How can culture support political action on climate change?

26th September 2019

How can culture support political action on climate change?

Protesters at the Climate Strike in Edinburgh

The Global Climate Strike on Friday 20 September featured a particularly strong participation from those working in arts and culture. There is a long history of the arts' involvement in social and political issues. But how can cultural organisations publicly take a strong stance on climate change?

As a sector, it can feel like there is a conflict between the moral imperative to engage with climate change through our work, and the challenge of not knowing how to contribute, how best to make an impact, or how not to alienate audiences.

One response can be to focus inwards on our own practices, taking efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and adopt sustainable working methods. This is important, yet there is also great opportunity for the cultural sector to influence society as a whole.

Why this might seem hard

Climate change is not just a scientific issue, but a political one, and as a result it can make arts organisations feel uncomfortable for various reasons:

  • The arts are often dependent on government funding and there can be a nervousness about engaging in politics for fear or alienating those who determine our budgets;
  • Many arts organisations make use of sponsorship as a source of income and are wary of taking a political stance that might scare away business interests;
  • Some argue that arts organisations should have a neutral stance on society and that therefore taking an active political stance would be wrong;
  • Others argue that arts organisations can engage with climate change but only insofar as it falls within their remit, with issues such as government policy or finance being beyond the pail.

How things are changing

But with climate change actions such as the Climate Strikes moving into the mainstream, these outlooks seem to be shifting. In recent years, there has been an increased tendency for arts and culture organisations to take a much more active stance in engaging publicly with climate change.

The September 2019 Climate Strikes were a strong example of this, which featured employees of arts organisations clearly demarcating themselves as representatives of that organisation. This included staff from the Tate Galleries, Southbank Centre, National Theatre (who publicly supported the action), and RSNO. This was related to the declaration of climate emergency by the union PCS who said:

The union is calling on all its members’ employers to declare climate emergency – a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030, to refuse to accept fossil fuel sponsorship, to run green forums, and promote the role of Green Reps in the workplace.

Our Tate branch’s demands were accepted by management there; PCS Southbank Centre and PCS British Museum branches have submitted similar demands.

The Scottish Artists Union also voted in favour of participating in the strikes as did the Royal Institute of British Architects and the University and College Union, which represents organisations such as the Glasgow School of Art. Before the strike a letter, signed by representatives of over 150 arts organisations, was circulated encouraging creatives to join the strike.

What others are doing

Collaborations with activism

Some arts organisations have chosen to engage much more closely with social activism. At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the venue provider Summerhall collaborated with Extinction Rebellion to curate a series of events during the festival. The information about this residency explicitly states:

The overall aim of the exhibition is to invite visitors to engage with XR’s three demands: to tell the truth about climate change and the ecological emergency; to call on governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and to create a Citizens Assembly to oversee the process.

This demonstrates the value of arts organisations collaborating with artists or external organisations, providing them with space and resources to engage with climate change as a political issue while not necessarily acting as representatives of the organisation itself. In other moves, Tate Modern hosted a banner-making workshop for the Climate Strike, which deliberately framed this as an artistic act.

Curatorial decisions

Curating art that engages with environmental issues can also still be presented from a relatively neutral stance. A good example of this could be verbatim theatre, where existing perspectives are presented word-for-word, the only stance coming from how the production contextualises them. Some cultural organisations specialise in presenting work with social or environmental themes. Take One Action Film Festival often includes facilitated discussions with experts following screenings.

Joining international initiatives

Another initiative that has seen a recent rise to popularity is Culture Declares Emergency, a network of individuals and organisations whose declarers include Royal Court Theatre, the Gate Theatre, Somerset House, ArtsAdmin and Creative Carbon Scotland. The initiative states:

We are a growing global community of arts & culture champions declaring a climate & ecological emergency. The crisis compels us to be revolutionaries in our own fields of expertise. It calls for us to imagine new possibilities and to propose systemic change. Let us sow the seeds for creative, individual and collective responses to the emergency.

Culture Declares Emergency creates connections across the sector: from large arts organisations working to improve their own practice, to individual activists who want to make use of the arts as a communicative resource.

Challenging fossil fuel sponsorship

Arts organisations are also starting to engage with the complex challenge of sponsorship by fossil fuel extraction companies. This is an issue that has seen increased coverage in recent years, with Tate’s dropping of BP sponsorship following the Liberate Tate campaign and the RSC’s dropping of BP sponsorship following campaigning by BP or not BP and School Strikers. In Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Science Festival have ceased fossil fuel sponsorship in recent years.

Liberate Tate and BP or not BP have also employed artistic methods in their protests, making use of specially composed music, theatrical performance, and elaborate costumes. They are also largely made up of people working in arts and culture.

What can you do?

It seems increasingly hard for arts and culture organisations to avoid engaging with these issues, with inaction interpret-able as a political act just as much as action and more institutions seem to be opting to take up a more active stance. So what can arts and culture organisations do to publicly engage with with climate change?

  • Declare Emergency: With the Scottish and UK government having declared national climate emergencies, joining the Culture Declares Emergency movement could lead to new conversations and commitments in terms of programming or strategy, internally and with partners;
  • Support your staff: The climate strikes have demonstrated the interest by arts and culture staff in acting on climate change, so encourage this, provide people with resources, enter into dialogue with unions;
  • Work with artists: Programme work from artists who are engaging with climate change issues. Creative Carbon Scotland has a large database of practitioners throughout Scotland and we’re happy to put you in touch with someone;
  • Work with audiences: use your role as an influential organisation to encourage audiences to take action. This could involve asking audiences to consider how they travel to your shows or involving them in a call to action as in the recent Fringe show ‘How to Save a Rock’;
  • Think about the money: Where is your funding coming from? And what is your money invested in? With funder relationships prominently displayed on websites, programmes and buildings, this is a public issue and with public interest in the issue of arts sponsorship growing, these issues are not likely to go away soon.

The September 2019 Climate Strikes was a demonstration that political engagement with climate change has truly gone mainstream. The question is how we can take this momentum forward as a cultural sector, and find ways of continuing this engagement in our daily work.

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We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.


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