Sustainable culture means…

5 October 2022

“In times of crises, we need a strong network,” said Annekatrin Klepsch, Vice-Mayor for Culture and Tourism in the City of Dresden and Chair of the Eurocities Culture Forum. “Our priority as Chair has been to put sustainability at the centre of cities’ cultural policies.”

Cities met in Lille during the Eurocities Culture Forum to answer questions such as: How can culture be made more sustainable? How can culture help us in the fight against climate change? How can we make sure everyone is included?

These questions align with the ambition that “EU policy integrates sustainability across policy fields, including culture,” said André Sobczak, Eurocities Secretary General. “Cultural activities are crucial for people.”

Refurbish, reuse, and go green

And, chaperoned by the City and the Metropole of Lille, city representatives could see with their own eyes “what culture can do for the climate challenge,” as put by Graciela Melitsko Thornton, Creative Green Consultancy Programme Lead at Julie’s Bicycle.

Starting from the forum’s venues, for example, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille underwent a complete renovation to become more energy efficient, down to reducing the water used to flush the toilets. And the LaM in Villeneuve d’Ascq is a modern art museum nestled in an urban park, which is part of a wider natural park. Here nature and art are in a constant dialogue, to the point where natural barriers rather than artificial ones protect statues exhibited outdoors.

Venues in Lille such as the Aéronef, the Zenith and the Opera House are moving away from certifications such as the ISO 21 because they consider them too limiting. Instead, they are adapting their actions based on carbon footprint measurements and analysis and creating local collaborations for sustainable solutions. The Zenith, for example, has started a partnership with a company that turns cigarette buds into textiles.

Since knowing how big your carbon footprint is and where it comes from is crucial to taking action, Lille will make its measurement compulsory for all cultural spaces starting from 2024. For three years, the city has required all events to follow a guide for sustainability.

A culture of sustainability

Gare Saint-Sauveur
Utopia exhibition
Utopia Exhibition
Canal regeneration and art project in Roubaix
Recycling materials in Roubaix
Model of the canal regeneration and art project in Roubaix
A shop for emerging artists made of recycled materials in Roubaix

It’s not just about installing alternative energy sources for cultural spaces, using circular materials for exhibitions and recycling them, promoting public transport to attend events and setting sustainable criteria for festivals. It’s about changing the perspective, not to mention how cultural organisations can impact behaviours and promote a more sustainable lifestyle.

“Our Cultural institutions reach up to two million people,” said Matti Helimo, Deputy Mayor for Culture at the City of Tampere. “We should take advantage of that outreach.” During the forum, Tampere presented their educational activities, like a series of stories told at the Moomin Museum or the concert ‘Orchestra for insects,’ where participants also received an information package about insects and biodiversity.

Leeds organised an exhibition with recycled material and used stories from nature to explain how reusing 83% of it was both inspired by natural behaviours and helping to protect the environment. Gothenburg has recorded an increase in personal consumption of vegetarian meals after these were consistently offered at public events.

Less is more

“We can’t continue like before,” said Mathieu Boncour, Director of sustainable development and communication at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. He suggested that a way to look at the climate challenge constructively is to use permaculture principles. “How can we use our time and space logically? Why are we showing something? Should we? Do we have to fill all spaces permanently?” He asked.

The invitation for cultural organisations is to “thrive instead of growing,” said Lisa Broadest, Head of Operations & Enterprise at Leeds Museums and Galleries. They should refute the continuous pressure to produce culture through quickly replaceable exhibitions and stop applying attendance as a performance indicator. Instead, propose long-standing shows offering in-depth experiences, use the spaces they own in multiple ways and concentrate on making the art travel rather than the people. A concrete example is the Experience Goya exhibition in Lille collected in the Cultural Heritage in Action catalogue.

To do so, the whole sector has to come together. “Let’s work as in an ecosystem, without competition, but cooperation,” said Boncour. Cooperation can take the form of agreements on how and when to move an exhibition from one place to another or between cultural organisations and businesses offering services as a form of sponsorship. For example, the Palais de Tokyo received free consulting on becoming more sustainable from local enterprises instead of a monetary donation.

Common goals

Cooperation also means exchanging experiences, tools and good practices between cities. What better opportunity than the Eurocities Culture Forum to find inspiration and connect with the cities presenting ideas?

For example, the Ljubljana Biennale BIO27 experience produced a sustainability toolkit available online for anyone. Slovenia’s capital has also had a direct exchange with Wroclaw, which resulted in both cities using monuments to measure air quality.

Cities that have been European Capital of Culture (ECoC) shared how to continue the legacy by developing ambitious long-term programmes to ensure long-term impacts. For example, after being ECoC in 2004, Lille set up Lille 3000 and its Utopia cultural season focusing on the living world, while ECoC 2018, Leeuwarden, created a 100-day arts festival occurring every three years, Arcadia, which saw 1,000 trees walking around the city.

The forum also allows cities to work together towards joint commitments. Martine Aubry, Mayor of Lille, presented a proposal for a call to action on sustainable culture. It lists potential actions that cities may undertake to support the ecological transition of the cultural sector and ensure everyone can participate in cultural activities. Lille and its sister cities started the call to action, which is a work in progress. “Bring your proposals,” said Aubry during the forum’s opening, inviting more Eurocities members to contribute to the final version.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer