Notts Goes Green: the Art Gallery and Studios Creating New Connections

Words: Adam Pickering
Photos: Tom Morley
Wednesday 21 September 2022
reading time: min, words

Keeping on with our Notts Goes Green series, we chat with Suzanne Golden of BACKLIT art gallery and studios - on practising what they preach, creating connections, and engaging the public with their environmental impact.


BACKLIT is an internationally-renowned, artist-led public gallery and studio based just outside of the city centre in St Ann’s. Taking over a historic Victorian building, its galleries span three floors, alongside a large number of rentable artist studios. This behemoth poses challenges from a sustainability angle, but also, nestling a whole hive of artists, provides plenty of opportunities for engagement with a wider community.

After a tour of their cavernous building, I sit down for a chat with Co-Director Suzanne Golden. We kick off by discussing their Regulated Exhibition - a collaboration with the Environment Agency which led to a plastic person being sculpted by lead artist Joshua Sofaer, and advised by Richard Arm (specialist technical support at Nottingham Trent University).

“It was about making recycling and our waste more tangible, so we invited people to bring their recycling along and they’d come to a desk with their bag of plastic; that was then broken down and moulded into a person that was equivalent to the weight of an average person's plastic waste per year, which was 98.66 kilograms at the time. The idea was to make people think a little bit about their use of plastic and how much they consumed over a particular period.” 

The impacts of the project were broad, Suzanne explains: “It made us rethink our recycling system on site. We changed our waste disposal company as a result and are reviewing our suppliers to see if there are more ethical affordable choices. Conversations with visitors included the quantity of any one plastic, for example looking at water bottles would trigger conversation about what alternatives there might be. The exhibition showed our collective impact, but importantly there were moments of personal reflection which encouraged people to rethink their options.”


“The introduction of the Environment Agency to other arts and cultural spaces in the city was a great outcome too, joining the dots between specialists and those on the ground with an audience. It’s provided a way to deliver and cascade that expert knowledge through different means of communication. It also opened them up to a whole new audience who didn't know anything about their work.”

But how have BACKLIT found getting started on looking at their emissions? “There were lots of new things that we started to consider as part of the Environment Agency exhibition. They pointed out questions like, ‘Where is that work being transported from and what materials are they using? What about the paint that you've put on the walls, where has that come from?’ We realised there are a lot of little things we’re going to have to start thinking about if we’re going to do this thoroughly.”

Such concerns are reflected across the wider art world as it works towards a net zero future, as Suzanne says: “It’s going to change some of the scope around how some galleries and museums work because they may choose to work with less international artists, or they may choose to work more with digital artists. For some artworks having a certain temperature in the gallery is a huge consideration, and in future some works may not be able to be shown in particular environments because it's not sustainable. Or we may be looking at redeveloping the spaces we choose to exhibit work within.”

BACKLIT has also received support from Nottingham Trent University’s Sustainability in Enterprise (SiE) project which is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund. The SiE team conducted an environmental audit and suggested some ways in which they could better improve energy consumption around the building. As such issues, alongside use of materials and transportation, apply to a wide variety of arts organisations Suzanne saw the need for a platform through which they could work on them more collaboratively. “That’s why we started Art NEST (Nottingham Environmental Sustainable Team) - if people are taking some of those opportunities on board, learnings can be shared so they're more accessible to everyone. But it's very much a starting point”.


Art NEST also includes the likes of Nottingham Contemporary, National Justice Museum, and Nottingham Playhouse, and seems to have caught the mood of the moment. As BACKLIT also hosts dozens of studios containing a vibrant community of working artists, I wonder how their efforts to go green filter down to those using the space. “I think the main premise is leading by example. Certainly there was lots that emerged from the Environment Agency relationship and the exhibition - people don't feel accountable and therefore how do you make that process accessible?”

Being an arts organisation, Suzanne highlights that the usual bottom-line incentives of sustainability that drive many shareholder-driven businesses don’t apply so much to them. “One thing that we spoke about in the (NTU) carbon management workshops was this idea of why you’re doing it as a business, but we’re really doing it because it's about quality of life. We're driven by creating exciting and experiential opportunities. We're interested in developing partnerships so that we can connect people with ideas, make our work transparent, and give people a voice that are maybe a little underrepresented in the sector.”

For Suzanne, it’s the work that these efforts inspire and what it sparks that are the key reasons it’s such a core objective for BACKLIT. “It’s about this being part of our artistic programme, and that being part of the professional development later down the line with the artists; the motivation is more around engagement with a wider group of people, the conversation that surrounds it, and the change that could make rather than the financial benefits.”

Visit the BACKLIT website and find out more about NTU's Sustainability in Enterprise project

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