In the aftermath of Cop26 in Glasgow, as global leaders and lobby groups wrestle for strategies and workable outcomes in the face of the climate crisis, the art world is also galvanising for change. The art business has many things to reckon with and the question remains, how do we translate ideas into action?
“I think there is a lot happening that is really tackling systemic challenges that have become more and more visible, especially with the pandemic,” says Markus Reymann, director of TBA21–Academy. The academy is an environmentally focused organisation founded in 2011 as an offshoot of collector Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza's Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation. It focuses particularly on the ocean, regularly organising research projects, artist collaborations and more, and has a physical outpost in Venice.
Reymann, who in his role is well versed in the climate crisis, believes that we are at a pivotal point of understanding the global impact of the crisis, which could make all the difference in picking up the pace when it comes to taking action. But the question is, he says, “how do we unplug ourselves? Because so much of the art world is constantly consuming.”
According to research conducted by the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), a member organisation aimed at bringing about a more sustainable art sector, creating change in the way the art world contributes to the climate crisis is tied into the three main ways it produces carbon: flights, shipping and buildings. This means a green energy supply is a key element of change.
Spanish green energy company Iberdrola is not only the world’s number one producer of wind power, supplying 100 million people, but also a leading corporate art collector.
“Our collection aims to define us,” says the collection’s director Rafael Orbegozo.” As Iberdrola produces electricity in a sustainable manner using renewable natural resources with the most innovative technologies, the themes of the artworks we collect are light, nature and human ingenuity.”
Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, of Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, uses only green energy supplied by Asja, a renewable energy company founded by her husband. The collector has also worked to increase awareness through her exhibition programme and other activities on site, recently planting 3,000 trees at the foundation in Turin.
“Artists reflect the problems, raise questions and create and encourage important discourse”
“The trees we planted help to consolidate the terrain and create safe exhibition paths,” Re Rebaudengo explains. “Within the next 20 years, they will capture 200 tons of CO2 from the air.”
Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also supports artists who convey green messages and have ecologically conscious practices – she cites Tony Cragg, whose work frequently explores the relationship between nature and mankind, and Olafur Eliasson, whose environment-focused installations have included bringing 30 icebergs from Greenland to melt outside Tate Modern, as examples.
Lots of artists today are sensitive to environmental issues such as ecological sustainability and climate change,” she says. “These concerns are not manifested through an attempt to give unequivocal answers or to propose definitive solutions but instead artists reflect the problems, raise questions and create and encourage important discourse.”
Private collectors and facilitators have a lot of power. Sibylle Rochat of the Rochat Art Consultancy and one half of Concrete Projects, which funds art production and exhibitions, is currently realising a work by Kapwani Kiwanga for Palais de Tokyo that uses all recycled and repurposed materials. London-based Rochat shops local when it comes to her own collection, is making changes to reduce her carbon footprint and is currently focused on packaging and shipping.
“I encourage clients to consider alternative ways to ship their works. We wait for consolidated shipments, avoid dedicated trucks and encourage sea freight,” she explains. “I am always looking for sustainable packing materials and shippers that use them. Recently I discovered reusable spongy bags that are launching later this year, a good way to pack works for domestic shipping.”
Of course, larger organisations play an essential role and Sotheby’s, a member of the GCC, is devoting time and effort into becoming greener. This year it has set up an internal committee that will oversee a global audit of the business, with plans that already include drastically reducing the number of print catalogues produced by 85%. What's more, with in-house printing now closed, most print now runs through Woodland Trust-accredited printers, and Sotheby's are also changing all lighting to LED, as well as cutting back on travel of both people and objects.
“It’s about everyone playing their individual parts, but also on us to educate our clients and educate the art world around what’s possible, coordinating with other entities around what we can do collectively to make a difference, and to change the common practices that have been hurting the environment for so long,” says Catherine Almonte, global head of diversity, inclusion and community engagement at Sotheby’s.
Gallerist Kate MacGarry, speaking on behalf of the GCC, recommends its online carbon calculator, which is free and simple to use and will highlight exactly where you need to cut emissions either as a large organisation or as a private individual.
“It's about where you put your [money] and I do believe that small businesses and big businesses and individuals have the opportunity to make a difference,” she explains.
As we come towards the end of a year that has seen an unprecedented rise in flooding and wildfires around the world, it is clearly time for urgent and decisive action on every level from the heights of government to the choices we make on the weekly shop. We are counting our carbon, asking for green choices with our purchases and cutting back on the movement of goods and people. For Reymann it’s now about action over words.
“It often feels so impossible, but I think that is really a crisis of imagination. It’s a question of how we unify.”
Cover image: Aerial installation view of The Soul Expanding Ocean # 1: Taloi Havini, featuring Havini's Answer to the Call, 2021, held at and commissioned by TBA21–Academy, and co-produced with Schmidt Ocean Institute. Photo: gerdastudio