Art and the environment

Why would a professional body working with scientists and engineers make art one of the central themes of its work? The Leisure Review spoke to Nick Reeves, executive director of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) to find out how art and the environment has proved such an inspiration for the water industry

Nick Reeves
Nick Reeves: finding his muse

How did CIWEM’s work linking art and the environment begin?

I suppose if I’m honest, there’s a slightly selfish angle to it. I’ve got a personal interest in the arts and a background in the cultural sector so it was a personal and a professional interest, given my current role heading up an environmental organisation.

But it’s not an immediately obvious link.

It was obvious to me because I’m aware of the fact that artists, and not just visual artists, have always referenced the environment as a legitimate subject matter for their art. In terms of the visual arts, it’s going back to medieval times. When most people were illiterate people looked to artists to communicate key messages about what was going on in the world.

And the environment is one of those messages.

Yes. Instead of writing about plants and animals or the landscape, they depicted it in visual terms. That is how people learned about what was going on in the world. It is interesting that now scientists are actually looking at the work of Turner and Constable to try to get a handle on what has been going on with the climate. So that is one strand, one reason why we decided to take the arts as a serious topic of debate in our sector. The other is that our incoming president, as he then was, David Rooke, was inspired by a BBC series that travelled round the country looking at different landscapes beautifully depicted by Wright of Derby or that inspired Elgar in his work. The programme was making very definite links between art and the environment. David’s day job is head of flood defence at the Environment Agency so he’s a chartered engineer, he has no background in the arts at all, but he was inspired by this programme and when we were discussing his presidential theme I put it to him that arts and the environment would be an interesting one. I didn’t think he would accept it but he said, ‘Funny you should say that.”

However, given the traditional focus of CIWEM’s work, which is the water industry and civil engineering, it’s not an obvious link. How difficult was it to sell?

For some of our members it was quite difficult but a  professional body is all about training and informing people and you can inform people in various ways. You can do it through writing, conferences, publications but you can do it visually, you can do it through the arts. For me art is the highest form of human expression so if we can’t harness the arts to say key things about the environment, especially today when concern about the environment is the big issue, then it’s a pretty poor do. I think this institution has a responsibility to harness any form of communication to get its key messages across.

Once you had sold it to members, how were you able to take it forward?

I have to say that most people were quite excited about it. It was only a small minority that found it difficult. The interesting and inspiring thing for me was that all of a sudden people were coming out of the woodwork – people I had known for a long time as engineers or scientists, as economists or ecologists – saying, ‘Actually I paint, I compose music, I collect art and I can see the connection.’ Brilliant!

They weren’t just looking for commissions?

[laughs] “No. In fact David’s successor, Alistair Moseley, is a classically trained musician. He and group of his colleagues perform semi-professionally all over the country.

So many people have art as a part of their own lives but had these people previously made the connection between their day job and their hobby?

Some had. Alistair, who will be our president 2008/09, was chairman of one of our branches in the West Midlands and they had used music as a theme for some of their events. They had made the connection between music and the environment. In the West Midlands you have the Malverns, which are famous as the home and the inspiration of Elgar, so they were linking into that to say, this isn’t a new idea; it’s something that composers and artists have been doing for a very long time.

It was the central theme of the CIWEM conference and when I dropped in I was struck by how engaging it was from a leisure perspective and how much like a leisure and cultural conference some of the sessions were, but equally how hugely engaged the audience of environmental professionals were.

Those arts and environment sessions were run alongside some of our more traditional sessions on things like flood defence and a sustainable water industry, and bizarrely and inspiringly – I keep using this word ‘inspiring’ but it was truly inspiring – a lot of people who were signed up for the more traditional sessions didn’t go in the end. They heard about how good the art and the environment stuff was, came along to get a sense of what was going on and they stayed. One senior engineer who works for Arup [the engineering and construction group] sat next to me and said, ‘I was a bit sceptical at first but I’m inspired now’ – sorry, there’s that word ‘inspired’ again but he actually said it – ‘I’ll never see things in the same way again. When I go back to the office I’m going to talk to my team about when we build project teams we’re going to have an artist as part of the team because they think out of the box, they bring something different and they bring added value. It’s a fantastic opportunity. Why haven’t we done it before?’

Was it a difficult concept to sell in terms of conference organisation? It’s outside your usual field.

It was difficult to sell in terms of the number of delegates that we were after and it was difficult to sell to potential sponsors but it was worth the struggle. We did a risk analysis, as we do for every event, but in this case it was essential that the risk analysis was as accurate as we could get it because we knew that because the programme was so different it could be a financial disaster. We had to bear that in mind but we thought it was a gamble worth taking.

