Opportunity exists where you seek it

Seven people sat together laughing

Written by Hannah Hartley, Operations Manager at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA)

Idyllic setting for reflection

Three days spent in the pastoral idyll of Hawkwood College, Stroud at the end of last year continues to resonate with me, even as I write many weeks later in the hard-edged urban greyness of Manchester city centre. The occasion was the first event in the Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England Accelerator programme: a condensed creative climate leadership course delivered to a wide-ranging cohort of organisations, consortia and creative individuals working across the UK’s cultural sector. I attended as a representative of the Manchester Arts Sustainability Team (MAST); a network of 27 arts and cultural organisations committed to working together to reduce their environmental impacts.

Preceding this by a matter of weeks, grave headlines announced the urgent global message contained within the latest IPCC report – 12 years, scientists say, to limit potential climate catastrophe. A daunting task which can only be achieved by “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. With a growing sense of having reached a tipping point in public consciousness on climate issues – from the so-called ‘Blue Planet factor’ to the burgeoning Extinction Rebellion movement – it has never seemed a more opportune moment to confront the urgency of this existential threat and grapple with the complexities of what we do about it.

Climate leadership training

Through their continued partnership, Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England support the cultural sector to reduce their environmental impacts and be more sustainable, with the addition of two new programmes for 2018-22: Spotlight and Accelerator. These programmes indicate a step-change, recognising the need to support and encourage ‘enterprise, innovation and creative perspectives on climate and the environment’, and move beyond the basic energy-saving measures, recycling initiatives, and resource efficiencies which should already be embedded in most of our operations. Of course, it should remain a priority to continue to address the nuts and bolts of our work to be as low-impact as far as is practicable but as Francis Runacres, Executive Director of Enterprise and Innovation for Arts Council England, noted: ‘the sector’s ambition has been raised’.

The Accelerator’s specific aims are to support two cohorts over 4 years, engaging with sector leaders to develop sustainable practice, empower organisations to help peers to engage with and lead on specific environmental topics, and contribute to new insights and visions for future-proofing the sector. The structured programme offers resources, networking, inspiration and skills development through mentoring, knowledge exchange opportunities and the aforementioned climate leadership course.

Why do we need Accelerators?

Back in Stroud, once we’d settled in to our surroundings and with initial intro’s out of the way, our group began to examine why it is the case that this should be such an important issue to our sector specifically. The now universal and increasingly tangible facts of climate science aside, the power of arts and culture as a catalyst in the climate movement has long been assumed. “Sustainability is aligned with our cultural values and by default arts and culture should embody sustainable practice”, argue Julie’s Bicycle. A practical exercise to map the values of sustainability on to those of our organisations was enlightening, reinforcing a holistic approach.

When Arts Council England launched their annual report on sustainability in November 2019, their Chairman Sir Nicholas Serota wrote in the Guardian that ‘cultural organisations are in a unique position to challenge, inform and engage audiences in conversations about the environment’. Given that we are a relatively small and low emission sector we must try to better understand and harness the transformative power of our influence on others within the context of action on sustainability. We are adept at making this case in many areas of our work already, but we have the potential to enable impacts that are far-reaching and go far beyond the walls of our venues. We need to devise strategies that will utilise our collective voice with the unique quality of the arts to engender an emotional response to climate change. This voice will define our role within the UK’s zero carbon strategy and empower us to work with our city leaders to help ensure the resources, infrastructure and legislation required are in place for a cross-sector approach to delivering impactful change.

Mapping the movement

A great way to kick-start inspiration was a session exploring Julie’s Bicycle’s framework of the 7 ‘creative climate trends’ which seeks to try and organise the international cultural community’s response to climate issues; evidenced by a huge resource of detailed case studies and accessed via an interactive map of global arts practice. It was great to see MAST cited as a case study for action through collaboration and recognition of how our unique model has positioned us to better influence and work with policy makers. The Accelerator programme offers us the space and support to consolidate our learning to date, and ensure our network is fit for purpose, future proof, and can continue to take on a key leadership role for the wider sector and our city.

Two weeks after I returned from the Accelerator residential, Manchester formally adopted a new target to become a zero-carbon city by 2038, well ahead of the previous commitment to achieve this goal by 2050. Alongside Bristol, with a 2030 goal, these two cities have set a new level of ambition within the UK emissions reduction strategy. Recommendations produced by the Tyndall Centre, based at the University of Manchester, include a set of actions and a proposed definition of ‘zero-carbon’. Under the plan, Manchester will adopt a science-based ‘carbon budget’, capping total emissions at 15 million tonnes from 2018 – 2100. The city will also commit to a 13 per cent year-on-year reduction in emissions from 2018 onwards. In short, all of the city’s sectors will need to greatly reduce their carbon emissions, if the target is to be met. MAST is now embarking on a process to create a road map for Manchester’s cultural sector to support the zero-carbon agenda. Analysis suggests that the 27 member organisations represent a rather small 0.4% of the city’s total emissions, and so we are exploring the ways we can amplify the zero-carbon message to our audiences and stakeholders.

