Words by Jennifer Hahn
The art world has historically underestimated its own footprint. But as the industry looks ahead to the new year, it has finally reached a critical mass of collective action.
While international leaders were gathered in Paris for COP21, signing the most significant global climate agreement to date, 12 blocks of glacial ice were melting away into millennia-old droplets, wetting the cobblestones of the city’s Place du Panthéon.
Fished from a fjord in Greenland, they formed part of a 2015 installation by artist Olafur Eliasson, designed to turn the abstract problem of global warming into a tangible reality.
A carbon report commissioned by Eliasson determined that this display generated around 33 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions, largely from shipping the ice blocks over in six refrigerated containers as well as from flying his team from Berlin to Paris.
The artist has grappled with climate change since the start of his career in the 90s, but conducting this sort of audit for a piece and making it publicly available was a first. And it was almost unheard of in the art world as a whole, despite the fact that the sector emits more CO2 every year than the entire country of Austria—77 million tons to be exact.
The art world emits more CO2 every year than the entire country of Austria—77 million tons to be exact.
That’s perhaps because art has historically underestimated its own footprint due to the fact that, unlike architecture or design, it does not primarily trade in physical realities but in ideas and concepts, which by their nature are carbon neutral.
“I think art organisations probably thought that their impact was minimal and to a degree, I think a lot still don’t realize what their impact is,” argues Christos Carras, executive director of the Onassis Stegi cultural center in Athens. “Culture is not immaterial, culture has a production process and we have to sit down and see what can be done about it.” Onassis Stegi has been quietly and independently working at this task for a number of years alongside a number of public institutions such as the Tate in England.
But now, five COPs and one dire IPCC warning later, the industry has finally reached a critical mass of collective action. “In the last year, the movement has really accelerated a lot,” says Sebastian Behmann, who is head of design at Studio Olafur Eliasson. “There’s a knowledge that things simply cannot continue as they have.”
As a result, galleries around the world have organized into environmental collectives, from Art/Switch in Amsterdam to Galleries Commit in New York and the Gallery Climate Coalition, a charity which was launched as a consortium of 14 London galleries in October 2020.
Since then, the nonprofit has expanded rapidly, uniting more than 600 galleries, art fairs, and shippers across 20 countries and six continents behind the goal to halve their emissions by 2030—in line with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.
“Compared to industries such as agriculture and construction, the art sector is a relatively small part of the problem,” says GCC’s managing director Heath Lowndes. “But it has a disproportionate amount of influence for its size and can inspire the required shifts at a much bigger level. So we’re trying to get our own house in order.”
Since you can’t manage what you can’t measure, this starts with crunching the numbers on where exactly these emissions are coming from.
So far, most of this has happened in isolation, from Olafur Eliasson calculating his studio’s carbon footprint via DIY spreadsheets for the last two years, to American artist Allison Janae Hamilton working to track and offset all of her emissions after putting on Marianne Boesky Gallery’s first carbon-neutral exhibition in March 2021.
But GCC has developed a free carbon calculator to make this kind of tracking more accessible and more common across the industry. The tool was originally created in collaboration with environmental scientist Danny Chivers based on audits conducted for two of GCC’s founding members—London-based Kate McGarry and Thomas Dane Gallery. But since then, it has been used by everyone from Hauser & Wirth to Nottingham Contemporary.
The results show that flying people and artworks around the globe accounts for the vast majority of an art organisation’s footprint—around 50 and 40 per cent respectively—while the remainder is largely down to the electricity needed to power its buildings.
The results show that flying people and artworks around the globe accounts for the vast majority of an art organisation’s footprint.
“A midsized gallery has six to eight exhibitions a year,” Lowndes explains. “There’s a huge amount of travel associated with that from studio visits to going to art fairs or having meetings with clients, as well as transporting the artwork itself.”
Since sustainable aviation fuels are nascent at best—and at worst endanger food security and biodiversity through their use of biomass—the most immediate solution to this is simply cutting back on plane travel. Kate McGarry has vowed to only attend art fairs that she can reach via rail, while artist Tino Sehgal, who bans photographs during his performances, strives to leave behind no footprint from either his work or his travel.
“He’s been doing low-carbon travel for decades,” Lowndes explains. “He takes the train across the world and gets on freight ships to avoid flying.”
