Simon Curtis, Convenor of the Manchester Arts Sustainability Team (MAST), tells us about the role of arts and culture on climate change and how the Hub has supported the sector in Greater Manchester.

MAST is a network of over 50 cultural organisations across Greater Manchester who are working together to reduce their environmental impact and tackle the climate crisis. Members range from the BBC, ITV and large venues such as the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester Art Gallery, The Lowry and HOME, along with smaller projects, festivals and venues 

The network grew out of the culture sector’s response to Manchester’s first ever climate change strategy in 2011 and is now part of the Manchester Climate Change Partnership, which oversees climate action in the city.

Green Economy and the GC Business Growth Hub has supported MAST to deliver two major projects to implement sustainable procurement practices and explore what a zero carbon arts and culture sector could look like.

What inspired you to get involved in climate action?

My own interest in sustainability was born out of how wasteful performance-based culture can be sometimes; what we make and then what we do with those materials, the amount of energy we use, and so on.

The culture sector is quite unique in that it’s inherently collaborative – organisations don’t really compete against each other or withhold information about what they do. We’re also used to thinking about things a little differently and sometimes being a bit rule averse. There was a fantastic opportunity through MAST to work together to build skills capacity and develop projects which share knowledge and best practice across the sector.

What role does the arts and culture sector have in inspiring others?

The culture sector has a really important role to play in helping us develop our collective imagination of the future. The climate agenda can be quite disempowering at times and that can get in the way of people taking quite straightforward actions, so it’s important to explore how cultural organisations can empower people to act and think differently.

Not everyone goes to the theatre or museums and galleries, or to festivals or music venues, but most people will go to at least one of them and we all engage with arts and culture on TV. So it’s a great way to advocate and demonstrate sustainable practice.

What challenges were members of MAST facing in reducing their environmental impact?

By sharing examples of good practice we’ve been able to help cultural organisations to shortcut their climate journeys in all sorts of ways.

One of the biggest difficulties for lots of organisations is greener procurement and supply chains, especially among SMEs in the network. Larger business-focused organisations will often have a procurement function in place, but that isn’t the case in the culture sector by-and-large.

Our advisor worked with members to unpack how to embed sustainability into their procurement and how to measure it. We scoped out what the sector was procuring as a whole and developed a toolkit that organisations could cherry pick from, such as draft procurement policies that could be adapted according to their needs.

How is the network working towards Greater Manchester’s 2038 net zero target?

All of the organisations in the network have embraced the 2038 target, but developing an action plan for the culture sector as a whole is really difficult because it’s so broad. At one end of the scale there’s the likes of BBC and ITV, and at the other end there are very small companies and individual artists.

One of the big projects the Hub supported us with was to look at what ‘net zero’ means specifically to our sector. Navigating this landscape can be really confusing for people – it was certainly confusing for me – in terms of understanding the different terminology, weighing up one option over another and deciding what to focus on. So we explored where organisations were on this journey, what they were interested in and where their strengths lie.

We ended up with a ‘cultural response’ based around six ‘P’s – policy, position, practice, planning, place and people. There are also six ‘I’s covering the strengths our sector brings – Imagine, Inspire, Inform, Innovate, Include, and have the best Impact as a convenor, ambassador, place maker and as part of the health and wellbeing of communities of all ages.

This work has also been developed into an e-learning tool that’s on our website. The response has been really positive.

Gmast Diagram Dr3

Do you have any big focus areas for net zero? 

One of the things that exercise helped us with was to shift the narrative away from just looking at energy, water and waste within organisations. These are important, but the climate and ecological crisis for us is more about engagement.

We need to embrace things like travel and other Scope 3 emissions, which require engaging with others. Audience and visitor travel is one of the real hidden impacts of the culture sector – once you start to measure it you realise that there is another two-thirds or so of the carbon footprint that you weren’t seeing. It’s important for the sector not to ignore that.

So we’re looking at ways to educate and build awareness of how culture can help to encourage low carbon choices. That includes how people travel, but also about what you might see on stage or in an exhibition, or what food and drink you might experience while you’re there.

What does the future hold for your network?

We recently finished a project called C-CHANGE that involved sharing our good practice with five other cities in Europe, which has been really amazing. All of the partner cities have now got their own cultural networks in place. In fact, it’s been so successful in our Italian partner city, Mantova, that it’s being rolled out to other cities across Italy!

There are also now similar networks modelled on MAST in Leeds and Liverpool. Going forward, we’ve recently been awarded funding from Arts Council England to explore how our network might develop further to best serve our sector, so we’re going to work with some consultants to explore what that might be. One of the things we’re really interested in is how we partner with other sectors. Each sector brings its own strengths for tackling the climate crisis, and that’s what makes Manchester’s partnership approach so exciting.

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