Making Art and Environmental Activism One and the Same

Director of art partnerships Elizabeth Corr is the visionary behind NRDC’s artist-in-residence program, its museum collaborations, and its mission to fuse art and advocacy.

“Birds Watching,” 2018

Credit: Elizabeth Corr

Though she calls Chicago home, Elizabeth Corr is one in a long line of NRDC staffers to fall for the lush river vistas and rolling hills of New York’s Hudson Valley. A little more than an hour north of New York City, the area is a bucolic reprieve from bustling urban life and has long been a source of inspiration for environmentalists and artists alike. What’s more, Corr observes, “the Hudson Valley is in NRDC’s DNA.”

It was back in 1974, as part of the organization’s first wave of lawsuits, that NRDC committed to protecting the precious waterway and the local livelihoods that depended on it, and thwarted ConEdison’s plans to build a hydroelectric plant on Storm King Mountain. The development would have irrevocably damaged the region’s stunning landscape and sensitive ecosystems. That case also served as an early judicial precedent for granting citizens standing to sue based on environmental (and not just financial) interests.

But Corr is not here for a legal cause. Rather, she’s here to visit the Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, a 500-acre open-air museum, where she’s had a hand in the current exhibition and programming, “Indicators: Artists on Climate Change.”

“If we hadn’t won that lawsuit, a place like Storm King Art Center may have never come into existence,” says Corr, who as NRDC’s director of art partnerships advocates for the same causes as her attorney colleagues—but through awareness-building visual media.

The diverse installations of “Indicators” show the present-day and looming impacts we all face as the planet warms, with its 17 artists—including NRDC’s artist-in-residence, Jenny Kendler—encouraging visitors to confront the complex challenges of our global climate crisis and imagine potential solutions. Kendler has two pieces featured, and both she and Corr helped create an entire day of programming around one called Birds Watching, a sculpture of 100 colorful, reflective birds’ eyes, each representing a species threatened or endangered by climate change.

For Corr, August’s “Day of the Bird” event, which included a drawing class, a falcon appearance, songs, readings, and a panel discussion, afforded a rare and welcome chance for deep—but accessible—engagement on an issue. She says that the collaboration “epitomized what a good partnership between NRDC, an artist, and an art institution can be.”

Participants drawing a live falcon at the “Day of the Bird” event at Storm King in August 2018
Credit: David C. Sampson

“It was out-of-this-world fantastic,” Kendler adds, noting that the experience at Storm King is a prime example of Corr’s out-of-the-box way of thinking about projects. “For her, it’s not just about how we can make a pretty sculpture about nature, but how we can squeeze every drop out of the opportunity in order to make the most impact.” While an organization like NRDC necessarily relies on traditional communications tools, like white papers and newsletters, to influence decision makers and inform the public, “art also has a really important role to play in how we shape and define who we are as a culture and what kinds of choices we’re going to make,” Kendler notes.

Since she arrived at NRDC a decade ago, Corr has sought novel ways to reach audiences not necessarily already a part of the environmental movement and to engage more people with the issues NRDC is working on. She holds a master’s degree in African studies and, while based at the University of Cape Town, studied the role that artists played in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, bringing people together for a social cause. Shortly after joining NRDC, “I started identifying gaps in how we were telling our own story, and seeing how people often had a hard time imagining the solutions that we were advocating for or weren’t understanding the urgency of the issues we work on,” she notes. “And that’s when I saw the opportunity to bring in my background with art.”

Her first artist collaboration was a 2012 Maya Lin installation at Expo Chicago that shed light on the problems facing the Chicago River, long a dumping ground for raw sewage and also beleaguered by invasive species such as the Asian carp. She notes that one of the most groundbreaking things about the Expo event with Lin, an honorary NRDC trustee, was its location within a commercial art fair. Over the course of four days, about 45,000 people from across the globe saw Lin’s installation—which included a topographical map of the Chicago River made entirely of pins, among other works—and left many of them wanting to know more.

“One of the beautiful things about art is that it allows people to come to us. It changes the way we communicate,” Corr says, emphasizing how the positive reception to the Lin collaboration reinforced the value of translating environmental advocacy into art. Such projects geared toward effecting change are a refreshing shift from a historically alienating, elitist, profit-driven art world.

Corr first met Kendler at the Expo Chicago event, setting the stage for the creation of NRDC’s innovative artist-in-residence program in 2014. Corr jokes that while other residencies of this kind typically provide artists with inspiring studio space, NRDC merely offered Kendler a desk in its Chicago office. But the benefit of those close quarters meant she could collaborate, in a deep and sustained way, with experts in the field.

To prove the power of art makes a real-life difference, Kendler highlights her 2014 traveling food cart, which distributed balloons filled with monarch-friendly milkweed, first in St. Louis and then in other cities throughout the country. The cart invited passersby to take home a balloon and pop it outside, releasing the seeds to float away and plant themselves in their neighborhoods. The same year, after reading about the project in an NRDC publication, Tom Weisner, then-mayor of Aurora, Illinois, worked to stop the Tollway Authority from mowing nearly 300 miles of the state’s roadways, which had been wiping out the valuable milkweed that grew alongside them.

In another particularly memorable collaboration that helped yield on-the-ground change, Corr spearheaded a project for a 2016 show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography spotlighting the dangers of petcoke, an industrial by-product of tar sands oil processing that was being dumped near homes on the city’s Southeast Side. The exhibition’s artists spent nearly a year working in the community to learn about the impacts of the pollution. Their works ranged from a series of photos depicting the industrial shipping vessels carrying the volatile tar sands oil to ports across the country, to aerial images of dark, gritty dust looming five stories high along the banks of the Calumet River.

The fresh lens that the artists brought to the subject showed viewers the magnitude of the issue—and captured the attention of city officials as well. “This was so meaningful because it really achieved our goal in terms of putting pressure on the city of Chicago to pass an ordinance to clean up these petcoke piles and to have stronger regulations for how that waste was stored,” Corr says. “It was without a doubt in part because of the noise these artists in conjunction with the community members were able to make.”

Corr (second from right) walking with visitors at Storm King
Credit: David C. Sampson

Corr’s personal passion for art and the environment, along with her creativity and endless drive, have been instrumental to her success. Andrew Wetzler, NRDC’s Chicago-based deputy chief program officer and director of the organization’s work on nature issues, cites her optimistic personality, her eye for detail, and her comfort with everyone from artists to scientists to advocates to donors. “She has a very, very unusual—and incredibly valuable—set of skills,” he says.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Corr was recently nominated for the prestigious Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award, an annual prize given to an “entrepreneur, engineer, activist or artist—under the age of 40—who stands poised to make a game-changing difference.”

Corr was humbled by the nomination and admits feeling a little sheepish to be part of such an esteemed group of candidates, which includes superstar youth climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Miranda Wang, who invented a technology that can break down plastic waste. But Corr also sees the nomination as a sign that people are beginning to share her recognition of the role that art can play in advocacy and the value of such interdisciplinary collaborations.

Kendler agrees. “In the last five years, and especially in the last two as the political situation in our country really changed, a lot of the barriers around artists working with political material and being socially engaged, or artists working with scientists, have started to come down. The work we did early on at NRDC was really vanguard, and that’s why I think Elizabeth has been nominated for this prize.”

Though she did not receive the Pritzker Award, Corr hopes that the spotlight the nomination brought will help more people value the kinds of collaborations she’s fostered over the years. “Perhaps the greatest honor to me is the recognition that what we’re doing at NRDC has been impactful,” she says. “We’ve been able to successfully demonstrate that art and science can support each other and, importantly, should support each other.”

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