This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
As negotiations teetered to a close at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow this month, artists and cultural organizations in Montreal welcomed an announcement: $1 million will be invested in environmentally sustainable artistic initiatives in the city over the next three years by the Montreal Arts Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.
The initiative marks a new partnership between the councils and Culture Montréal, an arts advocacy non-profit, and will result in the development of multiple programs for awarding the funds, the details of which will be announced in the coming months.
The criteria and types of activity to be supported have yet to be defined, but environmentally engaged artists and organizations received the announcement as an important step. Anne-Catherine Lebeau, executive director of Écoscéno, a non-profit that helps artists and organizations in the performing arts reduce their environmental impact, said the investment will bring essential support to existing efforts.
“I see this in a very good light because there is often a lot of motivation from artists, but there is nonetheless always a financial barrier. We work with very restrained budgets in the arts sector, so to put into motion this transition, we really need additional money,” she said.
Currently, artists take on the brunt of costs for sustainable productions. Lebeau gave the example of a costume designer who, even if the higher costs of local materials are supported, must add research time to source those materials. “It will often require one and a half times more time than she would normally spend on the production, and currently she absorbs that cost, so she finds her income reducing,” she said.
In the performing arts, the primary impacts on climate change and pollution come from touring large casts with elaborate scenographies and individual trips by audience members to large venues. For many companies, such tours and venues represent essential revenue in tight budgets doubly strained by the pandemic.
In consultations with Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications, dance venues and companies have emphasized that public funding must help the sector re-establish touring markets and revenue to pre-pandemic levels while adapting to post-pandemic conditions. How the lifeline of touring income can be reconciled with its accompanying environmental damage is a question Lebeau believes can be met with thoughtfully designed programs.
“If we approach it collectively and there is financial support, I think we can be creative and find plenty of solutions; for example, by doing more tours in Quebec or in Montreal’s neighborhoods,” she said.
Such solutions can improve conditions for artists and audiences simultaneously. “Often the environment is seen as a limitation, as if it will deteriorate the quality of the production because there will be constraints upon existing constraints,” said Lebeau. “Yet when we see it from a point of view where it could add show dates by bringing shows closer to people, I think it’s super positive and it stabilizes the revenue for artists.”
Gabrielle Bertrand-Lehouillier, a Montreal-based dance artist and co-founder of the collective Danse To Go, greeted the announcement with cautious hope. To be effective in the long term, she emphasized that support for sustainability must help artists develop slower and more collective creative approaches as well as transforming how works are produced and shared.
“I like to believe that the eco-responsible and sustainable vision in art is about the health of the artists and their process,” she said.
In the short term, Lebeau hopes that environmental impact will become part of the evaluations that determine how grants are awarded, alongside artistic merit and budget use. For this, companies will need financial support to do time-consuming emissions evaluations of the amounts of greenhouse gasses released by their activities.
As artists and organizations struggle to recover from the pandemic, the $1 million invested in ecological responsible projects reinforces a sense that the crisis may have also forged better paths.
“We are in a moment right now where we must avoid going off into the same track as before [the pandemic] and it will require a big effort,” said Lebeau. “So this is a beautiful announcement.”
Lebeau and Bertrand-Lehouillier were excited about the investment but remained clear-eyed about the scale of the societal transformations needed. “$1 million is kind, but I think it will require even more commitment,” said Bertrand-Lehouillier.
“We are touching the top of the iceberg, and under that there are even more problems … that will be important, even decisive, in the impact that the cultural sector can bring.”