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Climate of Creativity

Sun shining on desert and grass

Connecting the Arts and Environmental Action: Event Recap

After a land acknowledgement delivered by Sharon Day (Executive Director of Indigenous Peoples Task Force and an Ojibwe tribal member), Mark Nerenhausen, president of the Hennepin Theater Trust, gave his opening remarks. He acknowledged the Bush Foundation for providing funds for the event and the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts for its leadership in joining forces with the environmental community to pass the Minnesota Legacy Amendment, providing substantial funding for clean, air, water, and arts and cultural legacy work across the state.

Tom Borrup, Arts and Cultural Leadership Director of Graduate Studies, thanked the Hennepin Theatre Trust for hosting the event and ACL students Ben Alfaro, Katie Henley, and Maureen Long for their leadership in planning the event.

Movement artist, Sandy Agustin led the group in activities to introduce themselves and to prepare for sharing, listening, and building a verbal and movement vocabulary for action.

Keynote Address by Stacy Levy

“Art is becoming much more like a verb and less like a noun,” began Stacy Levy. The Pennsylvania artist showed slides of her environment-meets-art-meets-engineering installations as she spoke.

Levy asserted that art can show and make action; it can repair and make space for nature in ways previously reserved for engineers. Artwork can operate in the social realm, she believes, by providing innovative ways to filter water, create shade, stem erosion, protect and build habitats, and clean the air.

Art can demonstrate possibilities, she said, inspiring new pathways and new solutions. Levy pointed to her Spiral Wetland project in Arkansas as an example. It is a swirl of land that absorbed extra nutrients from the water and created habitats for fish and wildlife. 

“One thought stream is not broad enough to solve these issues,” she said, stressing the need for collaboration across disciplines. Nature doesn’t perceive boundaries—what should be wet or dry, land or soil—so neither should our approach to climate change. 

“The division between wet and dry will dissolve even more,” she continued. “We need to work with rain and water, give it time and space to be soggy. No more ‘people get everything and water gets the pipes.’”

Her installation, Rain Yard, in the Schuykill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia is a perfect illustration of shared space. Rain Yard’s spiral gutters carry rainwater to plants and trees in a sensory garden. A mesh metal platform stands above the wet ground for people to enjoy, while plants and flowers flourish underneath.

Another theme that emerges in her work is accessibility. Her Schuykill River Tide Field is a string of buoys meant to visualize the tides, “so that we can acknowledge them, making nature more visible.” It serves as a reminder of the world’s natural rhythms that often go unnoticed. 

Levy’s ongoing effort is to “collaborate with nature in order to gain resiliency in the face of climate change.” This requires us to support the natural systems more equitably alongside human wants and structures. She emphasized the need for us to embrace flexibility and adaptability.

Panel Discussion

Following Levy’s presentation, the panel took questions from the moderator. Here are a few highlights:

How does art become essential, not just an add on?
Kevin Reich said that as an elected official, his job is to remove obstacles. Christine Baeumler said that as an artist, her job is to catalyze projects that allow people to engage with the natural world and each other and facilitate others’ creativity. Sharon Day said as part of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, she aims to improve the health and wellness of indigenous peoples and to teach the costs and benefits of investing in water.

What is the role of the artist in promoting environmental action?
To help people get closer to nature.
To bring together generations and different groups for conversation.
To find a shared experience, from individual consumer through art to larger perspectives of policy issues; to inject a dialogue into a sterile environment.
To come up with wild and impractical ideas. Be disrupters and encourage others.

What obstacles have you faced, and what have you learned?
Bonnie Keeler said it's all about relationships and tapping into connection to a place. People need to bring their whole selves to the issue not just their academic expertise. Sharon added that sometimes finding sponsorship and funding is difficult because Western scientists think that their ideas are too out there. Kevin advised making sure that efforts are going to the right places. Be prepared for push back: people may like the idea but not the implementation. He warned not to take for granted that something will be championed.

What are ways to get involved?
What do you love and what do you want to protect? That motivation will guide you no matter how hard it is. You will find a way to do it.
Show up. Balance between major and incremental change. Be aware of the issues and the players. Be educated of the complexities and recognize your own biases.
Meet people where they are. People will engage if they feel ownership. Be of a sharing mindset.

After sharing lunch, participants moved to a series of topical networking tables for another hour to address shared interests and to build working relationships. Topics of interest included: racial equity and climate change, transforming food culture and waste culture, creating opportunities and finding funding, how arts can inspire policy change and activism, prompting behavioral change, indigeneity and cultural views of the environment, among others. 

Visit the Arts and Cultural Leadership page for future events.


  • Christine Baeumler, Artist in Residence, Capitol Region Watershed District, Saint Paul 
  • Sharon Day, Executive Director, Indigenous Peoples Task Force
  • Bonnie Keeler, Assistant Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, UMN
  • Kevin Reich, Council Member, City of Minneapolis Council, District 1 


Kristel Porter, Program Director, MN Renewables Now

Thank You

This event would not be possible without a generous contribution from the Bush Foundation. Brought to you by the Hennepin Theatre Trust and the College of Continuing and Professional Studies's Arts and Cultural Leadership Program. 

A special thank you to Arts and Cultural Leadership student organizers Benjamin Alfaro, Katherine Henly, and Maureen Long.

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