Arts and Environmental Sustainability Thought Leader Forum

Alexis Frasz

On May 25, 2016, Grantmakers in the Arts gathered a cross-section of twenty-eight funders from the arts and environmental sectors for the Arts and Environmental Sustainability Thought Leader Forum at the New York Community Trust. Most foundations in attendance were represented by two people: a person from the arts and a person from the environment, each of whom were interested in collaborative work at this intersection. Helicon Collaborative organized and facilitated the session.

The goals of the forum were to begin a conversation among arts and environmental funders about the ways that art and culture can further environmental sustainability and to provide a forum for funders to share their objectives and challenges in doing this cross-sector work. The forum also sought to identify the most promising opportunities to advance work at this intersection, and to identify ways that GIA might support that.

In addition to funders, the forum included six additional thought leaders who are actively working at the intersection of art and sustainability and who brought valuable insights to the table:

  • Brandon Ballengée: an artist/biologist who creates transdisciplinary artworks inspired by his ecological field and laboratory research
  • Beka Economopoulos: founding director of The Natural History Museum, a pop-up museum that uses creative methods to correct misleading information about climate change and environmental issues in museums, among other activities
  • Rachel Falcone: director and cofounder of Storyline Media, which uses participatory multimedia projects to address pressing issues related to water, climate change, and housing in communities
  • William L. Fox: director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art
  • Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD: director of the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication and an expert on public opinion and engagement with the issues of climate change and the environment
  • Frances Lucerna: executive director of El Puente, a community-based organization in Brooklyn, New York, that uses the arts to empower the community to address environmental justice and other issues

Conversation Highlights

Helicon kicked off the conversation by presenting some emerging research findings about the functions of art and culture that are relevant to environmental sustainability. These include art and culture’s role in elevating and challenging narratives, building social cohesion and resilience, changing social norms, and problem solving and visioning. The group used this as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging discussion that covered funders’ motivations for exploring cross-sector work, the opportunities for art and culture to impact environmental issues, priorities of the environmental movement and funders, and the experiences of funders who are working to collaborate across program areas. Key discussion themes included the following.

Belief in the power of culture

Environmental funders explained that they are motivated to think about cultural interventions because current approaches to addressing environmental challenges are not sufficient:

Lois DeBacker, The Kresge Foundation:
I am motivated by the challenges the environmental community has had in conveying the urgency of climate change to the American people.

Philip Johnson, Heinz Endowments:
I have direct experience with the power of visual expression to change hearts and minds. When I was a student, it was when I simultaneously presented data on pollution levels and health impacts with fieldwork showing photographs and videos of how and where the pollution affected the community that people really started to take interest in the project and identify with the situation that needed to be addressed. It became real in a way that numeric and tabular information simply did not convey.

Ken Grossinger, CrossCurrents Foundation:
I believe that nothing penetrates like arts and culture.

Arturo Garcia-Costas, The New York Community Trust:
I know that the data alone won’t get us to where we need to be; we need to touch people’s hearts to change their minds.

Rachel Leon, Environmental Grantmakers Association:
Art touches people’s hearts, and that is what we need now in this work.

Arts funders shared insights on why they feel arts and culture can make a difference to environmental causes:

Maurine Knighton, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation:
I have seen that you can move policy, but it swings back if you haven’t changed the culture.

Judilee Reed, Surdna Foundation:
Artists are not only problem solvers, but they also help us envision the future — moving who we think we are and can be.

Risë Wilson, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation:
The issue is not about the environment alone — it is about us, our society, the way we’ve organized ourselves, who we are, what we value. Art and artists can help us shift this.

The group also noted that the idea that art and culture can contribute to environmental efforts has a historical legacy, from the impact that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had on pesticides legislation to the role that culture played in helping New Orleans rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

Terminology is a challenge

The group discussed challenges associated with language and terminology. Words like art, culture, environmental sustainability, environmental justice, and climate change mean different things to different people and carry unspoken underlying assumptions about values and priorities. Several participants suggested that we need more precise language that makes values and goals explicit in order to bring people together around common goals. Knighton said, “We need a common construct in order to act collectively. We need an agreement about what we are talking about (climate justice, climate change, sustainability, equity), as well as common definitions and agreement about where we are headed. From there we can develop a strategy for collective action.” This need for specificity applies to the cultural side as well: art and culture can refer to a range of things, from fine art products to community cultural traditions to creative design methodologies.

