The arts and restoration – a fertile partnership

David J. Curtis

[Update of EMR feature: Curtis, David J (2009) Creating inspiration: The role of the arts in creating empathy for ecological restoration. Ecological Management & Restoration, 10:3, 174-184.]

Key words: creativity, ecological restoration, capacity building environmental attitudes, environmental behaviour

Figure 1. The Plague Demon — a puppet made from 3000 plastic shopping bags by a team of 30 people. It rose to a height of 6 metres and represented the equivalent of 3 hours of plastic bag consumption for the city of Armidale. It was used in the Armidale Autumn Festival parade in March 2004 (pictured) and the production of Plague and the Moonflower in the main arena of the Woodford Folk Festival in 2003 to an estimated audience of 10,000 people. (Photo Garry Slocombe)

Introduction: In my original article for EMR in 2003, I posed the question: Are the arts a valuable partner with ecological restoration? The article was written early in my research into the role of the visual and performing arts in shaping environmental behaviours. I answered this research question through key informant interviews, analyses of several case studies and participant observations, and concluded that there was indeed substantial potential for the arts to create inspiration and empathy for ecological restoration. The research continued until 2007 with the completion of my PhD thesis but the outputs of that research continue to the present day, with numerous journal papers and book chapters (see bibliography). It has also led to the formation of the non-government organisation Ecoarts Australis and the coordination of three international conferences around these themes: 2013, 2016, and 2019, all of which  demonstrate the high potential for fertile partnerships between the arts and ecological restoration.

Further works undertaken: The main case study in the 2003 article for EMR was the ecological oratorio Plague and the Moonflower that was staged in Armidale NSW in 2002 by the Armidale community. The Armidale community went on to restage the work and take 300 performers to the Woodford Folk Festival in 2003 to perform it in the main arena to about 10,000 people (Fig. 1). A further seven case studies were developed including: an examination of attitudes and practices of about 100 arts, farming and natural resource management practitioners; the Nova-anglica: the web of our endeavours event staged in Armidale in 1998 to an audience of approx 5,000 people (Tables 1 & 2); the Gunnedah Two Rivers Festival in 2002-04 and the Bungawalbin Wetlands Festival, both of which incorporated visual and performing arts (Tables 1 and 2); a play-building study with secondary aged school children in 2002 examining the greenhouse effect; participant observations of my own work from 1990-2000 in which I incorporated the arts into natural resource management extension ( and the Ecological Society of Australia conference in 2003 in which we incorporated an ambitious performing and visual arts program (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. As part of the arts program of the Ecological Society of Australia Conference, Armidale 2003, this commissioned image, In the Balance, summarized the themes of the conference. (Image Anna Curtis. Lino reduction print on paper, 30 x 30 cm, 2003)

Findings from the subsequent research. Papers listed in the bibliography referred to above show that the arts have an important role in:

  • raising awareness and communicating environmental information (Table 1) through environmental education and extension;
  • changing and challenging environmental beliefs (Table 1);
  • communicating scientific information (Fig. 2);
  • mobilising rural communities to achieve environmental sustainability and community capacity building for Landcare and environmental action (Table 1; Fig. 1);
  • creating empathy for the natural environment and ecological restoration (Fig. 3);
  • transforming our highly energy-intensive consumer society to one that is ecologically sustainable through community development and embedding the arts in ecologically sustainable development .

In addition, particular art events could encourage people to want to adopt pro-environmental behaviours (Table 2) as well as:

  • encourage people to reflect about their impact on the environment;
  • make them feel strongly towards the natural environment;
  • expose them to ideas they hadn’t thought about much before;
  • affirm their beliefs about people’s relationship with the environment;
  • help people learn about environmental issues; or
  • provide a vehicle to express feelings about the environment (Table 1).

