“The Artist Has Left the Building”

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Feb 22, 2016
by Louise Hallman
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“The Artist Has Left the Building”

Artists need to “opt in” and go beyond the gallery to inspire political change Frances Whitehead explains why artists should leave the gallery and head to city hall

Marina Abramovic might have called her show The Artist Is Present, but as Frances Whitehead remarked in the opening evening’s panel of Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability: “The artist has left the building and gone to city hall!” And why to city hall? “That is where the decisions are being made.” 

For art to have greater impact, artists need to change strategies away from “acting up,” pointing out,” and “opting out,” to instead “opt in,” Whitehead argued. Quoting Janeil Englestad, she urged artists to “make art with purpose.” Artists are not there to only draw attention to issues but to encourage change.

Opting in can lead the artist to engage in domains outside their usual realm, but opting in does not stop the artist from being an artist: “Opting in is not about becoming someone else. We never stop being artists as we enter other domains,” said Whitehead.

One such “opt in” project is Environmental Sentinel, part of the greenway/linear park “The 606” in Chicago, USA. Environmental Sentinel combines art, landscaping and climate change monitoring with civic engagement. While the project’s focus was beauty and public engagement, it also incorporates sustainability and climate change activism. The planting of over 400 Amelanchier trees not only provides beauty along the 606 route, but also enables monitoring of the microclimate by encouraging the public – citizen scientists – to note the blooming of the trees – a practice modeled on the traditional annual cherry blossom festival in Japan. This approach blends participatory arts practices, climatology and public infrastructure; inspired by the blossoms, Whitehead calls it “pink infrastructure” – infrastructure for raising climate awareness.

However, if the project had had an explicit climate change remit, it may have been tied up in political discussions. By being called “art,” Environmental Sentinel was able to gain wider support.


The Salzburg Global session Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. The session is supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Bush Foundation and Red Bull Amaphiko. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/561. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.