In the continuing crisis caused by Covid-19, most cultural organisations and creators are in a perilous financial position. The people helping us to navigate these strange times are experiencing some calamitous effects that will continue long after lockdown. Almost overnight theatres, clubs and museums have gone dark, festivals are still fields and tours never leave the kerbside.
In response, the arts have rapidly pivoted to tiny shows, domestic chats, bedroom gigs, simultaneous listening, re-runs and intimate glimpses into the lives of others. A locked down audience has responded with increased streaming and engagement, proof, were it needed, of the centrality of culture tour well-being. The pandemic has shown that culture matters and being able to connect to our cultural communities matters also.
The cultural sector has engaged beyond entertaining through creative content, emphasising its deep connection to communities. Festival suppliers are donating generators to hospitals, venues are becoming local markets, cafes are making meals for vulnerable communities and costume departments are manufacturing PPE.
Culture is a response to the world around us, and this moment will be remembered culturally. Alongside the data on mortality rates and the laying bare of inequalities, the broken bits that reveal the flaws in the making, it is culture that will create the narratives of memory once the immediacy of the moment is past.
The pandemic has become a prequel to the climate crisis, showcasing habitat destruction, animal welfare, economic slow-down, falls in carbon emissions, urban animal takeovers and further shared signifiers. The dynamics of global versus national, health versus business, the deals that decide who gets what, how, when and where are all here in a moment that reveals the cracks before we are ready to mend them.
The climate crisis is asking urgent questions on what art is for and art and culture are finding huge connections to that crisis. Let’s not be too romantic though; the creative community is culpable in driving consumption, with fashion and advertising particularly problematic, and the arts have been the instruments of power since time immemorial.
When Julie’s Bicycle was founded by the music industry it was looking for the glue to mend the cracks. Our work is based on a simple premise; we change the arts because they change the world. We start with climate action: the nuts and bolts. Reducing impacts and finding solutions to scale and accelerate action: pathways for net-zero cultural buildings and events, less extractive productions, touring and freighting, and supporting the climate justice movement to hardwire the bigger social perspectives and imperatives into cultural work. Expertise is required at all levels; not just the artists but everyone who supports their work.
Over 12 years Julie’s Bicycle has worked with hundreds of organisations and creatives to take climate action and our work, which started in one sector – music – has extended to many cultural sectors and countries. Our partnership with Arts Council England pegged funding to annual environmental reporting and policies, a world-first which has generated global interest. The gains have been considerable: a 35 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and 23 per cent reduction in energy consumption since the programme’s inception, resulting in £16.5 million of savings across the portfolio.
Cultural leaders are now at the forefront of the conversation. At our recent ‘We Make Tomorrow’ conference, Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern, questioned the orthodoxy of perpetual increase, whether in audience or revenues, and Richard Mantle, Director of Opera North, stated that ‘a company that is not environmentally sustainable has no future’.
When our spaces do reopen, creators may find the innovations that have maintained a cultural response to the Covid crisis have created something new. Whether Olafur Ellisaon’s Earth Day work delivered en masse via Instagram, The Nest Collective’s ‘Singing With Nightingales’ streaming nature into homes or Season for Change, a major mass participation festival celebrating the environment and inspiring urgent action on climate shifting from public to private space, culture continues to find ways to permeate.
With Massive Attack and Coldplay renouncing touring if emissions cannot be avoided and Mark Rylance exiting the Royal Shakespeare Company over BP sponsorship, the ‘new normal’ was already sure to be unlike its predecessor.
The founding of Culture Declares Emergency and Music Declares Emergency has created a fresh collective eloquence in service of the planet. It managed to catch attention where many other initiatives have failed; the UN, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Frans Timmermans (EU Green Deal lead) and national and city leads are keen to support these movements, acknowledgement at last that culture is what moves us, not just politics, economics, science or technology. This fact of human existence, so evident today, has hardly been noticed in climate circles and is ready and willing to be put to work.
Alison Tickell is CEO of Julie’s Bicycle, a London-based charity that supports the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability.