Cornerhouse is Manchester’s international centre for contemporary visual arts and independent film. Opened in 1985 Cornerhouse has three floors of galleries, three cinema screens, a bar, café and bookshop. Cornerhouse was a founding member of the Manchester Cultural Leaders Environmental Forum (MCLEF), which was renamed Manchester Arts and Sustainability Team (MAST) in 2012.
Drawing on an interview with Debbie Bell in 2013, Cornerhouse’s Safety and Operations Coordinator, this article examines what Cornerhouse has achieved and how this has occurred.
As a member of the Manchester Arts and Sustainability Team, Cornerhouse has developed systems for monitoring progress against specific carbon reduction targets and recording activities designed to mainstream environmental sustainability throughout the organisation. The efficiency of Cornerhouse compares favourably, in relation to Julie’s Bicycle Energy Benchmark: Venues and Cultural Buildings 2013. In 2012-2013 its total energy consumption (or carbon intensity) was 56% lower than the benchmark.
Cornerhouse is now a recipient of a Gold Environmental Business Pledge award and has a sustainability action plan in place. A sustainability meeting is held 5 times per year, with notice boards in each staff area and a specific ‘staff environmental sustainability induction’ has been designed for new members of the team.
The impetus for strong action in environmental sustainability grew out of the operations team, not only to reduce costs, but also because environmental values aligned neatly within the organisation. Supported through the cleaning and then safety and operations coordinator, small-scale actions were first embedded in order to bring about wider changes. A first task was to remove individual waste bins and provide collective recycling, a task simplified by the organisation’s independence and support of the cleaning staff, “it became normal, they look after the recycling. If we didn’t have in-house cleaners we probably wouldn’t be as efficient as we are with the recycling.”
Actions have ranged from the small-scale (changing to bio-cleaning products, removing individual bins, changing light bulbs) to larger-scale impacts. Of particular note, since February 2013, Cornerhouse has been a zero to landfill organisation by separating most recyclable waste for collection and ensuring general waste is sorted into recycling and recovery by the contractor which prevents disposal of waste to landfill. A central issue is how to communicate environmental action to both employees and visitors to Cornerhouse through an explicit environmental policy on the website, staff podcasts and digital promotion. Funded through MCLEF, for instance, a film was produced on "The Life of a Paper Cup" to encourage recycling and engage audiences and visitors to their building and café.
From small-scale operational changes, environmental actions were expanded to influencing staff behaviour through travel and procurement policies and subsequently exploiting role Cornerhouse's as a creative organisation to deploy technology to reach different audiences. Furthermore, the organisation has now started moving from generic workplace actions, which can be replicated across multiple sectors, to those that are more specific to the arts and cultural sector.
One example relates to production, with Cornerhouse’s Visual Arts Department working on recycling or reusing installation materials and ensuring that any wood used is being sourced sustainably & is at least FSC certified. A current priority is to achieve the British Standard 8909 in ‘Specification for a sustainability management system for film’, which aims at leadership within the field of sustainable development of film embedded within an organisation.
There's no environmental budget - so it’s using the budgets, in the areas you already have, to be as creative as you can, and then looking at if there's any hidden opportunities (Debbie Bell).
A critical success factor is starting small and focusing on working creatively within existing structures, roles and responsibilities. Whilst the Arts Council and other national funding organisations do now have strong statutory reporting requirements for carbon reduction measures, the drive to ‘green’ Cornerhouse came from within. As Debbie Bell explained, “I have a cleaning budget, what we did was change all our chemicals to bio-degradable ones. You don’t need someone to come along with a pot of money to make a difference.” Individual employees have discretion within their roles to creatively use budget and carry out tasks: "there's no environmental budget - so it’s using the budgets, in the areas you already have, to be as creative as you can, and then looking at if there's any hidden opportunities”.
A second central issue is independence. Unlike other City Council-funded organisations, Cornerhouse has been able to employ its own cleaning staff and manage its own procurement. Through effective waste management and procurement, the organisation has managed to realize zero to landfill. “I sometimes feel we can do a little bit more here because we are not tied into a lot of the policies”. Consequently, some of the barriers that other cultural organisations might face are not the same.
