Last month, a man dressed as an elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair brazenly smeared pastry cream on Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work, the Mona Lisa. The painting, which hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris, is protected by bulletproof glass and remained unscathed. Yet the world – and visitors to the Louvre – wondered why anyone would tackle one of the most iconic (and precious) works of art ever painted?
As the culprit of the cake was taken away by Louvre security guards (and later arrested and placed in psychiatry), he attributed a message to his vandalism: “Think of the Earth,” he said. “There are people who are destroying the Earth. Think about it… all artists, think about the Earth — that’s why I did this. Think about the planet.
Although it did not cause any permanent damage, the Louvre attack dramatically highlighted the relationship between art, the art industry and the environment.
Compared to much larger “cultural industries” like fashion and entertainment, the art world’s role in environmental concerns such as climate change is relatively modest. But in this lucrative and rarefied field, galleries, auction houses, fairs, collectors, institutions and artists themselves are increasingly engaging in more sustainable business practices to help combat global warming. The subject was among those discussed by speakers during the recent The art of tomorrow conference in Athens organized in association with the New York Times.
“The art world may be relatively small, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be sustainable,” said Heath Lowndes, co-founder of the Climate Coalition Gallery, which offers guidelines for arts institutions to increase sustainability. “We have the opportunity to set standards of environmental responsibility with the potential to influence and reach a wide audience.”
Established just two years ago, the Gallery Climate Coalition now has over 800 art sector members committed to its mission to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030, in line with the Paris Accords on the climate.
The timing of this growing environmental awareness is timely. This year, for the very first time, sustainability issues were among the Top 10 Concerns of “High Net Worth Collectors” who were interviewed for the annual Art Basel/UBS Art Market Report.
Some 70% of collectors, for example, now think about “sustainability options” when buying artwork or managing their collections; 64% are concerned about reducing personal travel to art-related events and 68% are open to using more environmentally friendly delivery methods when shipping artwork.
Although dominated by top institutions like the Louvre, the art world is actually made up mostly of small businesses and galleries, said Victoria Siddall, former global director of the Frieze Art Fair and co-founder of the Global Climate. Coalition, which was among the speakers at the conference.
While they may regularly collaborate, these companies typically operate independently with few formalized “regulatory bodies, organizational tools or resources” to achieve sustainability, Ms Siddall said.
The coalition is working to close this gap, including through digital tools such as its “Carbon Calculator”, which helps members estimate their carbon footprint and calculate their greenhouse gas emission levels. Quantification of emissions is key, she added. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t reduce it.”
Along with travel, the transportation of art – from galleries to art fairs, from art fairs to collections, from collections to museums – is a key contributor to industry emissions, especially air travel. Indeed, shipping art by air – which remains an industry standard – has 10 times the environmental impact of ground transportation and 60 times the impact of shipping by sea, according to the coalition.
Despite the climate benefits, convincing both art producers and consumers to opt out of air travel – and its obvious speed benefits – has been difficult.
“Art is a luxury item and expectations for customer service have always accompanied it,” Mr. Lowndes said. And even with schedules of exhibitions and arts events planned years – even a decade – in advance, logistical considerations within the industry remain surprisingly last minute.
But the supply chain issues – and accompanying cost spikes of up to 10 times pre-pandemic levels for air freight – have shaken the appeal of air transport and opened minds to maritime transport. Open them more is a new partnership between auction house Christie’s and fine arts logistician Crozier. The two companies launched a monthly sea freight service between London and New York and a fortnightly service between London and Hong Kong.
“The program will reduce carbon emissions by 80% compared to air travel,” said Tom Woolston, global operations manager at Christie.
To appeal to 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 artworks.
Journeys between London and New York take around 20 days; 40 between London and Hong Kong, and Crozier will soon try out a New York-Hong Kong route. “These are our biggest routes,” Mr Woolston said.
Christie’s has committed to filling 60% of each container to ensure the viability of the pilot program. The rest is available to any Crozier customer interested in shipping, including small arts businesses 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 company-wide sustainability initiative at Crozier, said Simon Hornby, senior vice president and general manager of Crozier Europe. This strategy includes the development of recyclable packaging materials; a new leasing program to keep crates in circulation; and a fleet of new electric delivery vehicles in Europe.
Mr Hornby admits that not all galleries or collectors will be willing to wait weeks – rather than hours – for the art to be delivered. “There’s definitely the ‘immediate gratification’ aspect to it,” he said. But, he said, the new system “offers enough information, data and reliability to help customers adopt a more climate-conscious mindset.”
Although complex in design and execution, operational changes such as moving from air freight to sea freight are relatively straightforward.
“These are the fruits at hand,” said Luise Faurschou, founder and director of ART 2030a Copenhagen-based non-profit organization that partners with individual artists and arts organizations to advance the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Efforts to increase sustainability in the way art is produced, distributed, and ultimately experienced are equally essential – but more difficult to implement.
Rather than constantly mounting resource-intensive exhibitions, for example, “museums can choose to extend exhibitions longer or show 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 Danish artist Jeppe Hein in Central Park, an interactive installation that debuted during the 2019 United Nations General Assembly to support climate action and the UN Sustainable Climate Goals.
“Of course, this requires planning,” Ms. Faurschou said, “but what is ultimately needed is a whole ‘new normal’.”
Part of this “new normal” is taking place at global art fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze, which not only consume large amounts of carbon-emitting fuels, but also provide opportunities to showcase sustainable practices to an audience. open.
In 2019, Ms Siddall said: Frieze has switched to a new type of fuel, Green D – made from waste vegetable oil – to power its London fair. The move, Ms Siddall said, resulted in a 90% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to conventional fuels. Frieze fairs also featured reusable mats, tents and booth walls. At Art Basel, some 94.2% of the “overall energy needs are satisfied by renewable energies“, an Art Basel spokesperson said.
Also according to industry observers, the greatest impact on sustainability will ultimately come from creators, collectors and art viewers.
Individual leaders have already emerged: Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, for example, has announced that his studio is scrapping nearly all air freight and individual air travel in a bid to become carbon neutral within a decade. The artists Gary Hume and Tino Segal have also adopted a “no-fly zone” approach to their practices.
Ultimately, the “greenest” form of art transportation will not be transportation at all, a model implemented during the coronavirus pandemic with the rise of auctions and virtual fairs.
Although the art world has returned to much of its pre-pandemic traveling habits, Daniel Birnbaum, the former director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and current director and curator of the virtual and augmented reality arts organization acute artsaid a small action can still make a big difference.
“What’s needed is a more ‘localized’ approach to art,” he said. “Focus on exhibitions or shows in your own city or nearby in the countryside. Because you really don’t have to fly a great piece of art halfway around the world just to appear at a cocktail party anymore.