Dutch innovation meets Boston arts outside the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo by Molly Douglas.


by Molly Douglas
Netherlands Innovation Network

What happens when you bring together art and science to tackle a shared imperative: the climate crisis? You generate creative ideas, build new connections, and learn that only through working together will we be able to build a resilient, sustainable future for all.

On March 24, the Netherlands Innovation Network in Boston partnered with the Center for Netherlandish Art (CNA) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to consider how art by Dutch masters can open critical, interdisciplinary dialogue and inspire solution-oriented thinking around human interaction with our environment. Over 150 people, pulling broadly from across sectors and experience, joined in.

Where land and water meet

Alexandra Libby, Associate Curator of Northern Baroque Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., and Bas Jonkman, Professor of Hydraulic Engineering at Delft University of Technology, examined two 17th century paintings centered on the intersection of water and land by Salomon van Ruysdael and Jan Josephsz van Goyen.

With Christopher Atkins, the Van Otterloo-Weatherbie Director of the CNA, guiding the conversation, Alexandra walked attendees through the historical social, cultural, and economic dynamics of the paintings. Complementing and building on Alexandra’s insight, Bas pointed out the physical evolution of the landscape and seascape and surrounding engineering considerations.

Taking it a step further, we opened the discussion to all attendees, who, in small group conversations, shared their own thoughts on a third painting by Hendrick Averkamp. It’s not always easy to get a pharma executive, an art historian, a technology advisor, and a philanthropist to openly share their thoughts about something they may initially believe not to be in their domain of expertise.

Deft swirls of oil paint on a canvas? What does a technology advisor know about that? But when you identify what we all have in common—an intimate and changing relationship to nature—you find we all have something to observe and something to listen to.

Learning to adapt

Reflecting on leadership and shared challenges in climate resilience between the Netherlands and Boston, Herman Quarles, Consul General of the Netherlands in New York, illustrated collaboration between the two regions on water technologies, disaster recovery, and proactive climate planning, most recently with the release of “Adaptation for All,” a guide to flood resilience for communities.

He pointed out that both the Netherlands and Boston have learned to live with and around nature and water, to adapt to — not to combat — the environment.

Reflecting on both the discussion between Alexandra and Bas and the breakout room discussions between all attendees, Sonja Plesset, Executive Director of the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation, and Kathy Abbott, President and CEO of Boston Harbor Now, concluded by bringing the conversation to our forward climate imperative.

They observed how the day’s discussions underscored the interdisciplinary nature of resilience, and how, when we talk about resilience, we mean cultural, social, economic, as well as climate, resilience. They are all interconnected and impact one another, as do we, whether we work in art or engineering, or live in Boston or Delft.

So, at the end of the day, resilience is achieved through the sharing and integration of knowledge. It’s also about learning from the past to inform the future. With the 50th anniversary of the United States’ Clean Water Act just celebrated in December, Earth Day upcoming on April 22, and two new pro-climate governments taking off both sides of the Atlantic, we’re seeing the two collide. We all have insight to build a future we will share. This is a conversation only to continue.

Hear the experts’ take here.