A New Era of Environmental Awareness in the Arts

A New Era of Environmental Awareness in the Arts

The art world has started in earnest to embrace matters green, but it is a real challenge to make our famously profligate sector change its ways. Louisa Buck reveals the movers and shakers making it happen.
The art world has started in earnest to embrace matters green, but it is a real challenge to make our famously profligate sector change its ways. Louisa Buck reveals the movers and shakers making it happen.


A woman in a dark dress and blue shoes posing for a portrait
The collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo plans an eco-powerhouse on the Venetian island of San Giacomo. Photo: Getty Images/Daniele Venturelli

Major patrons are increasingly redirecting their funds towards the planet, perhaps realising that flashy consumption is not a good look. Over on the protected island of Porquerolles, part of the French national park of Port-Cros, the Carmignac Foundation’s art-filled villa and gardens have been run since 2018 by Charles Carmginac in a nature reserve that is subject to strict environmental controls: smoking is prohibited, visitor numbers are restricted and those who do arrive on the car-free island are encouraged to walk barefoot around the grounds to inspect works by Huma Bhaba, Jeppe Hein, Ugo Rondinone and Ed Ruscha. There is also an organic vineyard and a locally sourced organic restaurant.

Carmignac follows collectors such as Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, who in 2011 founded the TBA21 Academy as an itinerant research centre in which artists and scientists collaborate to foster “a deeper relationship to the ocean through the lens of art to inspire care and action”.

Meanwhile the environmentally savvy Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo has run her eponymous Turin-based foundation and art collection on green energy since 1995 and has a long history of supporting work that deals with the climate. “Collecting artists who care about these urgent issues is the first step to promoting and spreading private and public awareness,” she says.

“Gavin Turk now incorporates rubbish and recycling into almost all his works”

Earlier this year, Re Rebaudengo unveiled ambitious plans to work with renewable energy company Asja Ambiente to turn the remote Venetian island of San Giacomo into what she describes as “a laboratory for ecological reflection and sustainability” and a location for art projects and discussions on contemporary culture. This eco-powerhouse is scheduled to open in 2024 and sets an important precedent for future collector spaces to include sustainability at early planning stages. As Re Rebaudengo stresses, “environmental consciousness should be part of everything we do, not be a trend”.


A piece of art featuring a black bin bag
Gavin Turk, Refuse, 2012. Courtesy: Gavin Turk

Long at the forefront of eco-awareness, artists and their actions are already having an impact. “I wanted to deploy my sculptures as agents for change,” says Fiona Banner, who in November 2020 deposited one of her giant granite full stops outside the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in protest at illegal fishing in marine-protected waters. She loaded two more onto a Greenpeace boat, which were dropped into Dogger Bank in the North Sea to help obstruct bottom-trawling fishing boats destroying the delicate ocean bed. This April, the UK government made a legally binding commitment to protect the area from deep trawling.

Irish artist Richard Mosse unveiled a new work highlighting deforestation of the Amazon at the National Gallery of Melbourne this year – just before Brazil’s presidential elections. Shown on a 20m widescreen panorama, the work intercut satellite footage with closeups on the rainforest “biome”, as he put it, “to represent something that’s ineffable, which is climate change”.

Many are taking practical steps: Pipilotti Rist’s 2021-22 survey show at MOCA Los Angeles was, on her instigation, the museum’s first net zero exhibition, sourcing local recycled material, shipping works by sea and even serving a climate-conscious menu at the opening dinner. Gary Hume stipulates that all his work is shipped by boat, reducing its carbon footprint by more than 90%, and Tino Seghal and Gavin Turk are also passionate opponents of unnecessary air travel. Turk now incorporates waste and recycling into almost all of his works, using studio offcuts and found rubbish. “I think the future is environmental awareness,” he says.

Museums & Foundations

Public institutions have a crucial role to play and UK museums have been trailblazers: in 2008, then-Tate director Nicholas Serota delivered a paper to the Bizot Group of international gallery directors offering environmentally friendly guidelines for controlling museum conditions (an estimated 90% of museum emissions derive from climate control systems). Tate went on to declare a Climate Emergency in 2019 and has since nailed its colours to the mast with a comprehensive Environmental Policy for 2021–23. It is well on the way to reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2023 and reaching net zero by 2030. “We are going to have to adapt to major changes as climate breakdown impacts,” says Tate Modern director Frances Morris, as she drives “a period of urgent self-reflection and challenging of our conventions, our values and our systems”.