Artistic responses

It is fair to say that audiences’ expectations of arts and cultural organisations to be leaders and advocates for change are growing. As a team at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) we have been increasingly focused on grappling with issues of sustainability, not only looking at the efficiencies of our own operations and artistic productions but exploring the concerns and responses of artists. Our current ‘Season for Change’ is a 6-month programme of environmentally connected exhibitions and events which has garnered lots of local interest, including a sell-out talk by photographer Mandy Barker whose aesthetically disarming imagery of plastic waste collected from the oceans engenders a powerful call to action on single-use plastics. The exhibition ‘Bulaubulau’ features work by Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai revolving around her interest in the symbiosis of the human-nature relationship, epitomised by a traditional way of life in an indigenous community in Taiwan dependent on natural resources from land and sea that are now under threat. A recent visitor was inspired to feed back that it was ‘thought provoking’ adding a call for ‘more stuff on the environment please!’ Similar stories were shared amongst the Accelerator group, with a clear motivation shared across the cohort that we must support artists more to explore such concerns through their work.

The Accelerator residential also provided a fascinating opportunity to delve more into an examination of the larger social justice implications of climate change; its inextricable relationship with a neoliberalist society, our capitalist desires, and centuries of colonisation and industrial development. In an increasingly populous world, ensuring equity is an ever-greater challenge and as we compete for depleting resources one must face the hard-edged questions of who exactly has the right to what kind of life. Considering how we would re-frame our work within the UN’s sustainable development goals provided an opportunity for reflection and I am now motivated to consider how our sustainability and diversity policies might be better aligned.

During an evening reading of her work, poet Selina Nwulu reminded us that artists can challenge one-dimensional narratives, connect with new audiences, and most importantly shift perspectives from the intellectual to the emotional: knowing rather than feeling knowledge. Many arts organisations already do extensive work with socially-engaged artistic practice, so how can we connect this work back to our sustainability ambitions? Artists are often a step ahead of us here – for example with the wonderful Gavin Porter project ‘Who gives a F about Polar Bears?’

Reasons for optimism

Of course, it is easy to fall into a collective gloom about the state of the world and the overwhelming challenges ahead, so how does one put leadership into practice to build a consensus and inspire action? Many leaders are already familiar with some of the tools needed to tackle resistance within our organisations, with time at the residential devoted to refreshing and practicing those models – such as systems thinking, theory of change, pitching and making the case for support, active listening / action learning skills. We discussed at length some of the internal and external challenges faced by our organisations, workshopping some approaches to tackle them. Never was it truer to say that a problem shared is a problem halved – and I am pleased to note that this peer support has continued apace between the cohort remotely.

Last November we received the brilliant news that MAST had picked up an award at the Manchester Culture Awards for Promotion of Environmental Sustainability – winners from a shortlist made up predominately of MAST members. This was shortly followed by the release of the Arts Council / Julies Bicycle environmental report. This and many other wonderful news stories for many of the Accelerator cohort and colleagues across the sector is galvanising in the recognition it brings, helping all those pushing the sustainability agenda forward to command the support of senior management and governance and set a leading example for other sectors.

The timing of this residential felt serendipitous in many ways, and I found that it brought together a few divergent strands of thought into a more cohesive strategy to take forwards – which I now look forward to sharing and developing with colleagues at CFCCA and across MAST. Personally, it has had a profound impact on taking my thinking on climate issues beyond that slightly problematic term ‘sustainability’ and rather I find myself now focusing on the ripeness in opportunity that exists, where you seek it.


Hannah Hartley oversees operations management at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), the national lead in Chinese contemporary art and visual culture. CFCCA works internationally and through collaboration to deliver a world class programme of exhibitions, events, residencies and research projects for UK audiences. She is interested in the role of arts and culture in addressing environmental issues and associated social challenges and is an active member of the Manchester Arts Sustainability Team (MAST); a network of 27 arts and cultural organisations committed to working together to reduce their environmental impacts and foster a collaborative learning ethos which unites art forms, organisations, voluntary and civic bodies in a shared commitment to a sustainable and equitable future.

– Photo by James Allan Photography