Green is the New Black might seem like a rather facetious title for a column that deals with how the art world is responding to our collective climate and environmental emergency. But I am also aware that after decades of globetrotting, private jet hopping and conspicuous consumption, the art world’s recent embrace of green issues, while undoubtedly positive, must also be regarded with a clear eye and an occasionally raised eyebrow.
Amid the current plethora of environmental-themed exhibits and initiatives, the aim of this column is to focus on what and who actually makes a tangible difference, rather than just making noise. They can be artists, associations or individuals. If our sector wants to play its part in avoiding the climate and ecological crisis, we need actions rather than gestures. The motivations will always be mixed (this column is sponsored by a shipping company after all), but the genuine results and how they are achieved is what I will focus on.
Let’s see where we are so far. In the United Kingdom, public institutions have been the pioneers in taking account of the environment. As early as 2008, then-Tate director Nicholas Serota delivered a paper to the Bizot group of international gallery directors proposing eco-friendly guidelines for controlling the environmental conditions of museums. Encouraged by Culture Declares, an initiative founded by artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, the Tate then declared a climate emergency in 2019 and has since nailed its environmental colors to the mast by issuing a Complete environmental policy for 2021-3. Today, Tate is on track to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions in all its buildings by 50% by 2023 and reaching net zero emissions by 2030.
In 2012, Arts Council England (ACE) became the first cultural body in the world to include environmental and results reporting in its long-term funding agreements with arts organisations. Now, ACE insists that all organizations in its portfolio submit their carbon data and have environmental action plans as a condition of funding. Beyond the UK, other proactive institutions include the Guggenheim, which in 2020 launched a sustainability leadership team to implement environmentally friendly practices across all of its operations. This year, the Guggenheim Bilbao was the first museum in Spain to measure its carbon emissions and publish a comprehensive sustainability plan for all of its programs and activities.
And now, finally, the commercial sector is starting to catch up. The Gallery Climate Coalition was launched in London in October 2020 by a voluntary group of gallerists and art professionals – myself included – to develop what we saw as a long-awaited response to the growing climate and ecological crisis. of our debauched and polluting industry. Today, the GCC is a registered international charity with over 800 members covering all aspects of the art world, from large commercial galleries to small artist-run spaces, public museums and galleries; and auction houses for artists and individuals. In addition to GCC London, there are now volunteer teams operating in Berlin as well as Italy and Los Angeles, with New York in the works and offers to form teams in Spain, Brazil and Japan.
The primary objective of the GCC is to provide the tools and remedies needed to facilitate a greener and more sustainable art world and specifically to reduce the sector’s carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030, in accordance with the Paris Agreement. And to achieve zero waste. All GCC members must commit to this 50% carbon reduction in their own operations, as well as addressing waste issues. To do this, the GCC website offers an industry-specific carbon calculator as well as up-to-date guidance on a range of issues such as shipping, travel, building management, packaging, recycling, clearing and NFTs. The focus is always on quantifiable action, with members encouraged to publish their results. Many have already done so, from Thomas Dane in London to Jan Mot in Brussels and Hauser & Wirth in fourteen locations around the world. The goal is for everyone to calculate and act on their carbon emissions and waste in the same way they currently monitor their finances.
There are no winners or losers in a climate emergency, ultimately it affects us all. To this end, the GCC has partnered with an international coalition of visual arts organizations under the umbrella title of PACT (Partners on Art and Climate Targets), all of which are committed to supporting and accelerating the adoption of the climate action, albeit through several different routes.
Other art market organizations have also recently begun to step up to the environmental plate. These include Christie’s, which last year announced a global sustainability initiative and was the first auction house to commit to becoming net zero by 2030. The publication of annual reports from sustainability signals a willingness by Christie’s to come under scrutiny, and I hope they will also take an active role in promoting cleaner minting of the notoriously power-hungry NFTs that are an increasingly large part view of their activity.
The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a new collegiality within a notoriously competitive industry and hopefully this will continue once the art world returns fully to business. This encouraging trend to unite rather than divide has already manifested itself in a number of environmental initiatives. Last year Christie’s partnered with the GCC to launch the Artists for ClientEarth auction series which has so far raised £5.5million for environmental charity ClientEarth, featuring Cecily Brown, Antony Gormley , Xie Nanxing and Rashid Johnson and their respective galleries: Thomas Dane, White Cube and Hauser & Wirth donate works for marquee sales at their various sites.
To reduce the notoriously high emissions generated by airfreight, as well as a savvy nod to soaring airfreight costs, Christie’s has also partnered with art shippers Crozier to launch a new route monthly ferry service between London and New York, as well as a fortnightly ferry service between London and Hong Kong. Each shipment offers Christies 60% of the container space, with the remainder going to consolidated Crozier customer shipments, and it remains to be seen whether this action has a wider impact among shippers and insurers.
It should be noted that much of the current conversation about shipping by sea rather than by air was sparked by artist Gary Hume who, in 2019, while curating an exhibition in New York, commissioned a report on the impact of shipping the work from his studio. to London by sea rather than by air. This revealed that the carbon footprint was 96% lower than working by air and was considerably less expensive. Hume now stipulates that his work is always shipped by sea. This is just one of the ways – as diverse as art itself – in which significant numbers of artists are increasingly emerging as formidable powerhouses in the face of the climate and ecological emergency, and these efforts should be further highlighted.
Now that biennials, art fairs and international travel are back, the need to balance pressing environmental concerns with navigating the practical realities of the different operating models of arts businesses and institutions – not to mention the artistic creation itself – poses considerable challenges throughout our sector. Here I will explore how the art world, its infrastructure, and the artists themselves are dealing with these challenges. Time is running out now, so let’s take a look at who really rings up the changes.