Finding environmental inspiration at the Staging Sustainability conference

It can be humbling but enormously energizing to find that arts communities outside our own are ahead of us in dealing deeply, thoughtfully, and actively with important issues. When we started our Performing Arts Access Program with Picasso PRO we knew that people in the States had, for years, been providing audio described and sign language interpreted performances to people with disabilities. Thankfully, we were able to pick the brains of leading experts like Deborah Lewis, who were enormously generous with their knowledge and experience – allowing our project to start out running!

I had a similar epiphany (how seasonal) at York University’s Staging Sustainability Conference last week, April 20-22. Speakers like Gil Favreau, Director of Social Action & Responsibility, Global Citizenship, who has helped make Cirque du Soleil an outstanding example of social responsibility, environmental practice, and ethical procurement in the performing arts, and Ian Garrett, until recently Executive Director of the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts in L.A., were both inspirational and tremendously informative. Ian and the CSPA in particular – a “non-non-profit” arts infrastructure organization which works with others like the LA Stage Alliance, The Arcola Theater, EcoArtSpace, the Royal Society of the Arts, and our own York University towards sustainability in the arts, ecological and otherwise – will be an especially rich source of information and knowledge sharing. We promised to stay closely in touch and in the meantime, we will make good use of the Centre’s rich online resource guide, quarterly journal, and experience in developing local materials re-use programs. Perhaps I will even attend their “annual convergence!”

Barbara Sellers, Dean, Faculty of Fine Arts at York, along with colleagues James McKernan and Peter MacKinnon, have been quietly taking an international leadership position in this area, and the Staging Sustainability Conference was beautifully and thoughtfully conceived and brilliantly executed. Its theme is of such importance that many of us who were there are hoping it will resonate in the collective cultural consciousness of Toronto’s arts communities, and spur much creative energy. It raised important questions such as, What is the relationship between cultural and environmental sustainability? What is the role of the artist in engaging this question? Of an arts organization? How does Toronto stack up in confronting the challenges of cultural and environmental sustainability? And what is the relationship (aspirational/current) of public arts spaces to a healthy, sustainable urban ecology?

There are more inspiring stories here at home than you may know of. I recently heard from Michael de Coninck Smith, Co-Artistic Director and Production Manager, about the greening of Canadian Children Dance Theatre’s studios on Parliament Street. “As I write, 18kw of solar panels are being installed on our studio roof….at last!  Going green for CCDT has been a four year effort beginning with a $300,000 improvement to the building envelope and HVAC systems. We followed this up with an application to Trillium for $150,000 to install the solar array and an outdoor monitor which tracks reduced carbon footprint and promotes green options. The approval process is complex and arduous – it should have been operating last July – but this is new territory in Ontario and for us as well. The beauty is that greening really can pay – our utility costs are substantially down and the generated electricity will pay more than $15,000/year into our neighbourhood dance outreach program (SolarDance).”

What a triumph for CCDT, which has blazed a trail for us all. But how hard to do it alone.

Meanwhile, at Creative Trust we are delighted to report continuing progress on Toronto’s Green Theatres – our initiative to start a movement towards energy efficient, low carbon footprint theatre facilities. With the support of the City of Toronto’s Culture Office, and after much research and discussion with our environmental colleagues here at the Centre for Social Innovation, we have chosen an independent energy audit firm, Carbon Count, to undertake energy audits for seven Creative Trust companies – Factory Theatre, Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, Tafelmusik, Tarragon Theatre, The Theatre Centre, Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto Dance Theatre/STDT – starting in May. Owner Anthony Marshall, who has 11 years of experience in the field, is enthusiastic about our sectoral approach to greening theatres. We will also be working with him and the participating companies on an overall strategy that could be rolled out to performing venues throughout the City.

When we do so we will be certain to call on colleagues such as Michael de Coninck Smith to pass along what he has learned about the often daunting prospect for arts organizations of going green.

Jini Stolk

Other programs of interest:

Green Phoenix – a new sustainable reclamation building project in Parkdale; Sky Dragon Community Development – another green reclamation project spearheaded by artists and community activists in Hamilton; Green Corridor – a collision of art, science and technology at the University of Windsor conceived and headed by visual artist Noel Harding; Subtle Technologies – an annual conference exploring the convergence of art and science whose theme this year is ‘sustainability’; and designer Bruce Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries.

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