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LONDON — On Friday, September 20, thousands of protestors in the UK and millions around the world joined the Global Climate Strike — the world’s largest-ever climate protest. Around 200 employees of British cultural institutions including Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the Southbank Centre, and the National Theatre left work and took to the streets in solidarity with young people protesting for climate action.
For the last few months, every Friday schoolchildren and students have been walking out of classes on Fridays to demand action on the environment, inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s solo strike last summer. For this protest, which comes ahead of a United Nations (UN) summit on climate change, adults were asked to join the strike and responded to the call in their droves.
Climate justice is an issue that is keenly felt in the art world. The culture workers’ protest was organized by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) — a British trade union, whose members work in UK government departments and other public bodies. According to its press release, “art and culture workers have a vital role to play in the radical changes needed to avert climate disaster” because the “cultural organisations they staff are in a unique position to engage citizens in the urgency, values and opportunities of a transition away from fossil fuels.”
The arts workers walked out of their workplaces in the morning, joined a group of outsourced maintenance workers and members of the PCS trade union, who had been protesting outside the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and then marched together to join the protestors in central London as part of the Global Climate Strike.
Following major protests led by Extinction Rebellion in London earlier this year, several cultural institutions in the UK, including Tate, the Old Vic, and the Royal Court, declared a climate emergency. Those protesting on Friday called on all cultural institutions to escalate their efforts to tackle climate change by committing to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, refusing fossil fuel sponsorship, running green forums, and promoting the role of Green Reps in the workplace. Another concern raised by the protesters is the amount of carbon dioxide generated by cultural organizations through heating, lighting, plastic use, and flights taken for art fairs, biennials, and blockbuster exhibitions which require the travel of people and artworks across the world.
Roberto Mazzachiodi, a cataloguer at the British Library and the institution’s PCS representative, told Hyperallergic: “Workers in cultural institutions have a big responsibility to hold their management to account. The cultural sector is embedded within the capitalist mode of production which is responsible for the climate catastrophe that we’re in.”
The majority of the art workers at Friday’s strike were employees of the National Theatre. Staff from the National Theatre drafted a petition calling on the management to acknowledge a climate emergency and join them in walking out. Katherine Hearst, who started the petition, said in a statement: “This will be the beginning of a discussion in which we will push for our theatre to divest from big oil sponsorship and sign the Culture Declares Emergency declaration.” Among the petition’s signatories was the Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance, who recently resigned from his role as associate artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company because of its link with BP.
The action has also received support from the National Theatre’s direction, Rufus Norris, who described climate change as the “biggest single issue facing our planet.” He added: “Our programme for 2020 will include productions that address climate change, and we are actively working to reduce our impact on the environment including substantial reductions to our building’s energy, waste and water carbon impacts and increases in recycling rates. Alongside this, we’re collaborating with theatre practitioners to explore how to embed sustainability at the heart of our theatre-making practice.”
Activists and artists have been mounting increasingly urgent calls for arts institutions to end sponsorship from fossil fuel companies. The protest group BP or not BP? has staged protests at the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery calling for the museums to sever ties with the oil multinational. Currently, BP sponsors the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Shakespeare Company, and Royal Opera House. The National Theatre, Southbank Centre and British Film Institute (BFI) receive funding from Shell.
An increasing number of contemporary artists have begun to address the topic of climate change in their practices. Many artworks at the current edition of the Venice Biennale, including the Golden Lion-winning Lithuania pavilion, confront the question of climate change, as do many at the Istanbul Biennial. Tate Modern is currently staging a major exhibition on Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, much of whose work focuses on environmental issues. He was also recently named the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador for climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals. Protestors at Friday’s strike are asking that institutions take their cues from these artists and practice what they preach when it comes to the environment.