Art and Sustainable Development

How can art be used by activists as a tool to work on environmental issues such as sustainable development? ArtCorps Art for Social Action is a small nonprofit organization based in Ipswich, MA which answers this question by pairing artists with local communities and development organizations. They work together using art as a tool to achieve cooperative and sustainable development projects.

ArtCorps grew out of  New England Biolabs Foundation (NEBF), a foundation that aims to foster “community-based conservation of landscapes and seascapes and the bio-cultural diversity found in these places,” supporting grassroots efforts to conserve and sustain biological as well as cultural diversity, ecosystem services, food security, and other projects. In 1999, Martine Kellett, then Executive Director of NEBF, noticed the difficulties her grantees were having when they tried to work with local residents in their projects. ArtCorps grew out of the question of how development organizations can engage local communities to achieve environmental and other development goals.

The answer, it seems, is through art. ArtCorps trains artists to work with development organizations to improve their capacity to educate, empower, and mobilize communities. They work on projects to address a number of issues that the communities face, including environmental issues.  Molly Barrett, Administrative and Financial Assistant, told me in an email:

“We believe art has the power to break social barriers, connect people, and be that mobilization to create change.  Communities don’t necessarily have the resources to understand their environment and the valuable gifts it has to offer, so we aim to assist other grassroots organizations, who are more knowledgeable about conservation, and help them communicate their messages.”

They have organized their process into this chart:

The ArtCorps Model, from the ArtCorps Art of Social Action handbook

Here is how it works:

In 2010, Spanish artist Caterina Almirall lived in the Atlandita region of Honduras and worked with Bosques Pico Bonito (BPB), a local for profit company that seeks to achieve sustainable reforestation and agroforestry practices through carbon credit revenues from planting native trees and training local communities in how to produce higher yielding crops in an environmentally sustainable way. They worked together to create a communal celebration of Dia del Arbol, Arbor day. The goal was both environmental education through art and building a healthier community with more trees and more sustainable agroforestry practices. Also, if the business gets off the ground, carbon credits for trees could be a good source of income for this community. Watch some of the results here:


The Clean River Project:

In another project, this time in El Salvador, American artist Laura Smith worked with the local community and FUNDAHMER, an organization which works to improve living conditions. Together they brought eighteen young members of the community together to clean up a river bed one Sunday. They then came back the next week to paint murals so that the community would be aware of the project and motivated to keep the river clean. The river is significant to the community because it could be a tremendous resource of fresh water which they currently only obtain through rain water or, during the dry season, bottled water that they must purchase. Until this project, the riverbed was littered with plastic waste, detergents, wrappers, clothing, and other garbage, but nobody was cleaning it up until Smith and the kids did. The murals both give the community an incentive to keep the river clean and learn about the environmental messages in the art.

One of the murals. Photo from ArtCorps

As we have learned so far in this blog, art can be a powerful tool not just in advocacy for and raising awareness of environmental issues but also as a key in building solutions. The artists we saw last week talked about art being the activity that is done on the edge, where transitions and change happen. These artists are making those changes and pushing the boundaries socially and environmentally. The art is not separate from the community’s environmental goals or ornamentation on the side—the art and the environmental goals are intimately intertwined. Almirall’s project uses art to energize a community about sustainable and profitable methods of agroforestry.  Smith’s project uses art to keep a riverbed clean. Both of these projects use art to achieve environmental goals which will help the communities.