats for monarch butterflies. 

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Project Description

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a major US-based environmental advocacy NGO working internationally. Founded in 1970, it has approximately 3 million members. The NRDC is primarily a scientific and legal organisation whose mission is to influence policy in the public and private sectors towards sustainability. It campaigns to reduce global warming, limit pollution, and conserve energy through scientific research, litigation, advocacy, and public education.

NRDC’s artist in residence programme was started in 2014 and has opened up new ways of working as well as new partnerships. The main purpose of the programme is to involve artists and other creative practitioners (including designers and architects) in the work of the NRDC, contributing to its overall mission and moving environmental issues forward in public discourse. The NRDC has recognised that artists can develop novel ways of achieving its overall goals, different from its traditional methods using legal briefs, press releases, and white papers. The NRDC works with artists long term and where possible gives them a ‘seat at the table’ enabling them to help shape projects that highlight key environmental issues. 

For the NRDC, the benefit is engaging the public in new ways and reaching new audiences through creative approaches developed in partnership with the artist. This has developed into relationships with museums and arts organisations resulting in collaborative programming, such as delivering environmental education in the context of a museum programming exhibitions on climate change and sustainability. Artists benefit from working closely with the NRDC, a highly regarded environment NGO, for a meaningful length of time—in addition to gaining access to the NRDC’s considerable expertise across a wide range of environmental issues including endangered species, climate change, pollution, energy, water, and sustainability.

Natural Resources Defense Council Artist in Residence

Artist Jenny Kendler hands out balloons filled with monarch butterfly food.

The NRDC works with five or six artists each year, some on projects and some on a long term basis. One of the long term artists is Jenny Kendler. Kendler’s role as artist in residence with NRDC is now over 5 years old and demonstrates the principles of long-term engagement and having a seat at the table. 

One of the first projects that Jenny worked on with NRDC was Milkweed Dispersal Balloons, included as part of the Marfa Dialogues at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri. From an advocacy perspective, the project was intended to raise awareness about the declining population of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), which has fallen by as much as 90%, and stimulate both policy change and citizen action. Monarch Butterflies are migratory and travel from the northern USA to Mexico and back each year.

NRDC scientists and lawyers agreed that one of the most meaningful steps that could be taken to help the monarch population increase its resilience to the stresses of urbanisation and agricultural practices was to plant and protect milkweed (Asclepias spp.), the primary source of food for monarch caterpillars. However, the organisation didn’t have a way to convey that information to the public in a manner that could spur direct action. Milkweed is widely regarded as a “weed” and is a target of pesticides, most notably Monsanto/Bayer’s glyphosate known commercially as RoundUp.

In response to this problem, Kendler proposed and developed Milkweed Dispersal Balloons, a project which distributes biodegradable balloons filled with monarch-friendly milkweed seeds from a ‘food cart’ positioned outside museums and other cultural venues where the NRDC would not normally have a presence. The balloons can then be carried around and burst in an appropriate environment to spread the floating, fluffy milkweed seeds.

Kendler designed badges showing fragmentary close-ups of monarch butterfly wings to pin the balloon strings to people’s clothes, which are also used to burst them. She also used this interaction with members of the public as an opportunity to discuss the issue of insect habitat, conservation, and  toxic pesticides in an informal manner distinct from the conversations street campaigners could have for example.

The project raises awareness of the dangers that pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change pose to pollinators; explains the ecological and economic importance of pollinators in general and the plight of monarchs in particular; and empowers communities in St. Louis (the world headquarters of Monsanto) and across the Midwest to take action to protect this unique species. As of September 2019 the Milkweed project has distributed thousands of balloons, filled with hundreds of thousands of milkweed seeds and been presented at more than ten museums, parks and cultural venues by Kendler herself—and many more by members of the public who were invited to recreate this ‘open-source’ project, using resources made available by Kendler via her website. 

Partners & Stakeholders

  • Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit international environmental advocacy group whose staff includes scientists and lawyers among others;
  • Artists and creative practitioners in residence at the NRDC, such as Jenny Kendler;
  • Galleries and arts organisations, such as Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and DePaul Art Museum, where Milkweed Dispersal Balloons was performed;
  • Environmental organisations, such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairieand Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farms who denoted Milkweed for Kendler’s project.

Sustainability Issues

  • The artist in residency model provides the Natural Resources Defense Council with distinctive and creative methods of communicating their work to audiences, especially in informal contexts and ways that encourage audiences to come to them rather than vice versa. 
  • The model allows artists to benefit from the expertise of NDRC’s staff to deepen their engagement with environmental issues
  • The presence of artists in the organisations aimed to encourage staff to find innovative new ways of thinking about and engaging with the issues they were working on
  • Kendler’s project made use of research to target the most effective ways of improving habitats for the monarch butterfly, providing communities with easy-to-use tools to allow them to be actively involved in supporting the species
  • The structure of Kendler’s project provided opportunities to speak to members of the public and provide them with information that they could apply in their daily life

The experience of working with NRDC has been transformative and profound. I’ve learned a lot from the people at NRDC and hope that my role in the organisation helps to open up the way they conceive of their advocacy as well.

Jenny Kendler, Artist in Residence

Lessons, Tips & Advice

The initiative was underpinned by a year of research into models of residencies used in the arts as well as the development of a small internal group who supported the ambition to work with artists long term and give them a seat at the table within the organisation.

NRDC wanted to avoid the instinct to be too prescriptive. Working with artists requires being comfortable with ambiguity and not starting with fixed outcomes. It was important to allow time for the ideas to develop and to respect the artist’s creative practice.

The NRDC has had to prove that a non-arts organisation should be taken seriously in working with artists. This was helped by early funding from the Rauschenberg Foundation and Marfa Dialogues who also helped to network NRDC in the arts and open doors with other organisations and funders.

The separation of arts funding from environment funding in almost all large grant makers is a significant challenge that reinforces information silos in other areas such as advocacy.

Funding

All work is supported by grants from foundations and donations from individuals. NRDC receives no funding from government or corporations. 

The artist in residence programme meant that NRDC needed to secure new sources of funding through a mix of Foundation grants, individual funders, and partnerships with museums and arts organisations, including the Rauschenberg Foundation and Marfa Dialogues. 

Related Projects

Quotations

I started identifying gaps in how we were telling our own story and seeing how people often had a hard time imagining the solutions that we were advocating for or weren’t understanding the urgency of the issues we work on. And that’s when I saw the opportunity to bring in my background with art. Elizabeth Corr
I’ll be very blunt and say, I see little value in being intentionally (or even negligently) exclusive in one’s work, save to build up a product for market or stoke social egos, neither of which interest me. I’m very intentional in my forms and subject matter: to use beauty as a lure, to create work that people feel is ‘open’ to them. I may start with a bird or a flower — but then, I’m actually talking about some very difficult material: destabilising human exceptionalism, extinction, conceptualising other minds...all of which may entail some behaviour changes people may not initially like, and I want people to be able to actually listen. Jenny Kendler

All images courtesy of Jenny Kendler

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