Arts and culture have always been a part of important movements for change, and environmental sustainability is no exception.
People from across diverse sectors in society — religion, academia, business — are beginning to see both their responsibility for and their agency in addressing climate change and environmental sustainability. Arts and culture have always been a part of important movements for change, and environmental sustainability is no exception. Increasing numbers of artists and arts organizations are engaging with environmental issues, and a growing number of arts funders are thinking about and seeing this kind of work as both artistically valid and socially relevant. To explore this growing area of interest in our field, Grantmakers in the Arts commissioned Helicon Collaborative to conduct a scan of arts funders who are supporting environment-related work. By highlighting funders’ practices in this area, GIA hopes to spark a broader conversation in the arts funding sector and explore its own potential role in this realm.
We interviewed twenty people: seventeen arts funders and a few other leaders of arts organizations or intermediaries working at the intersection of art and environment. Some of the funders we spoke with are actively pursuing this cross-sector work, while others are only in the beginning stages of considering whether and how to do this. We were interested in answering these questions: What motivates them? What are they doing? What are they finding to be most effective?
The arts funders we interviewed expressed various motivations for supporting work at the intersection of art and environment. Some see environmental sustainability as a critical issue facing the people and communities they serve, and feel called to address it using whatever means they have at their disposal, including the arts. Others are responding to the increasing number of funding requests they are receiving from artists and arts organizations doing this kind of work. Still others believe that there is a powerful, and under-realized, role for art and culture to advance environmental goals in ways that other methods cannot, and are developing intentional strategies to further work at this intersection.
Taken together, this suggests that there are expanding possibilities for work at the intersection of art and environmental sustainability.
Each foundation we consulted approaches its art and environment work in a different way, in accordance with their values, working style, and priorities. Most funders doing this work are relatively new to it and are learning through experimentation. Many of these early experiments are promising, and all are eager to share their experiences and learn from others who are venturing into this territory.
While our sample size was small, a number of themes repeatedly arose, including:
- the interest in place-base funders for this area of work
- the quality and significance of the art as art matters
- the need for program officers that can speak multiple languages and work across program silos
- building trust and a common frame of reference across sectors takes time
- systems change takes a very long time so funders interested in this work cannot expect to see radical change in annual grant cycles.
Our findings show there are many entry points into this work, at various levels of complexity, and what is appropriate for each funder will depend on its mission and purview. However, because climate change and environmental issues increasingly affect all people and communities, any arts funder who wants to take action should be able to find an inroad that is mission related. We recommended both simple and more intensive actions funders can take to advance this work, including:
- Asking organizations on applications what they are doing relative to environmental sustainability/climate change.
- Develop an environmental policy for your foundation’s own internal operations and portfolio
- Create opportunities for cross program conversations between arts and environment programs in foundations (if they exist)
- Share information with peers about what you are doing at the intersection of art and environment
- Tap the expertise of funders and intermediaries already working in this cross-sector space, and at the beginning consider routing grant funds through those with more experience to regrant
While this work at the intersection of art and environment is still nascent, there is plenty of promising practice to build on. Environmental action is becoming more urgent and important every day, and the evidence that art has something important to add to the movement is growing. A supportive network of funders sharing information and strategies could go a long way toward advancing this critical work.