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‘Galleries Commit’ Envisions a Greener Future for the New York Art Scene

‘Galleries Commit’ Envisions a Greener Future for the New York Art Scene

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Harold Ancart David Zwirner

Climate change is an existential crisis to which every industry has had to respond. Mitigating the impact of an industry on the climate and committing to sustainable practices has become a hot topic for politicians and industry leaders alike. Without exhibitions to view in person or art fairs to send entire gallery staffs to attend, Covid-19 has allowed the art industry the time to reflect on which practices are necessary to be successful and which are wasteful. While these moments of self-reflection had been happening before the pandemic, initiatives promoting sustainable art practices are gaining traction worldwide. In New York, a group of galleries, artists, and allies, such as advisors and art handlers, have signed a commitment to a climate-conscious future. The initiative, called Galleries Commit, seeks to evaluate common gallery practices, share resources on being more sustainable, and hold each other accountable by publicly signing the pledge.

What began as a letter circulated amongst New York City galleries and first released on Earth Day 2020, Galleries Commit has grown into a larger network of resource-sharing. While focused on New York-based galleries and artists, the initiative also welcomes allies, including art handlers, advisors, and gallery staff not located in New York. A noteworthy characteristic of Galleries Commit is that, rather than the institutions, individual staff members, regardless of their position within a gallery, are able to sign the pledge. Group organizers explained this decision: “Galleries Commit has been a worker-led initiative from the start, so it was always core to our values to make a commitment and build a community that individuals could be a part of regardless of their workplace’s official stance. The three core tenets of the actual commitment reflect the power the individual has: thinking critically about how we can shift our own practices, speaking up about climate-conscious alternatives to normalize that conversation in our spaces, and publicly identifying ourselves as allies to help form a community. An individual signing who leads a gallery has a certain kind of power, but an assistant, art handler, archivist, or director at that gallery also has a certain kind of power. We wanted to be able to invite and activate all of those when building this community.” Several gallery staff members, including multiple staff from the same galleries, such as David Zwirner, Gladstone, Hauser & Wirth, and James Cohan, have signed the commitment to change their practices. Both emerging and established artists, like Marilyn Minter, Tauba Auerbach, Eddie Martinez, and Jordan Wolfson, have also signed the pledge.

When Covid-19 hit and it became clear that committing to any exhibition in 2020 was a question mark, we shifted to building a community of individual allies that could advocate for paradigm shifts within our sector instead of simply returning to the “normal” of before.

-Galleries Commit

The break-in normal life as a result of Covid-19 has been a driving factor for many industries to take a step back and reevaluate what the status quo should look like as businesses begin to reopen. For Galleries Commit, the pandemic allowed the group to think about the larger picture of how galleries function. The group explained: “Our first conversations happened prior to the Covid-19 shutdown, and were originally focused around asking galleries to commit to a single carbon neutral exhibition in their 2020 exhibition calendar as a case study for exploring climate-conscious exhibition possibilities. When Covid-19 hit and it became clear that committing to any exhibition in 2020 was a question mark, we shifted to building a community of individual allies that could advocate for paradigm shifts within our sector instead of simply returning to the “normal” of before.” The pandemic provided an opportunity to reflect on ongoing discussions on sustainability, as well as new issues that have chipped away previous improvements, such as increased use of paper goods and single-use plastic.

A collective, shared standard of sustainable practices has long been needed in the art world. While architecture has standards for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, and other industries have regulations, the art world is often left to self-regulate. A cursory look into common practices in the gallery sector reveals areas in need of improvement throughout the industry. From shipping, packing, and exhibiting artworks, to flying sales staff around the world, there are many common practices that are inherently wasteful. Part of the reason for this lack of scrutiny is the level of privacy many activities of the art world require. Private sales involve artworks being shipped around the world for in-person viewings, sometimes even speculative installations. Crates are constructed, shipped, and mostly destroyed due to lack of storage or lack of foresight. Packing materials are seldom reused, partly for the need for customization.

