The Role of Art in Humanising our Cities

Jessica HiggsHead of MarketingHuckletree10/13/2022

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible” - Toni Cade Bambara

Here we examine some of the key themes explored in Earthrise Summit’s “The Role of Art in Humanising our Cities”, moderated by Gail Gallie (Project Everyone) and featuring panellists Karen Ashton (Art Car Boot Fair Projects), Matthew Slotover (Frieze), Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery) and Boaz Paldi (UN).

Art & urban prosperity

Art plays a crucial role in reflecting and forming a city’s culture, in uniting and creating understanding among different social groups, and in creating connections and dialogues between cities around the world. Its impact on urban economic prosperity also can’t be underestimated. Matthew Slotover referenced the financial turmoil in Korea In 1997. Modelling itself on the arts scene in London, the city of Seoul began investing heavily in the arts as a means of elevating itself out of this financial situation. The impact is that today, art is everywhere you look and in every format in Seoul, and has achieved truly global reach with the likes of K-Pop and Korean cinema. 

The irony is that in the UK, funding for the arts is on the decline. We must recognise the role art plays in our urban economic prosperity, not just its ability to deliver messages en masse in a palatable way. This is not a new concept. Hans-Ulrich Obrist was keen to point out the visionary artist Barbara Steveni, who conceived The Artist Placement Group (APG) in the 60s, which sought to reposition the role of the artist away from galleries and studios into business and public institutions. This ideological shift would put the focus of art further onto social structures, issues and relationships, thus achieving a far greater and wider impact. The climate crisis demands that the world pivots, and a programme like this would help our structures do exactly that.

Art as activism

As much as the climate emergency isn’t and shouldn’t be a political issue, the sad truth is that it is. We find ourselves in a situation where significant portions of the global population still don’t believe it’s even a problem and those who do, can’t agree on a unified approach or solution. Forums like COP and Davos do a great deal of good in the world but generally progress is too slow and fails to get universal buy-in - just look at India, China and the US refusing to join the pledge at COP26 to phase out coal, the three of which account for over 70% of global coal consumption. The world is at an impasse when it comes to the climate crisis. 

Art has a huge role to play in breaching this impasse; it has a unique ability to navigate delicate topics and bring on board those who may be hostile or ambivalent to a cause, in a way that no lobbyist or activist ever could. Gail Gallie shared two anecdotes that demonstrate this perfectly. In 2015, the UN launched its Global Goals campaign to draw attention to issues around poverty, injustice and climate change. The topics tackled were controversial with the Chinese government but by working with Chinese artist, Liu Bolin (who painted himself into a backdrop of 193 UN flags), the campaign was able to penetrate and have impact in this critical region. More recently and closer to home, Es Devlin’s 2021 installation of 400 trees at London’s Somerset House directly contravened the enlightenment principles on which the building was conceived, the idea being that any trees in the courtyard would end up blocking the view of this supreme man-made structure. This perception of human dominance over the natural world is exactly what the Forest for Change campaign sought to address, and to demonstrate a vision of a better world in an incredibly accessible way.

The key takeaway from this session was that we will only solve the climate crisis through unity, and that art can and already does play an enormous role in making our cities a better place for those that live there, while having the unique ability to reach audiences that climate campaigners can’t. Art institutions are essentially a place of organised public belonging and art has a great responsibility going forwards to be accessible to everyone. While this sentiment is sometimes at odds with ‘high art’ agendas, the future of art is the future of human gathering. 

Jessica Higgs

Jess joined Huckletree having previously worked in the worlds of luxury travel and retail, on both the agency and in-house sides. She has a wealth of knowledge across both digital and offline marketing, and heads up Huckletree's marketing team. Superpower: card trickster extraordinaire.


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