Figure 3. Ephemeral clay sculptures with impregnated native seeds, Artist Andrew Parker. These sculptures were part of an ephemeral art project organised by Ecoarts Australis as part of the Black Gully Music Festival in Armidale in 2016. The sculptures were integrated into the ecological restoration project along Black Gully. As they decayed, the seeds were released and germinated, adding to the revegetation of the creek. (Photo David Curtis)

Implications for arts : restoration relationships:  It is clear that the work of individual artists can influence the behaviour of citizens through ‘internally derived’ interventions, which impinge on a person’s values, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, self-identity and habits, and through these, on social norms (Fig. 4). However, desire by individuals to adopt pro-environmental behaviour can be hampered by situational or infrastructure constraints. The arts can also have a role in reducing some of these constraints, through ‘externalist interventions’ where the arts are embedded into ecologically sustainable development. This might be where community and public art are incorporated into urban planning as a means of making active transport modes more attractive, or where the arts provide alternative forms of consumption which are lower in embodied energy and higher in embodied labour. The degree to which a person responds to the arts will depend on personal characteristics (e.g. gender, class, etc.), situation, institutional factors, as well as the type of art. The accumulated result of individual behaviours leads to macro-level impacts on the environment. A knowledge of these impacts in turn influences individual artists, and affects their practice.

Figure 4. Model of how the arts affect environmental behaviour.

I found that the arts can foster pro-environmental behaviour through one of three ‘pathways’ (Fig. 5). The first pathway is where the visual and performing arts are used to synthesise complex ideas and to communicate them to non-specialist audiences in an engaging form. A second pathway is where the arts and particular artists connect their audience to the natural environment through thoughtful or evocative representations of the environment or by being in the natural environment itself. The third pathway is where the arts are embedded in ecologically sustainable development, through the combined effects of community development, economic development, and changes in the patterns of consumption.

Figure 5. Three pathways in which the arts can be used to help achieve ecological sustainability.

The three Ecoarts Australis conferences were a culmination of the work that I did following the 2003 EMR article. These three pathways provided the structure for each conference, and enabled the innumerable Australian and international examples that were presented to be organised into a coherent conceptual framework. It was evident through these conferences that there has been a shift in projects that link the arts to environmental sustainability. In the first two conferences a majority of the papers provided examples of where the arts fell into the first or second pathways. In the most recent conference there were more examples where the arts were integrated into ecologically sustainable development in some way, for example in transport or manufacturing. Also there seemed to be a shift towards multi-artist projects.

Stakeholders and Funding bodies:  Funded by Land and Water Australia and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Contact information: Dr David Curtis, Honorary Senior Fellow, School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, Faculty of Social Science, University of Wollongong NSW 2522 Australia.

Table 1: Comparison of case studies as to how the event affected respondents. Respondents were scored: 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree.



Responses to survey

Those who agreed (score 4-5) as a percentage of all respondents
Plague and the Moonflower

(n = 169)

Nova-anglica (n = 9) Gunnedah (Twin Rivers)

(n = 11)**

Gunnedah (Common Ground)

(n = 46)

The event moved me emotionally 73 44 18 45.6
The event made me reflect on humanity’s relationship with the natural environment 74

(n = 168)

67 36 61.7

(n = 47)

The event made me feel strongly towards the natural environment 60

(n = 168)

78 18 58.7
The event made me feel an appreciation and pride in community 81


89 91 73.9
The event exposed me to ideas that I may not have thought much about before 31

(n = 167)

89 36 34.8
The event affirmed my beliefs about humanity’s relationship with the natural environment 59

(n = 167)

44 18 60.9
The event allowed me to express my feelings for people’s relationship with the natural environment 50

(n = 98)





The event allowed me to strengthen my beliefs about certain issues 53

(n = 98)

67 18 46.7

(n = 45)

The event allowed me to learn about some environmental issues 43

(n = 96)

56 9 28.3
I enjoyed being part of a large team working together 94

(n = 98)

56 60


It made me more appreciative of where I live and work 57.4

(n = 47)

** Gunnedah data are combined data from both focus groups. (–) = not asked.

Table 2: Comparison of case studies as to whether the event made people want to change their behaviour. ‘Yes’ and ‘A bit’ combined into ‘Yes’. Gunnedah data are combined data from both focus groups.


Did the production make you want to do something different for the environment?


Percentage of all respondents   
Plague  and the Moonflower

(n = 170)


(n = 9)

Gunnedah (Two Rivers)

(n = 11)

Gunnedah (Common Ground)

(n = 46)

Yes 67 67 18 52.1
No 21 11 64 39.1
Unsure or unanswered 12 22 18 11.6
People who listed things they would do differently 43 44 18 26.1




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