Julie Reiss (Rail): What were NRDC’s goals in starting a program of artistic partnerships, and how have those goals shifted since the program began?
Elizabeth Corr: First and foremost, we wanted to find a way to tell better stories and more compelling stories about the work that we do so that we could reach different, more diverse audiences, communities, and partners. And we had hoped that by telling better stories we would be able to deepen people’s understanding and appreciation of the environmental issues that we’re working on as an organization, both locally but also nationally and even internationally.
Collaborating with artists offered a way for people to engage and learn about NRDC’s issues in a more nuanced way than our traditional tools, which, as a public advocacy law firm, we have legal briefs and white papers, but those aren’t necessarily the most effective ways of communicating what we’re doing to the public. It’s a little bit didactic. Art offered us a way to rethink how we apply our core competencies as an organization, our science, our science litigation, and advocacy expertise. We thought we could apply those skills in non-traditional sectors like the humanities and really inspire artists to tackle environmental issues in their work, or to strengthen the work they were already making which was centered on the environment.
So those were the goals when we started. I don’t think those goals have changed necessarily. But certainly, what’s changed is our political climate. As an organization and a movement, the presidential election [of 2016], surely helped bring into focus the gaps within our network and the lack of unity across progressive causes. If anything, this shift in political climate has made us recommit ourselves to working more with people outside of our organization and outside of our field of environmentalism to make sure that we’re continuing to engage, that we can deepen the network and conversation about these issues. The other noticeable difference since the presidential election has been a dramatic uptick in people being interested in activism and getting engaged. This includes artists, many of who want to find ways to make a difference and want to find a way to do something impactful with their work. And so, if we can help them do that by deploying our resources to their benefit, then that’s a win-win for both of us.
Rail: Do artists approach you with projects?
Corr: Yes. We’re doing this from a couple of angles, where we have an artist in residency program, which is a formalized way for an artist to imbed themselves within NRDC, but we also, throughout the year, are approached by artists who are working on a particular project and might need something to help strengthen that project or to move it forward, or sometimes we even approach an artist whose work we think is really compelling and could help us do X, Y, or Z, and so it works across all of those different ways. The other component to it is, sometimes we’ll be approached by a cultural institution, or by a museum, or we will approach them with the idea of an exhibition. There is some topic we’re working on that we want to explore in more depth, and would they be interested in partnering with us to mount an exhibit about it.
Rail: Where ideally do you think encounters between this art and the public should take place? You mentioned public art or an exhibition space. Do you feel there is an important difference between those sites of encounter?
Corr: My preference so far is that these are conversations that should be happening in the public sphere. We have tried our best to find partners who understand the value of art in the public sphere. The more people you get to see something, the more people we can get engaged in the issues that NRDC is working on, so for the most part the places where we’re hosting exhibitions, we’re trying our best to make them free and open to the public, and choosing locations that maximize engagement and reach as diverse an audience as possible. For example, we partnered with the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago to mount an exhibit about petcoke, which is a byproduct of the oil refining process. They mounted a formal exhibition at their museum, which is part of Columbia College Chicago, which was free and open to the public for almost three months. Thousands of people came to see it. But we also felt like we owed the community that was represented in the exhibit the opportunity to also host that show in their community. So, we moved the exhibition to the community on the Southeast side of Chicago and held it at their public library and the YMCA. Again, it was still free and open to the public, but we wanted to make it even more accessible to a different audience. That’s critical to these partnerships.
Rail: Are there some environmental issues that you think lend themselves better to visual communication than others?
Corr: There are some natural affinities between some of the issues NRDC’s working on. For example, our nature program, which includes our land and wildlife work— there is certainly an art historical tradition of visual communication in that area. But if there is one thing I’ve learned during the process of building this program, I shouldn’t underestimate the abilities of artists to transform the most complicated or the most extraneous seeming data or topics into an expressive art exhibition. I’ve tried not to be prescriptive in how artists are working but give them the creative freedom to explore NRDC’s issues.
Rail: How does the NRDC gauge the success of the program in getting their message across?
Corr: There are many metrics that we’ve used. Oftentimes that will start with the artist. It is very important to me that they feel like the collaboration was successful and that they’re really pleased with the resulting project. I want them to feel truly thrilled about the way the project went. Getting into the nitty-gritty, we can track the number of people that come in to see an exhibit. If the exhibit is at a museum, we can also track the neighborhood that people live in. If there is an advocacy connection to the exhibit, we can count the number of petitions that were sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, during the show. The other metric we can look at is the geographies where we do these projects and understand where people are coming from.
Lastly, one of the challenges from an organizational perspective and from a movement perspective, I think we have to be okay loosening our grip on some of these issues. Can we do a better job of making space for visual artists and cultural producers of all types to really animate climate change and represent it in ways that ignite passion in people and inspire wonder? When we loosen our grip, we allow artists to harness the power of the visual and the power of metaphor to deepen people’s understanding of the work NRDC is doing.