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Art World aims for sustainability as climate change continues

by YAR

Last month, a man disguised as an elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair brazenly spread cream cake 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 was unharmed. Still, the world, as well as visitors to the Louvre, wondered why would anyone attack one of the most iconic (and valuable) works of art ever painted?

As Louvre security guards whisked away the culprit of staining the cake (and later arrested him and placed him in psychiatric care), he attributed a message to his hooliganism: “Think of the Earth,” he said. “There are people who are destroying the Earth. Think about it… all you artists, think about Earth: that’s why I did this. Think of the planet.”

Although it did not cause permanent damage, the Louvre bombing dramatically brought to light 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 like climate change is relatively modest. But in this lucrative and rarefied arena, galleries, auction houses, fairs, collectors, institutions and artists themselves are increasingly committing to more sustainable business practices to help combat global warming. The topic was one of those addressed 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 doesn’t mean we shouldn’t 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 large 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 line with the Paris Climate Agreements.

The timing of this growing environmental awareness is prompt. This year, for the first time ever, sustainability issues were among the top 10 concerns of “high net worth collectors” who were surveyed as part of the annual Art Basel/UBS Art Market Report.

Some 70 percent of collectors, for example, now think about “sustainability choices” when buying art or managing their collections; 64% are concerned about reducing their personal travel to art-related events and 68% are willing to use more environmentally friendly delivery methods when shipping artwork.

Though dominated by high-profile 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, who was among the speakers at The conference.

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

The coalition is working to close this gap, in particular through 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, he 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, particularly air travel . In fact, shipping art by air, which remains an industry standard, generates 10 times the environmental impact of shipping by land and 60 times the impact of shipping by sea, according to the coalition.

Despite the climate benefits, it has been a challenge to convince art producers and consumers alike to opt out of air travel, and its obvious speed advantages.

“Art is a luxury item and customer service expectations have always come with that,” 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 problems, and accompanying cost increases of up to 10 times pre-pandemic levels for air travel, have affected the appeal of air travel and opened minds to shipping. Opening them up even further is a new partnership between auction house Christie’s and fine art logistics firm Crozier. The two companies have launched a monthly ocean freight service between London and New York and a bi-monthly service between London and Hong Kong.

“The scheme will cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared to air travel,” said Tom Woolston, Christie’s global chief operating officer.

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 works of art.

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

Christie’s has committed to filling 60 percent of each container to ensure the viability of the pilot program. The remainder is available to any Crozier customer interested in shipping by sea, including small-scale art companies committed to sustainability but unable to pay for the service themselves.

As with Christie’s, the new shipping plan is part of a broader company-wide sustainability drive 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 rental program to keep boxes in circulation; and a fleet of new electric delivery vehicles in Europe.

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

While the design and execution are complex, operational changes, such as moving from air freight to ocean freight, are relatively straightforward.

“They are low hanging fruit,” said Luise Faurschou, 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, though more difficult to implement, are efforts to increase sustainability in the ways art is produced, distributed, and ultimately experienced.

For example, rather than constantly mounting resource-intensive exhibits, “museums can choose to extend exhibits longer or feature more works from their own collections,” said Ms. Faurschou, whose organization helps develop art projects on a large scale with political messages like “Breathe With Me” by Danish artist Jeppe Hein in Central Park, an interactive installation that debuted during the 2019 UN General Assembly to support climate action and the UN Sustainable Climate Goals.

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

Part of this ‘new normal’ is playing out at global art fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, which not only consume large amounts of carbon-emitting fuels, but also offer opportunities to showcase sustainable-minded practices to open-minded audiences.

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

Still, the biggest impact on sustainability, industry watchers said, will ultimately come from art creators, collectors and viewers.

Individual leaders have already emerged: Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, for example, announced that his studio will eliminate almost all air cargo and individual air travel in an effort to become carbon neutral within a decade. Artists Gary Hume and Tino Sehgal have also taken a “no fly zone” approach to their practices.

Ultimately, the “greenest” form of art transportation will be no transportation 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 pre-pandemic peripatetic forms, Daniel Birnbaum, former director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and current director and curator of virtual and augmented reality art organization Acute Art, said the modest action can still make a big difference. .

“What is needed is a more ‘localized’ approach to art,” he said. “Focus on exhibits or shows within your own city or nearby in the countryside. Because you really don’t have to fly a great piece of art to the other side of the world just to show up at a cocktail party anymore.”

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