Organisational buy-in is a third central success factor. Whilst environmental sustainability is not supported via a dedicated budget or time allocation for performing roles, the culture of the organisation is widely receptive to green behaviours. This was noted in terms of senior management’s own travel and transport behaviours, such as cycling to work, minimising taxi travel, as well as attitudes throughout the organisation.
Critically, the progress of Cornerhouse in greening its operations and production has been catalysed by the support of Julie’s Bicycle’s involvement through MAST. Formal reporting, monitoring and assessing progress against targets offers an incentive to organisations to make reductions, drawing on economic, environmental and importantly reputational values. Whilst generally less favourable to larger organisations, group reporting on carbon reductions has the additional effect of encouraging a collective mentality, which individualised carbon accounting tends to minimise.
MAST is seen as forum or shared space for reflection, learning and sharing practices. Informal, voluntary and collaborative arenas such as these are not common across the city-region, despite the number of formal partnership groups.
Equally importantly, MAST is seen as forum or shared space for reflection, learning and sharing practices. Informal, voluntary and collaborative arenas such as these are not common across the city-region, despite the number of formal partnership groups, offering peer-to-peer learning and problem-solving: “I think it’s cultural organisations being around the table that are in a similar boat and just being able to talk to people and share things, learn things and having that networking, so if you’ve got an idea or you are a bit stuck on something, you could go to somebody and they might be able to help you.”
This peer-to-peer support will be particularly helpful to Cornerhouse in the next few years. Cornerhouse has merged with the Library Theatre Company to become HOME. A £25m project, funded £19m by Manchester City Council, with £5m capital investment from the Arts Council and £1m to be fundraised, HOME’s stated mission is to “make a new HOME for curiosity seekers, for lovers of the dramatic, the digital and the deeply engaging;
for radicals and reciprocators”. The building itself is built to high environmental standards and plans are afoot to emulate Manchester City Art Galleries success with bumblebees and honey. However, challenges remain. These include how the new funding regime may reshape procurement regulations; and how a low carbon footprint can be maintained on an energy efficient building that is likely to have increased footfall and energy consumption over time.
Cornerhouse is a core player in the Manchester Arts and Sustainability Team and has adopted multiple measures to reduce its environmental impact. It is clear, however, that activities have primarily related more to organisational work practices and procurement policies, energy use and efficiency and production.
This raises the question of what is distinctive about the responses and roles of the arts and cultural sector in addressing urban sustainability challenges? Should cultural programming be more aligned with environmental values, using the medium as the message rather than simply the organisational setting?
Should cultural programming be more aligned with environmental values, using the medium as the message rather than simply the organisational setting?
On the one hand, there are clear issues in seen to be ‘preaching’ to an audience or in timetabling certain forms of cultural programming. For instance, the ‘Life of a Paper Cup’ was intended to be shown before all films, however, this was not possible to time, once obligatory, scheduled funders’ or supporters’ adverts or trailers had to be shown.
Nonetheless, there is something distinctive about the cultural sector that requires a more subtle and nuanced response to the challenges of climate change: “the difference is that cultural organisations have people coming in to visit them. A transport company can put logos on wagons, can make your changes operations-wise; but culturally, any company can make changes in procurement. We would be the sector to make the difference to the people”.
At the same time, the example of Cornerhouse suggests that the ‘natural fit’ between the values of creative organisations and environmental attitudes could imply a potential leadership role for the arts and cultural sector in changing wider cultural behaviours towards environmental sustainability.
Critically, in creating space for engagement and capitalising upon their functions as public spaces, cultural organisations have a unique role to play. Perhaps the lesson for HOME is to focus on realising this potential, as well as the tangible impacts of the new building.
Sources: online information and interview with Debbie Bell, Safety and Operations Coordinator, Cornerhouse. All quotes attributed to Debbie Bell, unless otherwise noted.
This article has been written as part of the ‘The Alternative?’ series by the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform for Mistra Urban Futures. It is part of a working paper and article in development on culture and urban sustainability.
I am a Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. I describe myself as an interdisciplinary urbanist, interested in processes of transformation and change, particularly around governance and policy processes; the roles of universities in their urban environments; and the research-practice relationship.