British artist Gary Hume has set similar precedents when it comes to transporting artwork, asking Matthew Marks to send all 31 paintings and sculptures for his 2019 exhibition at the gallery from London to New York via ship. This simple switch reduced the carbon footprint from transport by 95% compared to sending them by plane.
Studio Olafur Eliasson halved the number of flights taken by the team in the year before the pandemic and now sets out a strict no-fly policy with all of its clients. “We put this in our contracts when we do art commissions,” Behmann explained. “We say we are not going to fly unless there’s no other way of doing it.” For one of the studio’s recent exhibitions, all of the artworks were transported from Berlin to Tokyo by train (plus a quick ferry in the middle) and the team organized the setup entirely via video calls instead of flying out to Japan.
The electricity piece of the puzzle is generally the easiest to solve. We’re talking entry-level stuff like switching to a green energy supplier, trading halogen lighting for LED or in the case of the Frieze art fair running its generators on biodiesel, which effectively cut emissions by 60%.
Of course, not all grids are created equal. “Until recently, there hasn’t been an option for a 100% renewable energy provider in Greece,” explains Carras, who coordinates Onassis Stegi’s sustainability program. So, the cultural centre installed solar water heating panels on its roof in 2018 to cut energy use and emissions.
And then, of course, there’s all the waste produced by shipping artworks across the world and displaying them in temporary exhibitions, as everything from bespoke crates to display plinths and bubble wrap is discarded almost immediately after use. Although these materials don’t contribute significantly to an organization’s carbon footprint, they end up polluting the environment in other ways.
To avert this, Onassis Stegi has set up its own inhouse Recycle Lab to reuse elements such as plywood, glass vitrines, and metal frameworks from bygone exhibitions, while networks such as Barder in New York and the Circular Art Network in Scotland allow galleries to exchange display elements they no longer need to prevent them from ending up in landfill.
Last year, Mexican architecture studio Lanza Atelier even furnished an entire exhibition in Manhattan’s Storefront for Art and Architecture gallery with demountable tables and stools that visitors could take home at the end of the show.
“We’ve gone back to some quite old-fashioned methods, so blankets and straps. We just don’t throw anything away now.”
Abandoning single-use plastic packaging is slightly trickier. While a growing number of foods and products now come wrapped in biobased alternatives made from plants, these kinds of materials are designed expressly for their degradability, making them ill-suited to longterm art storage and conservation.
“If an artwork is sold from a studio, it could potentially stay in the crate for years,” sustainable conservation specialist Kim Kraczon explained during the GCC Conference in November. “And putting an artwork that’s very valuable in crates with cornstarch foam, which can degrade after a year of absorbing moisture from the air, is not a possibility.”
That means galleries are turning instead to reusing and recycling tried and tested materials. “We’ve gone back to some quite old-fashioned methods, so blankets and straps,” Kate McGarry added. “We just don’t throw anything away now. We keep the packaging for every artwork.”
Others are building entire circular packaging systems, with UK startup Rokbox allowing its lightweight, recyclable crates to be rented from fine art shippers across the world while Artseco in Berlin is encouraging clients to donate their used crates in return for a voucher for their next shipment.
All of these steps equate to what Lowndes describes as “tier one” changes. “At the moment, we’re still very much in that very early change your light bulbs to LEDs stage,” he explained.
While this will allow the art world to halve its emission by 2030, he believes more fundamental systems change will need to happen to go beyond that towards true decarbonization.
“That’s when we start getting into really interesting questions of sustainability on a bigger scale,” he explained. “We’ve got to start thinking about how things are programmed, what is commissioned and the materials that are used in artwork production, which is the tier above.”
For galleries, this could mean only shipping in artworks for one exhibition a year and sourcing the rest locally. And for Studio Olafur Eliasson, which is aiming to become carbon neutral over the next 10 years, this will mean ditching carbon-intensive materials. “I don’t think now’s the time to continue making hundreds of tons of steel sculptures that are shipped around the world,” Behmann says.
“These items have huge, disproportionate amounts of CO2 emissions compared to other similar materials that could be used as an alternative,” Lowndes agrees. “Naturally we’re going to see a shift in the content and the materials within artworks, and a move away from materialism. Finding out what that looks like is what artists will be doing in the next decades.”