Sustainability, Collaboration and the Viability of Art and Design Education: a report on the first year of PALS

This past fall, as the newly appointed Director of Interdisciplinary Studies, I was asked to represent Otis at the Pratt Academic Leadership Summit on Sustainability. Representatives from 33 AICAD schools, including everyone from adjunct and full time faculty to upper level administration, spent four days together charged with collectively answering the question “What can we do together to ensure a sustainable future?” Since then we have met once a month via web conference, and I am happy to have the chance to reflect on our ongoing collaborative efforts.

Initially I had apprehension about my role in this. Yes, our new sustainability minor is housed in my program, however I was not involved in its development, and I am by no means an expert in this field; and frankly I was intimidated by what I erroneously perceived as design-centric group. I was worried about my place as a fine artist and wondered what I could bring to this conversation and if would my voice be heard?

So I spent the summer reading as much as I could about sustainability in art and design practices. William McDonough & Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and Nathan Shedroff’s Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable proved to be highlights from this research, as did 1000 Eco Designs, by Rebecca Proctor and Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People by Emily Pilloton. I also recalled chapters I had read years ago from Suzi Gablik’s Conversations Before the End of Time, which included several interviews with artists whose work dealt with environmental issues, and Carol Becker’s many writings about the social responsibility of artists (all of which are available in the Otis library). I also took furious notes during Nathan Shedroff’s talk at convocation; and was thoroughly inspired by Rose Brantley’s presentation about the paradigm shifts happening in Otis’ Fashion Department.

The official preparation for the summit came as a request from Deb Johnson, Pratt’s Academic Director of Sustainability. She asked each PALSS fellow to complete a survey about what sustainability initiatives are currently in place at each AICAD school. I met individually with Debra Ballard, Katie Phillips and Sammy Hoi who shared with me the history of Otis’s commitment to sustainability.

It seems that we could cite the Galef Building as one of our first sustainability initiatives and that was completed 10 years ago. Other milestones include the Do it Now: Live Green exhibition in Ben Maltz Gallery, the formation of the Environmental Steering committee and the College’s Green House Gas Audit. I had noticed the shift to eco-friendly packaging in the Otis Café and the many student driven projects, such as the Resource Exchange started by Nicole White (BFA 2010), but was surprised to learn that Otis uses grey water in our sprinkler systems and repurposes the excess heat from the computer labs to heat our buildings. Sustainability is also embedded in our current strategic bridge plan, as well as many academic initiatives including the Sustainability Minor which begins next fall. Overall Otis is somewhere in the middle compared to the range of sustainability efforts at our peer AICAD institutions, 70.4% of which have some sort of Sustainability Initiative and 23.1% have been at it for 5-10 years. The PALSS fellows were impressed with our partnerships between the ACT and IL programs and local K-12 schools, recognizing the promise and potential impact of teaching younger generations about sustainability practices.

After learning the current state of sustainability initiatives across the AICAD schools we began to discuss why and how art and design education should address these issues. Throughout the four days we were engaged in presentations and breakout sessions all with the goal of figuring out how to harness our collective skills, knowledge and energy to shift art and design education towards a more sustainable future. Topics included:

1. The need for interdisciplinarity: because this problem affects the planet holistically, we need to approach it as such recognizing that not one discipline can solve this problem alone.

2. Harnessing the “superpowers” of artist and designers as entrepreneurs, critical thinkers, pattern seekers, storytellers and the ability to collaborate while using applied creativity and iterative processes to solve “wicked problems”

3. Developing dynamic, adaptable curricula and approaches to sustainability depending on school, discipline, location, etc… (what works for A/L/I for instance, won’t necessarily be applicable to Fine Arts).

We were asked to think about “what can we do now during the week of the conference?” “What can we do next, as a collective of AICAD institutions?” And “what can we strive for by 2030 that will make a positive impact on the world beyond our individual institutions?” We also collectively created an open source PowerPoint presentation that each PALS fellow was asked to customize and present to their individual schools. I gave the Otis PALS Presentation (PDF) to the Town Hall, Academic Assembly and Environmental steering committee in March, and hope to present to Student Government in the fall.

The biggest take away I got from the conference was that it is not enough to just teach sustainability throughout our curricula, we must embody it as a core shared value throughout all facets of the college. This includes everything from waste management and recycling to making responsible choices about the vendors our purchasing office deals with.

Since the conference we meet once a month for online meetings/phone conferences with all AICAD PALS fellows, this is our chance to share ideas, discuss curricula and campus initiatives, and plan next steps. In addition we’ve participated in two online demos of Life Cycle Assessment software and have plans for an online exhibition of student and faculty work focused on sustainability, and peer-to-peer discussions about fine arts approaches to sustainability (materials, processes, content).

A small but significant accomplishment so far was our name change. Although Pratt began this initiative we dropped its name from the acronym in order for each AICAD school to take ownership of the collective. So we are now the Partnership for Academic Leadership on Sustainability and our mission for the next five years is to “Leverage and share resources to integrate sustainability into art and design education.”

We’ve had our last conference call of the school year this morning, but will continue to meet throughout the summer in preparation for the next summit. I’ll post updates periodically, but welcome any Otis faculty to contact me if you want to be involved with PALS.