Guy Abrahams

I still use a lot of what I learnt, especially applying my understanding of disease mechanisms and using that framework to approach problem solving, design and innovation in an industry setting.

Guy Abrahams wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he enrolled in the Master of Environment at the University of Melbourne.

“I wasn’t really clear at that point where my abilities and interests would best fit and best be utilised,” he explains. “But I’d always been very interested in environmental issues and wanted to spend the next period of my working life engaged working more directly in that field.”

What Guy was looking for was a new career. Having practised both as a lawyer and spent 20 years running a contemporary art gallery, he was eager to move in the field he felt strongly about, the environment, but needed to learn more about.

While studying, it didn’t take long before Guy hit the ideas jackpot – combining art with climate change to help engage the public on the often under-siege scientific topic.

“There were a couple of foundation subjects to do with sustainability and I started looking at the role of the arts in engaging people about sustainability,” he says.

“I remember there was some surprise from my supervisor, who didn’t really know whether that was a ‘thing’ or not,” Guy says. “But I knew that overseas artists had always been engaged in environmental issues, and overseas there was an movement and community being developed. I thought that we could do something akin to that here, and even bigger.”

After being selected to participate in a prestigious climate change communication program led by former USA vice-president Al Gore, and a field trip to the Centre of Art and Environment at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Nevada, the idea blossomed into something tangible.

Guy established CLIMARTE in 2010, co-founded by Fiona Armstrong and Deborah Hart, with the express purpose of bringing together the arts and science to further public engagement about climate change.

“Within the first couple of years, I mainly gave talks to various galleries and museums and conferences all across Australia, talking about the practical sustainability in the arts as an industry and what actions could be taken within particular art forms,” Guy says.

“I also spoke to them about the increasing role of artists in communicating climate change, but then it became apparent that we could also curate exhibitions and other cultural events.”

Guy says his time at the University of Melbourne was integral to taking his idea from paper to reality.

“The best part was the great range of people in terms of the academic staff, who were able to provide a whole range of perspectives on different issues,” he says. “I found it really opened up for me areas of knowledge that I was only vaguely aware of.”

CLIMARTE has been met with a rapturous response, but none more so than from scientists themselves, Guy says.

“I think with the academics and policy-makers, there was a sense of frustration at the clear scientific and economic messages that they had been trying to get out; messages that are still finding resistance from various sectors of society, politically and more generally.

“So they really welcomed the opportunity to be involved in another way of engaging people. And similarly, the artists who interested in these areas were really keen to get involved with scientists.”

Why CLIMARTE works, Guy says, is that galleries and museums are considered safe, trusted places, where ideas can be freely debated.

“Having scientists and artists come together for public programs brought a whole new audience with them, perhaps people who wouldn’t’ have gone to galleries but who were interested in the environment, political and economic issues and came along for a different take.

“The arts generally provide a free intellectual place to talk about things. And when people walk into galleries and museums, they’re very trusted places; they don’t walk in thinking there’s some agenda being promoted,” Guy says.

“That was really important, because at times there has been a de facto black-out of intelligent discussion about climate change issues.”

2015 was a busy year for Abrahams and CLIMARTE. The inaugural ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE festival was held, with more than 50 events offered to the public. The festival won a Melbourne City Council award for its innovation.

Next year is set to be just as busy as 2015, with the return of the Art+Climate=Change festival, which will include artwork from overseas that was exhibited in response to the Paris Climate Change Talks, held in 2015.

“We’re a small organisation but we’re pretty ambitious. We’re open to all creative ideas.”

Editors note: The University of Melbourne will host the site of Australia’s first science gallery, which will open in 2020. Esteemed curator Rose Hiscock has been appointed director of the new institution, which like CLIMARTE, will merge a dynamic combination of science and art, aimed at 15 to 25-year-olds.