Multiple approaches

Lines of work on environmental issues overlap and are not mutually exclusive; however, a few distinct perspectives emerged from the discussion:

  1. Some funders are primarily focused on addressing environmental problems at the community level, such as issues of pollution and environmental health. For these funders, equity and community-driven solutions are basic principles that inform their work. As Reed said, “Who gets to participate in conversations around sustainability is limited by privilege and capacity. We are interested in empowering residents to act on their own behalf and in how the creative process can help facilitate this.” Many funders who are focused on community health and development are increasingly “tool and sector agnostic,” as Regina Smith from the Kresge Foundation put it. They start from the vantage point of community-defined goals and then apply a mix of methods, including artistic and cultural strategies, that can help meet those goals.
  2. Other funders approach this work through the lens of climate change at a metalevel. This group seeks to understand the role of art and artists in supporting effective movement building, influencing the public’s thinking and behavior, and achieving critical policy wins around issues like energy policy and reducing greenhouse gases. These funders value culture’s role in maximizing visibility, reach, and impact. Leiserowitz from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication suggested that funders working at the movement level must coordinate better in order to achieve meaningful change. He also recommended that funders support “networks of networks” and establish common principles for action so organizations and funders can “seize those rare moments when serious progress can be made.”
  3. A third group of funders approach environmental work through an issue lens, focusing on things like watersheds, food systems, biodiversity, and green infrastructure. These thematic areas may include both community-level and policy implications and actions. Garcia-Costas suggested that funders could support an effort to identify a core set of priorities and principles at the intersection between art and the environment that could help shape future collaboration, and argued for more flexibility and appreciation of cross-cutting projects that did not fit neatly a particular foundation’s focus. In doing so, funders might build up a body of work that could advance progress around a critical issue.

Increasing interest in holistic approaches

A number of funders noted that this work is not just about building bridges between two sectors — art and environment — but also about breaking down funding silos entirely and seeing problems and solutions in more holistic ways. Growing numbers of funders are observing the interconnectedness and systemic nature of many sustainability challenges that face communities and our society at large. They also observe that conventional single-sector approaches to addressing these challenges are insufficient. Funders who see the connections between environment, health, infrastructure, and economic development, for example, are increasingly open to new and creative possibilities for partnership and cross-sector work. The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, the Neighborhood Funders Group, and Engaged Donors for Global Equity (EDGE) Funders Alliance are forums for funders doing this integrated work.

The need for broader and more inventive thinking was reinforced by the six field experts who participated in the meeting, all of whom told stories about the challenges they have faced in finding support for their work because it doesn’t fit easily into one funding category. Falcone from Storyline Media noted, “There is no box to explain our social and environmental impact on arts applications, and no place to share the beauty of our work on applications to environmental funders.” Similarly, grassroots organizations like El Puente are often working simultaneously on multiple issues facing the community, and using a variety of strategies — arts, education, policy, organizing, health — to reach their goals. When looking through a sector-specific lens, funders may not see some of the most effective work.

Need for new metrics

The metrics used by many in the environmental sector to inform decisions and measure impact are not capturing the value that the arts and culture provide. Garcia-Costas described the challenge he has faced in making a case for integrating the arts: “As an environmental funder, it is sometimes difficult to talk about the value of art and culture to my grantmaking, because the typical metrics we use to measure success don’t really work very well. For instance, post-Sandy recovery and resilience efforts in New York routinely undervalue the role the arts can play in preparing a community for an emergency and in helping it bounce back from one.” He asked, “How do we measure and describe artistic and cultural contributions more effectively?”

Several participants noted that many fields are beginning to question how well their existing measuring systems suit the outcomes that they seek, and suggested that the time might be ripe for a broader rethinking of how we measure what matters. Jamie Hand from ArtPlace America, which is exploring the way that the arts intersect with ten fields involved in community development (health, public safety, transportation, and others), reported that experts in fields like health and public safety have told ArtPlace that current metrics are not yielding the results they hope for, and they are seeking new approaches. Erik Takeshita from the Bush Foundation asked, “Can we move from evidence-based practice to practice-based evidence?” Michelle Knapik from the Tremaine Foundation suggested that arts-based methods, such as stories, could be used as a form of qualitative data and as “formative assessments in real time by the community doing the work.” While there was shared skepticism about using existing quantitative metrics for measuring impact, all agreed that there is a need for greater clarity on what success for arts-based interventions looks like, as well as new ways to measure progress toward that goal.

