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Mindful of Its Impact on the Planet, the Art World Aims for Sustainability


Jun 23, 2022
Mindful of Its Impact on the Planet, the Art World Aims for Sustainability
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Last month, a man disguised as an older woman sitting in a wheelchair brazenly smeared cream pastry onto Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work, the Mona Lisa. The painting, which hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, is shielded behind bulletproof glass and was unscathed. Still, both the world — and Louvre visitors — were left wondering, why would someone attack one of the most iconic (and valuable) pieces of art ever painted?

As the cake-smearing culprit was being led away by Louvre security guards (and later arrested and placed in psychiatric care), he ascribed a message to his vandalism: “Think about the Earth,” he said. “There are people who are destroying the Earth. Think about it … all artists, think about the Earth — this is why I did this. Think about the planet.”

Although it resulted in no permanent damage, the Louvre attack dramatically brought to light the relationship between art, the art industry and the environment.

Compared to far-larger “culture industries” like fashion and entertainment, the art world’s role in environmental concerns such as climate change is relatively modest. But across this lucrative and rarefied realm, galleries, auction houses, fairs, collectors, institutions and artists themselves are increasingly committing to more sustainable business practices to help combat global warming. The subject was among those tackled by speakers at the recent Art for Tomorrow conference in Athens convened in association with The New York Times.

“The art world may be relatively small but that does not mean we should not be sustainable,” said Heath Lowndes, co-founder of the Gallery Climate Coalition, which offers guidelines for arts institutions to increase sustainability. “We have an opportunity to set standards for environmental responsibility with the potential to influence and reach huge audiences.”

Just two years old, the Gallery Climate Coalition now has more than 800 members from across the art sector committed to its mission to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030, in alignment with the Paris Climate Accords.

The timing of this rising environmental consciousness is opportune. This year, for the first time ever, issues around sustainability were among the top 10 concerns for “High Net-Worth Collectors” who were surveyed as part of the annual Art Basel/UBS Art Market Report.

Some 70 percent of collectors, for instance, now think about “sustainability options” when purchasing art or managing their collections; 64 percent are concerned with reducing their personal travel to art-related events and 68 percent are open to employing more environmentally conscious delivery methods when shipping pieces of art.

Although dominated by high-profile institutions like the Louvre, the art world is actually composed mostly of small businesses and galleries, said Victoria Siddall, the former global director of the Frieze Art Fair and co-founder of the Global Climate Coalition, who was among the speakers at the conference.

While they may routinely collaborate, these businesses typically operate independently with few formalized “regulatory bodies, organizational tools or resources” to achieve sustainability, Ms. Siddall said.

The coalition is working to bridge this gap, notably via digital tools such as its “Carbon Calculator,” which helps members estimate their carbon footprint and calculate their greenhouse gas emission levels. Quantifying emissions is key, she added. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t reduce.”

Along with travel, transporting art — from galleries to art fairs, art fairs to collections, collections to museums — is a key contributor to industry emissions, particularly transport by air. Indeed, shipping art by air — which remains an industry standard — results in 10 times the environmental impact of land transport and 60 times the impact of shipping via sea, according to the coalition.

Despite the climate benefits, convincing both art producers and consumers to opt out of air transport — and its obvious speed advantages — has been challenging.

“Art is a luxury commodity and customer service expectations have always come along with that,” Mr. Lowndes said. And even with exhibition and art event calendars planned years — if not a decade — in advance, logistical considerations within the industry remain surprisingly last-minute.

But supply-chain issues — and accompanying cost spikes of up to 10 times prepandemic levels for airfreight — have dented air travel’s appeal and opened minds toward sea transport. Opening them further is a new partnership between Christie’s auction house and the fine-arts logistics firm Crozier. The two firms have launched a monthly sea-freight service between London and New York and bimonthly service between London and Hong Kong.

“The scheme will reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent compared to air travel,” said Tom Woolston, Christie’s global head of operations.

To lure consumers, Crozier is developing a fleet of steel and aluminum shipping containers with temperature controls, humidity and shock monitors and specialized refrigeration systems specifically designed to secure art works.

Journeys between London and New York take roughly 20 days; 40 between London and Hong Kong, and Crozier will soon try out a New York-Hong Kong route. “These are our highest-volume routes,” Mr. Woolston said.

Christie’s has committed to filling 60 percent of each container to ensure the pilot program’s viability. The rest is available to any Crozier client interested in shipping by sea, including small-scale arts firms committed to sustainability but unable to afford such a service on their own.

As with Christie’s, the new shipping plan is part of a larger, companywide sustainability push at Crozier, said Simon Hornby, senior vice president and general manager of Crozier Europe. This strategy includes the development of recyclable packing materials; a new rental program to keep crates in circulation; and a fleet of new electric delivery vehicles in Europe.

Mr. Hornby concedes that not every gallery or collector will be willing to wait for weeks — rather than hours — for art to be delivered. “There is certainly the aspect of ‘immediate gratification’,” he said. But, he said, the new system “offers sufficient amounts of information, data and reliability to help clients shift to a more climate-conscious mind-set.”

Although complex in design and execution, operational shifts such as moving to sea freight from airfreight, are relatively straightforward.

“They’re the low-hanging fruit,” said Luise Faurschou, the founder and director of ART 2030, a Copenhagen-based nonprofit that partners with individual artists and arts organizations to advance the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Equally key — yet harder to implement — are efforts to increase sustainability in the ways art is produced, distributed and ultimately experienced.

Rather than constantly mounting resource-intensive exhibitions, for instance, “museums can choose to extend exhibitions longer or feature more works from their own collections,” said Ms. Faurschou, whose organization helps develop large-scale art projects with political messages such as “Breathe With Me” by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein in Central Park, an interactive installation which debuted during the 2019 U.N. General Assembly to support climate action and the U.N.’s Sustainable Climate Goals.

“Sure, this requires planning,” Ms. Faurschou said, “but what’s ultimately required is a completely ‘new normal’.”

Part of this ‘new normal’ is playing out at global art fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze, which not only consume vast quantities of carbon-emitting fuels but offer opportunities to showcase sustainably minded practices to open-minded audiences.

In 2019, Ms. Siddall said, Frieze switched to a new type of fuel, Green D — made from vegetable oil waste — to power its London fair. The move, Ms. Siddall said, resulted in a 90 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to conventional fuels. Frieze fairs have also featured reusable carpets, tents and booth walls. At Art Basel, some 94.2 percent of “overall energy requirements are met by renewable energies,” an Art Basel spokesman said.

Still the greatest impact on sustainability, industry observers said, will ultimately come from the creators, collectors and viewers of art.

Individual leaders have already emerged: The Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, for instance, announced that his studio is doing away with nearly all airfreight and individual air travel in an effort to become carbon neutral within a decade. The artists Gary Hume and Tino Sehgal have also embraced a “no-fly-zone” approach to their practices.

Ultimately, the “greenest” form of art transport will be no transport at all, a model implemented during the coronavirus pandemic with the rise of virtual auctions and fairs.

Although the art world has returned to much of its peripatetic prepandemic ways, Daniel Birnbaum, the former director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and current director and curator of virtual- and augmented-reality arts organization Acute Art, said modest action can still make a major difference.

“What’s needed is a more ‘localized’ approach to art,” he said. “Focus on exhibitions or shows within your own city or nearby in the countryside. Because it’s really no longer necessary to fly a big piece of art halfway around the world just to appear at a cocktail party.”

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