This week, we attended the University of Sunderland for the North East Culture Partnership annual forum, which focused on climate change and the cultural sector. The event information told attendees that it would be a stimulating, practical and challenging day, aimed at generating positive ideas about how we can deliver individual and collective change in the cultural sector and use our influence in wider society.

Having had some time to absorb the experience of the day, I believe this was successfully achieved. Attending as a representative and team member of Sail Creative I went in the belief that both as individuals and as an organisation, we do everything we can to promote positive social change, using our skill and creativity to push this everyday. I left the day however with the sobering realisation that in terms of climate change we are simply not doing enough.

Header Image credit: Mary Talbot – Rain

Presentation by Director of True North Sustainability Anna-Lisa Mills

The event kick started with some very interesting talks starting with the Director of True North Sustainability Anna-Lisa Mills, passionately presenting the room with a harsh reality check — we have a mere eight years to save our fragile planet from tipping point, the point of no return. With a background in environmental management, sustainability and corporate social responsibility, Anna-Lisa clearly understood the importance of getting the facts drilled into the psyche of every individual in that lecture hall. Her admiration for Greta Thunberg shone through when she spoke, and like many of us, Anna-Lisa has been profoundly inspired by the young activist. Her talk was passionate and informative backed up with daunting imagery, including a map of the world showing how it might look if it was 4 degrees warmer, a frightening image which climate models predict we’re currently on track for by the end of the century.

Presentation by Greggs External Affairs Manager, Paul Irwin Rhodes

Greggs external affairs manager Paul Irwin Rhodes guided us through the Greggs social responsibility and future sustainability strategy, which was a welcome reassurance from a large company that employs 21,000 staff and has 1,850+ shops nationwide. Greggs are setting a strong example, balancing commercial viability with climate impact. Not only giving attention to the obvious recyclables and less plastic but focusing on operations from the top down and the bigger picture.


Claire Malcom the Chief Executive of New Writing North was up next and was a welcome creative mind to the event, introducing internationally acclaimed scholar and author Dr Mary Talbot and artist Bryan Talbot, who spoke about their contemporary graphic novel Rain, which deals with the here and now of environmental degradation. The characters in the book are fictitious but the story itself came from an idea triggered by the devastating flooding in the north of England, and in particular, Hebden Bridge on Boxing Day 2015. Mary explained that the characters started to build up in her head following the flooding, she could hear them talking in her creative mind and she began working on the first draft before the waters had even subsided. The presentation of this book epitomised the creative possibilities when the narrative is handed to artists.

Presentation by Lucy Latham of Julie's Bicycle

We also heard from North East born Lucy Latham of London based Julie’s Bicycle, a wonderful organisation with a strong vision for the future, their website reads “In October 2006, Alison (not Julie) got on her bike to meet some friends from the music industry for dinner at a restaurant called Julie’s. That night together they dreamed up a vision of the future where festivals were powered by solar, venues were off-grid and covered in flowers, museums were community energy providers, and artists were united as beacons for change.” She spoke of their work with organisations to increase their sustainability models, their partnership with the Arts Council focusing on their environmental programming, the V&A, Opera North amongst many others and their 2018 ‘Season for Change’ project which saw creative responses to climate change in arts venues, on streets, in schools, at festivals, across broadcast, film, fashion and music. Lucy highlighted that science and politics can talk about climate change in the same emotive way that art can.

Presentation by Carol Botten, CEO of Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East (VONNE)

Finishing off the morning’s talks was Carol Botten, CEO of Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East (VONNE) who brought the conversation back to our region, social investment and their focus on connecting organisations, the sector and external stakeholders. Carol highlighted the importance of having organisations like VONNE in our region.


Following the mornings presentations we sectioned off into breakout groups, separated into conversational themes ‘Organisations, Artists and Collaboration’ where delegates had the opportunity to openly discuss and challenge ideas and experiences, responding to questions such as ‘ What is the role of artists, storytellers and image-makers in communicating the climate crises? What would collective action from organisations look like? How do we share emerging best practice and amplify messages?’ Myself being in the artist group, I was struck by the presence of how creative minds can bring such a wealth of divergent thinking to the conversation of climate change, collectively we discussed the ability we have to change a mind or a heart, which can directly influence behaviour and action. We discussed ‘Cathedral Thinking’ another powerful concept referenced by Greta in her call to the European Parliament. Cathedral Thinking is a shared far reaching vision and a commitment to long-term implementation. We spoke of a ‘Cathedral of ideas’, creatives are well versed in building the creative foundations without knowing yet what the roof will look like and the long term plan for climate change must be systems change, a new world order even. We must dismantle the old way and rebuild, relearn and liberate. We cannot achieve this alone, connectivity and collaboration is fundamental to increasing momentum. Disconnection created the climate crises, disconnection from our environment and from each other, we now need to reconnect in order to shape the narrative. The arts and cultural sector not only has the power to harness these connections but to utilise them to create new ways of working and thinking, to challenge the systems that uphold us and get creative with how we collaborate going forward.

Panel discussion at the event

The most challenging part of the day was the open panel discussion (panel members listed above) where questions were opened up to the room. I was inspired by Jamie Driscoll and his socialist grass roots outlook on systems change and it was good to hear the opinions of and see some representation from some younger voices from Helder and Pascal. It was however, artist Aidan Moesby who really left an impression on me, following a day of discussing the reoccurring theme of systems change, he challenged that very concept by highlighting that there simply was not enough diversity in the room including race, gender, class, and neurological, after all the subject matter affects us all. He suggested that, “Too much gatekeeping happens in the arts and cultural sector, where funding goes, who it goes to, it’s like a cultural Kabal”. Aidan told the room that this top down approach is gatekeeping and individual artists who have the power to connect to people are not getting support or resources to work from the ground up. Aidans response was honest and challenging and for me ended the day on another reality check for the organisations in the room, I liked it when referring to the red tape and loops we often have to jump through to get a creative project underway he said, “At the bottom level change costs nothing, conversations are free”.


Reflecting on the day Anna-Lisa suggested that Greta Thunberg could have ‘wrapped up’ what we as a collective of creatives, academics, leaders, politicians and activists had discussed throughout the day into a few powerful words. The power of Greta’s climate change rhetoric is something that has grabbed the attention of the people on a global level, and we, as creatives should be talking note of the delivery of her message. Humans by their very nature love stories, this is how we learn and creatives, artists, writers, poets possess the skills to articulate and visualise complex narratives making them concise, engaging and provocative. In the words of CS Lewis we have the ability to “carry meaning in a way that rational truth tellers cannot”. What other story, narrative or meaning can be any more important right now than the demise of our planet?


Back at the studio I shared my experiences of the day with the team. We collectively agreed that we need to take a more active role and acknowledge our responsibility when it comes to the impact of climate change. We pride ourselves on close working relationships with clients, and know it’s instrumental for us (and other suppliers) to guide them to make ethical decisions. We are going to ensure this is an ongoing priority and discussion.


We are passionate about our creative work and self initiated projects are a good way to flex our creative muscles, and connect with likeminded people. We feel a climate change project could be in the pipeline…


Recommended reading taken from the day:

  • David Wallace –  The Uninhabitable Earth
  • Rebecca Solnit – Whose Story is This?
  • Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot – Rain
  • Greta Thunberg – No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference