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Art World Aims for Sustainability as Climate Change Continues

Last month, a man disguised as an elderly woman in a wheelchair brutally smeared cream cake on Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work, the Mona Lisa. The painting, which hangs in the Louvre in Paris, is shielded behind bulletproof glass and unharmed. Still, the world — and visitors to the Louvre — wondered why anyone would attack one of the most iconic (and valuable) works of art ever?

When the culprit who smeared the cake was led away by the Louvre guards (and later arrested and… placed in psychiatric care), he attributed a message to his vandalism: “Remember the Earth,” he said. “There are people who are destroying the earth. Think about it… all artists, think of the earth – this is why I did this. Think of the planet.”

Although it caused no lasting damage, the attack on the Louvre dramatically exposed the relationship between art, the art industry and the environment.

Compared to much larger “culture industries” such as fashion and entertainment, the role of the art world in environmental issues such as climate change is relatively modest. But in this lucrative and rarefied realm, galleries, auction houses, exchanges, collectors, institutions and artists are increasingly committed to more sustainable business practices to combat global warming. The topic was one of the topics covered by speakers at the recent Art for tomorrow conference convened in Athens in conjunction 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 provides guidelines for art institutions to become more sustainable. “We have the ability to set standards for environmental responsibility with the potential to influence and reach a large audience.”

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

The timing of this rising environmental awareness is: fit. This year, for the first time ever, issues related to sustainability were under the spotlight top 10 make for “High Net-Worth Collectors” who were surveyed as part of the annual Art Basel/UBS Art Market Report.

For example, 70 percent of collectors now think of ‘sustainability options’ when purchasing art or managing their collections; 64 percent are concerned about reducing their personal travel to art-related events and 68 percent are open to using more environmentally conscious delivery methods when shipping artwork.

Although the art world is dominated by high-profile institutions like the Louvre, the art world is actually mostly made up 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 is one of the speakers. at the conference.

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

The coalition is working to bridge this gap, particularly through digital tools such as the “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 it.”

In addition to travel, the transportation of art – from galleries to art fairs, art fairs to collections, collections to museums – is a major contributor to industry emissions, especially air transport. According to the coalition, shipping art by air – which remains an industry standard – results in up to 10 times the environmental impact of land transport and 60 times the impact of shipping.

Despite the climate benefits, convincing both art producers and consumers to forgo air transport – and its obvious speed benefits – has been a challenge.

“Art is a luxury and customer service expectations have always come with it,” said Mr. Lownds. And even with exhibition and art event calendars planned years — if not ten years — in advance, industry logistical considerations remain surprisingly last-minute.

But supply chain issues — and associated cost spikes up to 10 times prepandemic levels for air freight — have eroded the appeal of air travel and opened the mind to sea transport. Open them further is a new collaboration between Christie’s auction house and the fine arts logistics company Crozier. The two companies have launched a monthly ocean freight service between London and New York and a bimonthly service between London and Hong Kong.

“The program will reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent compared to air travel,” said Tom Woolston, Christie’s Global Head of Operations.

To entice consumers, Crozier is developing a fleet of steel and aluminum shipping containers with temperature controllers, humidity and shock monitors and specialized cooling systems specifically designed to protect works of art.

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

Christie’s has pledged to fill 60 percent of each container to ensure the viability of the pilot program. The rest is available to any Crozier customer interested in shipping by sea, including small-scale art 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, company-wide sustainability campaign 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 crates in circulation; and a fleet of new electric vans in Europe.

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

Although the design and execution are complex, operational shifts, such as the switch from air freight to sea freight, are relatively simple.

“They are the low-hanging fruit,” said Luise Faurschou, the founder and director of ART 2030a Copenhagen-based non-profit that works with individual artists and art organizations to make progress the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development† Equally important – but more difficult to implement – are efforts to increase the sustainability of the way art is produced, distributed and ultimately experienced.

Rather than constantly putting on labor-intensive exhibitions, “museums may choose to extend exhibitions or show more works from their own collections,” says 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 at the 2019 UN General Assembly in support of climate action and the UN Sustainable Climate Goals.

“Of course this requires planning,” said Ms Faurschou, “but what is ultimately needed is a completely ‘new normal’.”

Part of this ‘new normal’ is happening at global art fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, which not only consume massive amounts of carbon-emitting fuels, but also provide opportunities to showcase sustainable thinking practices to an open-minded audience.

In 2019, Ms. Siddall said: Frieze switched to a new type of fuel, Green D — made from vegetable oil waste — to power its London stock exchange. The move, Ms Siddall said, resulted in a 90 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to conventional fuels. Frieze fairs also featured reusable carpets, tents and stand walls. At Art Basel about 94.2 percent of the “total energy requirement” are absorbed by renewable energyan Art Basel spokesperson said:

Still, according to industry observers, the biggest impact on sustainability will ultimately come from the makers, collectors and viewers of art.

Individual leaders have already emerged: Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, for example, announced that his studio is phasing out almost all air freight and individual air travel in an effort to become carbon neutral within ten years. The artists Gary Hume and Tino Sehgal have also embraced 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 exchanges.

While the art world has returned to many of its peripatetic prepandemic ways, Daniel Birnbaum, the former director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and current director and curator of virtual and augmented-reality arts organization Acute artsaid modest 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 it is really no longer necessary to fly halfway around the world with a large work of art just to appear at a cocktail party.”

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