Art and Sustainability

Navigating the Complicated Relationship in Today's Market

These days, it's not uncommon to hear about environmental activists resorting to unconventional methods such as attacking, smearing with cream, or glueing themselves to works of art around the world. However, these expressions of frustration have often been met with anger, exasperation, and ridicule in the art world, which undermines the valuable call for sustainability. In this context, Theodore & C. takes a closer look at the art world's complicated relationship with environmental consciousness and sustainability.

The Louvre’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was smeared with cream pastry
by a man who implored the crowd to, “Think about the planet.”

While the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 saw the world's governments agreeing on a legally binding target to halve global emissions by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5°C, little progress has been made due to the absence of comprehensive and competent plans of action from governments across the world. In response, individual sectors of society have created their own sustainability guidelines. For a long time, the art world used the fact that larger "culture industries" such as fashion and entertainment had a more noticeable impact on environmental concerns as an excuse to avoid significant changes. However, in 2019 (just before the pandemic), the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report revealed that only 3% of art dealers considered reducing the carbon footprint of their operation, sustainability in art, and embracing new technologies as part of their five-year strategy. Instead, their top business priorities were attending art fairs, finding new clients, and building better relationships with collectors.

This attitude reflected an art market heavily dependent on unsustainable mechanisms, with a packed calendar of live auctions, art fairs, and exhibitions that were central to the exchange of information and sales. However, since the Covid pandemic, more galleries, auction houses, fairs, collectors, institutions, and artists have increasingly committed to more sustainable business practices to help combat global warming.

Art dealers’ priorities in 2019 according to the 2019 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report.

“The art world may be relatively small, but that does not mean we should not be sustainable,” said Heath Lowndes, co-founder of the Gallery Climate Coalition, an environmental non-profit 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 huge audiences.”

The GCC has identified travel and shipping as the primary fields in which the art world needs to introduce changes to promote sustainability. Air freight shipping of artworks, as well as consistent international travel, result in a significant carbon footprint that can be lowered by opting for road or sea freight. The GCC also offers guidelines on sustainable packaging, energy use, and managing physical and digital spaces.

Christie's, a prominent auction house, became a patron of GCC earlier this year and pledged to be carbon net-zero by 2030. Hauser & Wirth, a leading gallery, appointed a Global Head of Environmental Sustainability not long ago, demonstrating their commitment to becoming an art industry leader in environmental practices. It remains to be seen whether these efforts are genuine acts or marketing ploys. However, it is beyond doubt that galleries today must address environmental challenges and cannot survive if they stick to a business plan that belongs to an ignorant era.

A public artwork by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing
Ice watch, London

Immense blocks of ice, harvested as free-floating icebergs from a fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland, stood from 11 December 2018 in a grove of 24 blocks on Bankside, outside Tate Modern, and in a ring of 6 blocks in the City of London, outside Bloomberg’s European headquarters, until they melted away

As Mr. Lowndes pointed out, "Art is a luxury commodity, and customer service expectations have always come along with that." People's attitudes towards what their luxury should cost the planet and how open they are to change appear to be the biggest obstacle that sustainable approaches will encounter.