Reflections: The Art Of The Sustainable

On Saturday, 10 February 2024, Pound Arts hosted a cultural assembly in West Wiltshire, inviting artists and cultural practitioners to join in discussion, inspiration and action in asking: How do cultural organisations and individuals take action to ensure sustainable practices, buildings and behaviours? It was a well-attended event that left everyone with a surging energy for action! Here Russ Tunney, Director of Pound Arts, reflects on the experience, learnings and outcomes of the event.

James Aldridge stands in fron of a projector screen mid-presentation, with slide displaying images of young people working with art materials in outdoor green space
James Aldridge – The Art Of The Sustainable, 2024

In a week where Labour walked back on their financial green pledges and global temperatures were recorded for the first time to have averaged a 1.5% rise we held a Cultural Assembly for those working in Arts and Heritage in Wiltshire to discuss and share and generally try to do what our betters seem incapable of doing. And by betters I mean those who sit in positions of responsibility above us, holding purse strings, leases and planning regulations.

All of our places were taken well before the day and it was particularly pleasing to see a very healthy array of different types of organisations represented, across arts and heritage, and a large turnout from freelancers (who often feel the most powerless in this scenario). We were blessed with four inspirational speakers who would act as provocateurs, stimulating the lively breakout sessions.

Looking back on the event it was the tone that was most satisfying – a healthy dose of honesty and drive combined with pragmatism and not a little anger which compelled the energy in the room. What connected all of us, wherever we came from was a desire for change.

Russ Tunney stands infront of a screen that reads "The Art of The Sustainable, a cultural assembly"
Russ Tunney – The Art of The Sustainable, 2024

We are all seeking ways for our cultural enterprises to be sustainable and responsible in the face of growing pressures, coming at us seemingly from all sides. Most of the people I know who work in culture trained in a specific subject, and then suddenly found themselves needing to become proficient and hopefully good at a much wider spectrum of skills and subjects: HR, Charity Law, Governance, Safeguarding, Finance, Plumbing, Marketing to name a few. And then there is Environmental Responsibility.

When I became Director of Pound Arts 10 years ago, carrying responsibility amongst other things for a Grade II listed building, I was told by many people that the building, like most cultural buildings built a fair few years ago, would always be difficult if not impossible to make energy efficient. I didn’t know enough then to argue the opposite.

And then there are the other aspects of cultural practice – making work, touring work, audience/customer behaviour & travel, using our platforms to speak to the issue etc. I have been lucky to have benefitted from a good arc at Pound Arts – we have been able to make huge changes to our building and practices to make ourselves more sustainable. We have focused on improving heat efficiency – insulation etc as well as changing our boiler, adding secondary glazing where possible etc. Crucially we have also made it standard practice in our procurement policies to ask all suppliers about their green credentials. This is always hugely revealing. We have co-created a Community Garden which grows produce for our vegetarian cafe, cutting down hugely on staff travel. These are some highlights of our journey.  Often these changes have not been expensive. I wish I had known 10 years ago what I know now. I wish I had met people 10 years ago who had a more proactive idea of change.

We started talking with Culture Declares Emergency a while ago about exactly this and The Art of the Sustainable was born. Thank you to Judith Knight and Rose Fenton from Culture Declares South West for this guidance, discussion and stimulation. A chance for cultural professionals to come together and share ideas, good practice, problems and solutions. The idea was that everyone would be able to leave the day with some potential action to put into practice wherever they work. And hopefully also we would leave with the desire to do more collectively.

Adam Walton, Chloe Naldrett, and Damian Haasjes speaking at The Art Of The Sustainable

The wonderful Chloe Naldrett spoke with such passion and compassion about the wider context for all of us, and the duty to use our platforms. Artist James Aldridge spoke of his practice which embeds people and places very directly. Adam Walton, Chair of Pound Arts, spoke of the specific steps taken so far in our ‘difficult’ listed building and the wider benefits of initiatives, such as the community garden which now creates produce for our café. And Damian Haasjes talked of the eternal dichotomy of his work with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust balancing the protection of biodiversity with the challenge of the inevitable carbon footprint.

The discussions were lively and full of creativity and purpose. Sentences resonate with me now – a call to arms in the room included that “we should be angry” and “we should not be afraid” (to be bolder in how we use our powerful place in the communities we serve).

But I think the real developments happened in quiet corners – conversations between museum staff and a music promoter or between an individual artist and a librarian. Conversations that will lead to solutions to local problems. We all need those.

The event happened on Saturday. By Monday I had a number of e-mails from participants asking my permission to do such and such, or an idea to do this or that. this is the power of the collective. Conversation sparks thought and thought sparks action. Our event was the beginning of something in Wiltshire. Watch this space.

Russ Tunney

Director, Pound Arts

The CDE network lives and grows through community building and local action. We have been collaborating with communities across our network to support cultural assemblies, bringing people together for inclusive and imaginative approaches to problem-solving. Find out more about our work on cultural assemblies here.

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