Harold Ancart at David Zwirner
Installation view “Harold Ancart: Traveling Light,” a carbon-neutral exhibition at David Zwirner. Image courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Galleries Commit seeks to highlight these wasteful practices and others through roundtable discussions and sharing of resources. Many members of the group work for galleries that already have committees dedicated to sustainable practices, including David Zwirner and Marianne Boesky Gallery. At the latter, gallery staff founded the“Green Initiative Committee” in 2019 after participating in the Global Climate Strike which marked the first gallery-collective statement supporting staff member concerns about waste and sustainability in the industry. Director Mary Mitsch explained: “My colleague, Kai Patricio, and I took leadership of the group that began simply as roundtable discussions about changes we wished to see in the gallery, as well as in the art world at large. Marianne has been incredibly supportive so we have felt empowered to bring radical ideas to the gallery’s operations.” On joining Galleries Commit, Mitsch added, “This past summer, we were excited to learn about Galleries Commit, as its multi-lateral approach and community-building practices mirrored what we want for Boesky’s Green Initiative Committee.” Galleries Commit also shared other actions that members have taken to promote sustainability, including David Zwirner’s audit and carbon offset (31.54 tons of COE2) of their recent Harold Ancart exhibition.

Community building is a large part of Galleries Commit’s dedication to promoting widespread, sustainable changes. To share resources and information on their current sustainable practices, Galleries Commit created an optional survey for signers of the letter. Questions included how their gallery or organization approaches sustainability now, where additional support is needed, resources to address climate change, and ideas to improve and encourage sustainable practices. The results of this survey were shared in a public Google spreadsheet. In response to the call for ideas or actions that can be taken to address climate issues, one anonymous responder noted that the shift to online viewing as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns has chipped away at the importance of art fairs. They wrote: “Collectively, I believe we can find a way to cut back on the waste generated by art fairs. I believe the idea that art fairs are a ‘necessary evil’ is a dubious claim at best. The turn to online viewing for art fairs during Covid-19 proves this point.”

Issues around art fairs came up often in the survey responses. Packing, shipping, installation, and travel associated with fairs was noted as having a major impact on the carbon footprint of a gallery. Responses to how to address the issue of art fairs varied. Some advocated for reduced participation in art fairs, such as Boesky Gallery, while others suggested focusing on local art fairs, arranging shared shipments with other galleries, and limiting staff travel. Another commonly referenced action point was for galleries and individual staff, in particular those in sales positions, to offset their carbon footprint by donating to organizations combating climate change. Shipping company Dietl makes such a practice easy by providing free carbon footprint and offset estimates for their clients.

Galleries Commit also aims to work through issues of racism, sexism, and inequality in the art world, stating that “the climate crisis intersects with racial, economic, labor, and other forms of structural injustices in both its root causes and direct effects, and we particularly welcome actions, ideas, and resources that reflect that intersectionality.” In addition to monetary donations to offset their carbon footprint, some who signed the letter suggested donating their time and experience through paid internships and mentorship programs for underserved communities. Another action point raised was to commit 1% of all artwork sale profits to support justice initiatives.

Members also shared positive steps their galleries are already taking to promote justice and sustainability, such as Marianne Boesky Gallery, whose “Green Initiative Committee” has undertaken a program to shift their purchasing needs to BIPOC and women-owned vendors and businesses. In a commendable act of transparency, Boesky Gallery has added a pledge to social and environmental justice practices on their website.

Olafur Eliasson's art work Ice Watch
Olafur Eliasson, “Ice Watch,” 2014, installed outside Tate Modern, London in 2018. Photo courtesy Studio Olafur Eliasson.

Criticism of the art world’s carbon footprint and commitments to being more sustainable are not new, but it is the collective nature of Galleries Commit that signals a shift to a potentially more widespread, long-lasting change. Outside of galleries, individual institutions, especially publicly funded museums, often address environmental issues in their programming and messaging. In 2018, the Tate Modern, for example, hosted the outdoor installation of Olafur Eliasson’s “Ice Watch,” a group of twenty-four ice blocks that had become detached from an ice sheet in Greenland. The blocks were placed outside of the museum for visitors to watch the ice melt. The museum reported that the average energy cost to bring each of the twenty-four blocks to London was equivalent to flying one person from London to the Arctic and back to see the melting firsthand. To address the carbon cost of the installation, Eliasson made a donation to the Woodland Trust to offset the cost and then some.

