Arts and Environment Connections

Nancy Fushan

The lines between arts and environmental grantmaking often are sharply drawn. However, in the life of thriving communities, the two are integrally linked. As part of a roundtable discussion at last October's GIA conference, it was heartening to share vivid examples of how GIA members are exploring the intersections of environment and art. As if to mirror the diversity we value in healthy eco-systems, there appeared to be a breadth of grantmaking support and an enthusiasm for the exploration of new initiatives that could integrate arts and environment work as well as use both disciplines to build community.

Some of the participants had long-established programs that cross both areas. The New England Foundation for the Arts, for example, currently features on its web site a public artwork known as The Growing Fence. A collaborative project of artist Christina Bechstein and landscape architect Klaas Klaus Loenhert in Boston's South End, the 740-foot modular trellis includes seasonal plantings from neighborhood gardeners, storage spaces, greenhouses, and transparent art panels. Not only does the project represent a community investment in the best sense, the work provides a sound pollution barrier in a high-traffic residential area and it honors the neighborhood's cultural history as one of Boston's early urban gardening sites developed in the 1960s.

Other roundtable participants described the need to go beyond traditional commissions and provide roles for artists within the scientific process itself. One illustration involved artists designing an “igloo” made of site-based rubble that serves as a nesting environment and a blind for scientists studying the behavior of endangered bird species on an island sanctuary off the San Francisco coastline. Patricia Gray, of the National Academy of Sciences, is in the early stages of bio-research that will utilize string and wind players to explore the “music” that exists in all species. The Great Plains Restoration Project, supported by the Bush Foundation, is reviving buffalo grazing areas on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as a first step toward restoring a regional native food system that could provide economic and health benefits as well as preserve Lakota cultural practices.

As the conversation progressed, there were references to the need for artists, environmentalists, and grantmakers to leave our parochial silos and move toward consilience, a concept that biologist Edward Wilson argued for in 1998. Wilson has advocated unified knowledge across all the sciences, arts, and humanities to better understand and deal with the complexities of our time. Using a few underlying physical principles, Wilson provided explanations for such disparate phenomena as the birth of stars, the operating structures of social institutions, and a Mondrian painting.

Consilience certainly resonates with themes that emerged from a 2003 Fund for Folk Culture convening of representatives from various cultural, scientific, economic development, and grantmaking fields. Those who attended discussed holistic approaches to cultural conservation, environmental stewardship, and sustainable livelihoods. In the Fund's recently published report “Envisioning Convergence,” culture is defined as the “‘glue’, the shared values and meanings that bind us together, that shape our lives and, indeed, shape our attitudes about development and stewardship. Yet, it is frequently ignored in public policy discussion, where culture is too often seen as a ‘soft’ topic or an impediment to progress, however that may be defined.” The full report is available at

Those at the roundtable agreed that we, as arts grantmakers, need to secure for culture a more central position in cross-sector discussions and initiatives. Within GIA, we also need to get a better sense of how many members are supporting arts and environment, and to determine if there is consensus on priorities to pursue as an affinity group. Secondly, we need to find more effective ways of reaching out to environmental grant makers. This could involve one-to-one contacts between GIA and Environmental Grantmakers Association members. Although it is difficult to predict what might develop from initial incremental steps, the roundtable discussion revealed that there already are intriguing efforts being funded that meld the arts and the environment. The time may be ripe for GIA to pursue a more active role in promoting such work among its own membership and creating connections with other affinity groups that could strengthen our cross-sector work.

Nancy Fushan is program officer, the Bush Foundation.