In Conversation: GCC talks to Sam Thorne, Director, and Laura-Jade Vaughan, Marketing Manager of Nottingham Contemporary.

What prompted you to join GCC and begin the process of carbon reporting and setting targets to achieve reductions?

ST: We’ve always believed that museums and galleries should be at the forefront of change given that they have a strong voice in their communities. For some years now, we've been working with Julie’s
Bicycle on understanding our carbon emissions, and wanted to push this further, so it made sense to join GCC. We wanted more detailed information and data on the environmental impact of our building,
shipping artworks, business-related travel, and so on. The GCC calculator allowed us to get a really clear picture of all that.


How did you find the process of gathering the data and using the calculator?

LJV: It takes a while to gather all the information, but inputting everything was easy, and the graphs are formatted so that you can get an immediate overview. We found that very helpful. And you get a lot
support from GCC when it comes to looking at the data so that you can get the most of it.

 

 

Were you surprised by any findings in the report? 

ST: The main surprise for us was that our building was responsible for such a high proportion of our emissions. We weren’t expecting it to be low – we have large exhibition and performance spaces, and
we’re open to the public six days a week. But our building is relatively new – it was purpose built in 2009. Still, we have to use environmental controls to hit various requirements in terms of air humidity
and temperature. That’s a pretty big contributing factor.

 

Given that your building has been built to be low impact, and you’re constrained in terms of maintaining certain air temperatures, what changes can you make?

ST: There are always things you can do. We’ve already switched all our lighting over to LED. Even just doing small things like reducing print helps. We’re more thoughtful and specific about everything we do now – it’s become part of our everyday practice. In terms of bigger changes – there aren’t a lot of easy answers. Even so, we’re committed to doing everything we can. We’re working closely with our neighbours at Nottingham Trent University, and have signed up to be part of their two-year sustainability programme. They are particularly focused on buildings, so we’re looking forward to drawing on their resources and advice.


Shipping is another big one to tackle – for any gallery or museum, big or small. How are you looking at that, going forward?

ST: We put on nine exhibitions a year, and while a lot of that work may come from the UK, some of it, inevitably, comes from Europe and around the world. Our exhibitions often include new commissions too, and so our thinking has to take in the costs of fabricating work. But knowing the figures helps us make more informed decisions. It prompts us to think about all the costs involved, environmental as well as financial, in shipping, say, larger works from North America.

 

Does having to think like that worry you in terms of having to make choices or different decisions?

ST: Thinking about the environment doesn’t curtail any of our ambitions. It’s not something that narrows our scope. It’s a challenge we embrace. It informs all our thinking, though. It has to. It’s the same for artists. I’ve noticed that it comes up in conversation all the time with them – do artists need to be using timber or polystyrene for a work, for example. Do they need to be traveling as much? Those are more practical aspects, but they are also thinking about their role as advocates too.


That’s a big philosophical question, isn’t it. The responsibility of the artist. Do you think they have an obligation to use their position to address the climate crisis?

ST: I think the first responsibility an artist has is to their own work. But understanding the networks, every kind of network from the way you think about things in relation to one another, to the process by
which something is made – or transported or stored – has become part of every conversation.


It’s vital that it becomes part of every conversation, you’re right. And it’s great that Nottingham Contemporary, which has such a presence in the city, is talking about this so loudly.

ST: Nottingham has had a challenging decade, but the city has really taken this on. Nottingham City Council has made impressive commitments in terms of the climate crisis – pledging that the city will be carbon neutral by 2028. The City Council owns our building and we’re all absolutely aligned in terms of the challenges. What’s also special to us is our relationship with the two universities here, and how we can all use each other to amplify our voices.


It seems the way forward, coming together to face the problems and find solutions. And talking about it.

ST: Our approach has always been to be really transparent. For us, it’s not just about reporting back to our trustees, though of course we do that regularly, it’s about communicating across all our platforms –
to everyone. Everything is on our website: our carbon emissions, what we are doing, how people can make their visit to us more sustainable. I’ve been surprised by how many people have been in touch with us as a result, other business and initiatives, all of whom we have the potential to work with or learn from. Sustainability is not a passion project: it should be embedded in every part of our process.


What is your advice to other business or institutions who are perhaps not as far along their environmental footprint journey?

ST: Make a start on understanding your numbers first. Even if you start with ballpark figures. Just start.


LJV: I went into researching our carbon emissions feeling as if everyone else had it sussed out, but I realised that’s just not true. We’re all learning and it’s been rewarding to reach out to other museums, and realize that we’re all in this together.

 

Finally and more generally, what image or work of art is particularly meaningful to you when thinking about the environment?

ST: I'd like to propose a book: Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. The book is a wide-ranging reflection on how fiction has failed to grapple with the enormity of climate collapse. Five years after it was published, Ghosh’s questions about the power and limitation of narrative feel more pressing than ever.

 

August 25, 2021