An installation view of an art exhibition
The first net zero exhibition at MOCA Los Angeles, Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor, 2021–22. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, photo by Zak Kelle

In 2020, MOCA Los Angeles became the first major US art museum to create an Environmental Council; earlier this year, Guggenheim Bilbao was the first in Spain to measure its carbon footprint and publish a comprehensive sustainability plan.

The construction of a thermal envelope of high-efficiency glass at the Pittsburgh Glass Center is among the US-wide projects supported by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s $10 million Frankenthaler Climate Initiative. Inaugurated in 2021, it offers grants to art schools, non-collecting institutions and museums for projects that reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions – a cold storage vault for the Museum of Modern Art in New York is also included.

Commercial Galleries & Auction Houses

A group of people standing on the grass.
The co-founding group of Gallery Climate Coalition in London. Photo: Gallery Climate Coalition

The art market is beginning to match the public sector on its environmental uptake. Just before the pandemic, London-based gallerists Thomas Dane, Sadie Coles, Kate MacGarry and Greg Hilty banded together with other art-worlders including myself to form the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC). Now an international charity, it spans commercial galleries, institutions, artists, art organisations and auction houses. Members pledge to achieve zero waste and reduce their emissions by at least 50% by 2030 in line with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Some galleries have made significant headway: Thomas Dane has cut international art fair attendance and Kate MacGarry only participates in events that she and her works can reach by land or sea.

The GCC has just launched a greenwash-proof “Active Membership” designation. “We wouldn’t be doing our job as a lobbying group and environmental charity if we weren’t encouraging and incentivising people to take effective action,” says GCC director Heath Lowndes. Sotheby’s has signed up to GCC and, along with Christie’s, is on track to achieving Active Membership. To work towards decarbonising its activities, Sotheby’s has appointed a Global Sustainability Committee and waste-focused measures include a 95% reduction in printed catalogues to a reusable crate scheme pilot.

“Frieze wages war on waste by shredding and recycling its carpets”

Recognising how social and environmental reform intersect, the newly launched Sotheby’s Impact programme also aims to open up career opportunities in the art world for historically excluded communities, and support environmental initiatives. “Sustainability has been a major focus at Sotheby’s for some time,” says Catherine Almonte, Sotheby’s head of equity and impact. “Over the past year that focal point has only increased.

Biennials & Art Fairs

As events that involve jetting gallerists, collectors, journalists – and art – across the globe, these are inevitably among the art world’s biggest generators of carbon. While many display works that address the climate emergency, far fewer appear to be putting their own systems in order. One exception is the Helsinki Biennial, which launched in 2021 with a core pledge to be carbon neutral by 2035. “We must transform the culture around art exhibitions so that environmental issues are not just an add-on,” said the inaugural director Maija Tanninen-Mattila as she unveiled the first edition on the ecologically unique island, Vallisaari. The 2023 biennial will appoint an environmental coordinator and use a bespoke carbon calculator to track emissions, including on visitor travel.

An installation view at a commercial art fair
A visitor views a work by Gerrit Frohne-Brinkmann at Galerie Noah Klink’s booth, Frieze London 2022. Photo: Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Frieze and Linda Nylind

Art fairs are notoriously resource-hungry. Frieze has the longest track record for eco-awareness, partnering with the Mayor of London and the environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle in 2010 to publish the Green Visual Arts guide to sustainability in the sector. That year it began using biofuel to power its fairs. In 2022, Frieze London moved to a 100% hybrid power model, replacing generators with less polluting batteries and stipulating proven green credentials for all contractors. It also wages war on waste by reusing all gallery walls and shredding and recycling all carpets after each event.

The entire wall system for Art Basel in Switzerland, Miami, Paris and Hong Kong is similarly reused and shipped to each location by train or boat, and the fair conglomerate annually calculates its carbon footprint across all four Art Basel venues. As former global director Marc Spiegler says: “Sustainability is an urgent issue for art fairs and the art world at large.”

Cover image: Jaume Plensa, Les trois Alchimistes, 2018 at the Carmignac Foundation, a nature reserve and art destination. Photo: © Adagp, Paris, 2021, Camille Moirenc

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