While this public display of activism was in the form of a specific installation, institutions, in general, have also taken steps towards a greener existence. Museums like the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian have hosted climate change discussions, and institutions often boast major accolades like having sustainable and LEED certified buildings. In turn, groups like the American Alliance of Museums have created incentives to promote sustainability, including the Sustainability Excellence Awards that began in 2014 to celebrate those museums whose facilities, programming, and exhibitions promote sustainable practices.

Taipei Biennial brochure
“You And I Don’t Live On The Same Planet,” Exhibition Program for the 2020 Taipei Biennial.

The existence of sustainability awards and climate-focused programming in museums is an undeniably positive aspect of the art world. While there is room to grow, the steps museums are taking to publicly acknowledge their impact on the climate provide concrete evidence that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. This issue has even been amplified in the current Taipei Biennial, which opened in November and is focused entirely on climate change. For the galleries’ part, reflecting on the changes being made on the museum side of the art industry can help inform their own activities. Moreover, as clients, museums can push galleries to adopt sustainable practices. The idea of a client-driven demand for sustainability was also mentioned in Galleries Commit’s survey. How exactly this relationship would evolve is difficult to say, but part of the onus of groups like Galleries Commit is to work through these issues for change over time.

While Galleries Commit is a New York-centric group, their goals are shared throughout the international art community. In London, a similar initiative called The Gallery Climate Coalition was created this year as a non-profit collective whose mission is to reduce the carbon footprint of the art world by 50% over the next decade. While originally imagined as a day-long conference, the importance of the cause, the complexity of the issues involved, and the restrictions caused by Covid-19 led to a shift to a more formal, long-term organization. The Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) website officially launched in October and offers a free carbon footprint calculator and resources for galleries to reduce their climate impact and connect with other parties committed to the cause. While London-based, the GCC stresses the importance of a global commitment to fight climate change and includes a link to other initiatives with which they collaborate, including Galleries Commit. Other similar art-related climate groups include Art/Switch (New York/Amsterdam), Julie’s Bicycle (London), Art to Zero, Art to Acres, Ki Culture (Amsterdam), and the newly-formed resource sharing platform

Transparency in their practices is a driving factor for Galleries Commit and is further promoted through the inclusion of individual gallery staff and not just the institution names as signers of the letter. The group explained the importance of this autonomy: “It’s [Galleries Commit] a self-governing group that aims to support individuals who want to challenge what has become the status quo. Anyone willing to do that is courageous and should be encouraged. Even if it takes some of us a while to figure out how we can truly take on the power we each have to make change, or if it means we have to grow our capacity for action over time, we want to encourage experimentation and even failure so that we can collectively learn and uplevel as quickly as possible.”

There is no doubt that the art world needs to address its contribution to climate change and take concrete steps to mitigate its carbon footprint. Wasteful practices like shipping art around the world for viewings need to stop altogether. Flying teams of sales staff to art fairs and openings just to flex one’s blue-chip muscles can no longer be seen as a sign of the gallery’s power, but rather as evidence of their unwavering egos and lack of ability to trust local teams. Initiatives like Galleries Commit and Global Climate Coalition are promising. One of the most commonly mentioned ideas to improve current gallery practices that was noted in Galleries Commit’s survey was the importance of sharing—sharing resources within a gallery and sharing amongst galleries themselves. The sharing of information is a necessary step to creating a standard upon which galleries can judge themselves and hold each other accountable. The obvious, necessary factor for all of this to work is actual commitment from the galleries that are publicly adding their names to these lists and missives. With the pervasive lack of transparency in the art world, in particular at the blue-chip level, it will come down to the galleries themselves to act on their commitments to sustainability.

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