Need for more examples of what works

All the funder participants noted the importance of taking risks and acknowledged that outcomes with art- and culture-infused strategies can be hard to predict and measure. They need more examples and stories about what works, in what contexts, and why, and stories that speak to each foundation’s area of priority. Community-focused funders need examples of how the creative process can improve community leadership and problem solving, and ways that specific cultural interventions work to achieve community goals. Funders focused on movement building need examples of how involving artists and the arts in campaigns can enhance impact and reach. The participants expressed a desire to learn from “failures” as well as successes, so that overall learning about how to do effective work in this arena can be advanced.

Examples can illustrate the multilevel impact of involving the arts in ways that reporting the outcomes of a grant cannot. For example, Johnson recounted the story of a recent photography exhibit documenting the effects of air pollution on communities in western Pennsylvania. The expected outcomes of the grant were to accumulate meaningful photographic imagery into an exhibit and book, as well as spur community engagement and discussion around the topic. When advocacy groups started using the exhibition gallery space as a location for press events and meetings, the project catalyzed additional outcomes beyond the original goals of the grant. The events took on additional meaning and urgency, as the public and experts shared a powerful and intimate photo documentary experience chronicling the region’s poor air quality and health burdens on individuals and families. This important result was unpredictable and unplanned.

Funder collaborations

The group also discussed what works (and what doesn’t) in cross-sector funder practice, both within and between foundations. Funders who have been working to eliminate internal silos within their foundations acknowledged that this work is often challenging and requires patience, creativity, and the willingness to try new approaches. Reed noted, “Many of us operate in the ‘strategic philanthropy’ model, where you develop a theory of change for your program and pursue it. That makes it hard to be nimble. Sometimes my colleague, Helen [Chin], will have an idea for integrating art into the work she is doing in Surdna’s Sustainable Environments program that is outside of my theory of change. I have to be open enough to say ‘let’s try it.’” Some foundations have developed strategic frameworks that ease cross-sector work. The Kresge Foundation, for example, is focused on “improving opportunities for low income people,” and encourages different program officers to bring the various tools they each have to the pursuit of that common goal.

Building the language and skills for cross-sector work requires time and proximity. As Wilson noted, “Multiple agendas take time to sync up. We need more moments where we are in the same rooms.” Many shared the desire for more opportunities to explore possibilities with other programs in their foundations, as well as with people working on similar issues in other foundations.

Barriers to overcome

Participants pointed out a number of specific barriers to integrating culture with environmental sustainability in foundation practice. These included the following:

  • a prevailing foundation bias that privileges comprehensive, top-down solutions developed by professional “experts” over community-generated or decentralized ones
  • the desire for short-term, quantifiable, measurable impacts both within foundations and environmental sectors
  • “strategic philanthropy,” which can make it difficult to take risks or fund solutions that appear to be “out of the box” or outside of the program strategy

Future needs

Participants identified specific ideas that would help advance arts and environment collaboration:

  • a “typology” of environmental priorities and the most strategic places where art interventions can make an impact on these priorities
  • stories of what works (and what doesn’t) — within foundations themselves, for communities, and at the movement level — and identification of opportunities to amplify or build upon what is already effective
  • infrastructure and intermediaries that can “bridge” or facilitate work across silos, both within foundations and in the field
  • more convenings and discussions between program directors in the different sectors, both within foundations and between foundations, and in the broader field. This includes better communication and collaboration between funder affinity groups such as Grantmakers in the Arts, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, and the EDGE Funders Alliance.
  • new ways of measuring and understanding what success looks like and the impact of the arts on environmental sustainability
  • more flexible funding criteria and funder practices that enable and encourage program officers to fund outside their areas of strategic focus; for example, sharing information about grants-in-progress that could be enhanced by a cross-sector collaboration (environmental projects and priorities that could be enhanced by art and culture, and vice versa)
  • tools to educate boards about the value of the arts to environmental work, and the benefits of doing cross-sector work in general


Although funders acknowledged that there is much more they need to learn about effective work in this area, many expressed a strong desire to do something now, given the critical nature of the environmental issues facing communities and the world. There is substantial momentum for cross-sector work on which to build, both in the funding community and among artists and environmental organizations on the ground. All agreed that effective action requires shifting old paradigms of thinking and working to break down silos, better coordinate action, and advance and amplify what works.