The Philharmonia Orchestra has been accepted onto Arts Council England's environmental sustainability-focused programme, 'Accelerator', in partnership with Julie's Bicycle. In this blog post about the project Jennifer Pattison writes about what the project means for the Orchestra.
Being a part of the Accelerator programme is undoubtedly a coup. It is a great fit for the Philharmonia as we develop plans to curate a programme dedicated to the environment, which is timely given the UN’s latest advice that we only have 12 years left before climate change catastrophe is inevitable and irreversible. And it’s a comfortable match for an Orchestra led by an environmental champion in Esa-Pekka Salonen who co-founded the Baltic Sea Festival in order to raise awareness of the devastating impact of environmental degradation.
But three months into the programme, Accelerator is already forcing us to ask some difficult questions about the extent to which our mission, which drives our creative output, can complement an environmental focus; and about the operational realities of enabling that work. Our sector as a whole is grappling with complex issues that only serve to divert us away from facing up to our environmental responsibilities:
When Brexit threatens to undermine the financial and operational viability of our touring model; when costs inflate annually and our Arts Council England investment continues to decline in real terms; when the increasingly litigious environment in which we operate absorbs increasing amounts of time that would otherwise have been spent furthering our mission; and when we are focused on increased financial and organisational resilience and driving efficiencies, how can conversations around reducing our carbon footprint get a look-in?
And within the necessarily rigorous application of cost control, efficiency savings and financial targeting, there is a fundamental tension between making environmentally-friendly choices, and choosing the cheapest option. How can we progress purchasing FSC-certified paper, and moving to environmentally-friendly suppliers, when there’s an assumption that the net effect on the bottom line will be increased costs? How can we make the case for reducing our use of resources and switching over to carbon-friendly solutions to achieve a cost-neutral outcome, when the financial calculations necessary to inform decisions won’t be undertaken by colleagues whose priorities lie elsewhere?
And – the elephant in the room – orchestras that tour internationally have a weighty carbon footprint. Transporting 80 musicians, instruments and support staff around the world regularly is not an environmentally-friendly activity, nor is driving a truck loaded with instruments around the UK throughout the year a happy bedfellow of initiatives that encourage us to choose public transport over the road. We are mission-led, and our mission is to create thrilling experiences in music, supported by a vision that we will have a transformative impact upon the widest possible audience. This vision, and the economic reality in which we operate, drives the carbon-heavy touring model, as does our steadfast focus on maintaining the highest-quality orchestra. We are as strong artistically as the calibre of orchestral musicians we retain, and a diary with reduced touring brings with it the risk of losing the players that collectively enable us to maintain our position as one of the world’s great orchestras.
And whilst we wrestle with these intractable issues, we sleepwalk towards environmental disaster. Whilst we champion for the rights of communities experiencing disadvantage to access the arts, devising audience development and engagement projects that move the culturally-disengaged to becoming active arts participants and consumers, we are complicit in not doing everything we can to halt environmental calamity that will hit those same disadvantaged communities hardest and first.
How can the Accelerator programme help?
Accelerator is already encouraging the small numbers of Philharmonia staff that have come into contact with it to find solutions to these issues, driven by the creation of an artistic response to climate change. The programme’s training residential in Gloucester encouraged us to carve out the time to consider how best we can use art to hold a mirror up to nature, highlighting the ability of orchestral music to be a vessel for the human experience, the enormity of nature, and human’s connection with the natural world. We have the opportunity to perform epic, transformative music on some of the most celebrated concert platforms in the UK. We’re going to challenge emerging composers to write music that speaks to these issues, and to devise immersive, mixed reality experiences that deepen our audience’s connection with the music and with environmental degradation. We will create participatory work with the community groups and participants we partner with across England that uses music to add depth to how respond to these issues.
But it is clear that however strong our artistic response is, it won’t be authentic if we’re operating in an environment that fails to prioritise reducing our carbon footprint and making environmentally-responsible choices. Thanks to Accelerator, what could have been an unsuccessful campaign to identify budget, amidst so many competing pressures, to engage experts in their field to educate Philharmonia staff and musicians about the environmental choices we should be making, is now guaranteed expert training. We will use the next phase of the Accelerator support package, delivered by Julie’s Bicycle, to educate and inspire staff and players on environmental issues and catalyse more creative thinking about our artistic contribution. Accelerator will help us navigate a course through the issues we’ve identified, and to ensure that our creative response is authentic, and devised from the most informed position.
How do we ultimately address the conflict between the complex issues identified at the beginning of this piece and our moral obligation to become more environmentally responsible? Through embedding environmental consideration into the decisions we take, the suppliers we use, the products we buy, the work we produce, and the engagement activities we undertake. We have to move to a position whereby it’s not a choice; it’s a given.
Jennifer has worked for the Philharmonia in various roles since 2007, raising funds and helping take forward strategic initiatives.