Did the reaction when the programme was published reflect your concerns?

The response we got to the programme was far better than I had anticipated for the reasons I mentioned earlier: it flushed out those people who had already got an interest in the arts and could see a link to the environment.

So did you have a different audience?

We had our traditional audience but a slightly different audience. Some of the artists speaking at the event had international reputations, which attracted people from the arts community. This was wonderful because one of the conference objectives was to make a proper connection and build a bridge between two sectors that hardly ever come together.

Your audience was not just composed of engineers and environmental professionals having their eyes opened to the arts; there were arts professionals coming the other way.

That was another objective, to bring together in equal measure people from different backgrounds, to say to them, you do have something in common. There is also a track record out there. This isn’t anything that’s really new because there are some regeneration organisations, one or two local authorities who are engaged in regeneration projects where they have actually brought artists into the project teams. And some NGOs [non-governmental organisations], like Sustrans, have seen the value of the connection. And also things like eco-fashion; people have been talking about that for quite a long time now. While we think we’ve been pioneering because it’s new for us, the whole idea of art and the environment is nothing new. The Royal Society of Art has been running an ecology programme for about a year or so. They were very pleased with what we were doing because it reinforced and kind of validated what they have been trying to do. As we spoke to people about our ideas for framing the conference programme it was amazing how people had already been thinking along these lines. The Arts Council, for example, had just appointed an arts and ecology officer so they were very keen. The Arnolfini Gallery  in Bristol, which showcases all sorts of artists in all sorts of media, have been putting on arts and environment exhibitions for quite a long time.

What was the tone of the post-conference feedback?

Normally when you put on a conference the only feedback you get is a complaint; if someone is happy you tend not to hear from them. This time people put pen to paper and sent e-mails congratulating CIWEM on what it did, and they’re still coming through now. It’s been amazing.

Where do you go next?

Normally for a conference we would have half a dozen objectives, a couple of which might be financial. For this one we had about fifteen very detailed conference objectives. Some were financial – income, delegate numbers, the usual things – but one of the most important for us was about legacy and making sure this wasn’t just a one-off. There’s got to be permanence about this. This is the launch of something so we are going to set up an arts and environment network which will be part of the legacy of what we’ve done and it’s about bringing the scientists and the engineers together with artists and academics so we can make sure that we are building on this for the future. This is for the long haul now. We are in the process of contacting people and we’ve had a tremendous response from people: someone from the arts community who is willing to chair the network, the Arts Council are interested, the RSA are interested.

Given your personal interests and your professional background, including working with ILAM and other organisations, did the momentum that was gained come as a surprise?

It’s been a really pleasant surprise. I must admit that I didn’t think that the response would be as positive and enthusiastic as it has been. I thought it was going to be a long haul persuading people that this was the right thing to do, because it is a huge departure for this institution, there’s no argument about that. I have been really thrilled by the response.

Does it offer a model for how culture and leisure, call it what we will, might interact with other sectors?

What it says to me is that we can no longer operate with a silo mentality. Whatever your professional backgrounds or interests, you’ve got to think beyond that. When people ask me for my definition of the environment, I say, it’s about the condition in which we live. That means this institution can legitimately talk about anything. There are no no-go areas for us. This is about people, it’s about the condition in which they live, it’s about the quality of life; it’s all-embracing. That’s why this institution has got a big opportunity now to go beyond its traditional areas. Actually our royal charter is quite broad in its definition of the environment but this takes it a stage further. I’m personally excited about it and the team here are. It’s opened new doors for us as well. As an organisation we are talking to bodies and individuals that we have only had passing contact with in the past.

And presumably it’s opening new doors for arts organisations and artists.

Absolutely. I was personally aware that there were one or two arts and environment organisations that were groups of artists working in ecology, working in the landscape, doing environmental art. But actually it wasn’t just one or two: there are lots of them all over the country. Some are publicly funded, some are working off their own resources but they are doing tremendous work. At the moment we’ve got Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool; wouldn’t it be brilliant to have a Green Tate or a publicly supported gallery or venue dedicated to eco-art or environmental art? That’s one of the conversations we are going to be having with the Arts Council because I think there will be a demand for it.

This obviously represents a strand in the Institution’s work for the future.

New network, new conference programme, CPD. We’re talking to Manchester Metropolitan University where they are already running a masters level degree course in arts and the environment. We’re looking at how CIWEM might accredit that course, which will engage their students with the technical aspects, the scientific aspects of the environment and provide them with new material and new ideas. It’s about building bridges between different disciplines.

Any chance of you getting your brushes out for a master class at the next CIWEM conference?



Nick Reeves was talking to Jonathan Ives. CIWEM can be found online at



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