There is no single solution to the issue of climate change. This is true for every industry working to solve problematic practices within its field. For the art world, the issues are dynamic and evolving as more galleries, museums, artists, shippers, and collectors change their thinking and accept the necessary shift to sustainability. There are bandaids to fix wasteful norms, there are small steps to reduce carbon output, there are countless opportunities to trim excessive practices, and all of these are part of a larger movement to combat the very real challenge of becoming more sustainable. The artworld is unique in that there are few regulatory systems or boards that limit its environmental impact. Traditionally, public scrutiny has been the arbiter of what is considered acceptable and what is wasteful. Institutions avoid decisions that could be deemed excessive to avoid negative press. However, in the past few years, the professionals within the art industry itself have begun to take a stand, often volunteering their time and using their vast knowledge of how the art world works in order to change the industry. What has developed is an extensive web of organizations, resources, think-tanks, and initiatives that are working together on their local problems in order to collaborate on breaking down larger issues around the world.
There are many ways to fix the wasteful norms of the art world, and no one path is better than another. The challenges that face a museum are different from those facing an individual artist. Moreover, every change, every shift, requires someone to work through the problems of the status quo, find solutions, and implement them. The web of collectives and individuals committed to making the art world sustainable is diverse in its approaches and ranges from major museums to emerging artists. Some aim to solve their own internal issues and act as role models, while others set out to share resources and ideas to help support a comprehensive, holistic change within the industry as a whole. What is important is that all of these individuals and organizations are moving towards a common goal of sustainability.
Environmental awareness and action needs to be part of our daily practice. Contemporary artists visualize and anticipate the world that we live in, and we as a contemporary museum will support their work and activities in regards to sustainability.
Klaus Biesenbach, director, MOCA.
On the museum front, The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles has emerged as a leader in the push for sustainability with a newly-formed Environmental Council. Weaving together culture and the environment, MOCA’s council presents a positive case study in how museums can use their position as spaces of education and creativity to inspire new ideas and change. While formation of the council began in 2018 after Klaus Biesenbach became director, the group was formally announced in October of 2020. The council will support MOCA in a comprehensive shift to sustainability ranging from the operating of the museum itself to its exhibitions and public messaging. Carbon-free energy and carbon negativity will support the sustainability of the museum, and a commitment to exhibitions supporting climate and environmental justice and education will solidify the cultural institution’s position as a leader in environmentalism while also providing a venue for the public to explore these important topics. Biesenbach stated, “Environmental awareness and action needs to be part of our daily practice. Contemporary artists visualize and anticipate the world that we live in, and we as a contemporary museum will support their work and activities in regards to sustainability.”
The process of becoming more sustainable is slow and unique to each institution. New museums and museums undergoing renovations have the opportunity to build sustainable practices into their infrastructure, but most institutions have to adapt and change their existing framework. This applies to the buildings themselves, as well as to the mission and ethos of the institutions. This challenge is shared amongst all art world organizations, those as reputable and well-equipped as MOCA, as well as smaller and emerging institutions, practitioners, and artists. The purpose of the MOCA Council is nodal, for it to galvanize support among other institutions large and small in making similar shifts. Co-founded by David Johnson and Haley Mellin; the council includes notable ties to other local and international museums through Council members such as Aileen Getty, Agnes Gund, and Sheikha Al-Mayassa. The onus of becoming sustainable is shared, but the appearance of this endeavor is as variable as the art world itself. While MOCA can provide an example for museums and cultural institutions, there are several resources, think tanks, and non-profit organizations that offer ways to make small changes, as well as tips to create a path for a holistic approach to sustainability.
One such group is Amsterdam-based Ki Culture, a global-thinking non-profit that believes that cultural institutions are uniquely positioned to impact society to become more sustainable. Ki Culture acknowledges the desire and drives that these institutions have to become sustainable, and recognizes that it is difficult to know where to start. Ki Culture founder, Caitlin Southwick, explained that she started the non-profit from her own experience as an environmentally-conscious conservator who wanted to imbue greener practices into her job: “Sustainability was a topic that many people wanted to engage with and know more about, but it remained an intangible concept – something for the future, but for us, now, out of reach… I wanted to be more environmentally responsible in my job, but I didn’t know how. I was looking for resources, help, support – anything that could answer my questions on what I could do to make my daily practice greener. I couldn’t find anything, so I started something.” The non-profit helps support this mission by providing resources such as exhibition-planning, support for public education, and action plans for institutions to make concrete changes within their organization.
Ki Culture also hosts workshops and has even created a program called Ki Futures to help cultural groups from private practitioners to large organizations implement sustainability plans. At the core of the program are Ki Books, how-to guides that essentially act as succinct, straightforward manuals on various sustainability topics including Waste and Materials, Social Sustainability, and Energy (to be released on January 25). Southwick worked with sustainability experts and cultural professionals to create simple, understandable guides tailored for the cultural industry. The Ki Futures program uses these guides to help professionals achieve their goal of becoming more sustainable. The program also includes other resources such as sustainability consultants (Ki Coaches), PR kits, and a network of other professionals working towards the same goal. In addition to serving as a curriculum for Ki Futures, the books are available to download for free on Ki Culture’s website for anyone interested in making their own green decisions.
Similar initiatives to Ki Culture include the France-based Sustainable Art Market that works with professionals to make their practices sustainable and London-based Julie’s Bicycle, which hosts climate conversations, sustainability courses, and even holds an annual Creative Green Awards to honor outstanding climate initiatives in the creative community. Similarly, Artists & Climate Change is a blog and network that promotes the work of artists addressing the climate crisis. The online platform also shares lists of university courses and programs on the intersection of climate and culture, as well as information on dozens of other cultural groups engaging with issues of sustainability. The Gallery Climate Coalition in London and Galleries Commit in New York bring together gallery professionals to workshop paths towards sustainability, and the Centre for Sustainable Practices in the Arts is an international think tank that shares resources on sustainability and showcases projects promoting climate-conscious art practices.
While these groups help create holistic plans for sustainability, as well as solutions for long-term implementation of those plans, other resources have emerged that support smaller steps to cut widespread waste. One such resource is the newly-formed sharing tool BARDER.art. Much like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, BARDER.art provides a platform for art world professionals to post items to be sold, traded, or given away for free. Similar to the origins of Ki Culture, Jae Cho, founder of BARDER.art, explained that the platform began as a solution to problems within the industry: “In every position I had in the art world, I needed to procure objects that I knew others had and were willing to part with. I needed to offload objects that I knew others could use… I imagined a solution in which we draw circles around communities with similar needs and generate pools of resources… It was only later, while I was working on its construction, that I realized what I was building in concept was an industry-specific, digital commons. A space online in which a community, in this case, the art world, can contribute to a collective inventory for sharing physical resources. I would like for useable objects to continue its life-cycle through other users, thereby, reducing waste, saving costs for some and valuable space for others.”
BARDER.art is currently under development, but users from anywhere in the world can sign up now to contribute to the platform. Cho explained, “One of the strengths of the application is its simplicity. In essence, the core features can be broken down to form-filling and form-searching. This means that anyone in the world can use it as long as their location is a valid entry in the registration form. In other words, the tool itself does not need to adapt to new locations.” As long as there are resources to share, BARDER.art can be used to share them.
While initiatives like BARDER.art and Ki Culture help to transform institutional and personal practices and cut waste, a rich network of conferences and programs has also emerged as another way to promote sustainability in the art world. Providing public venues for idea-sharing and problem-solving, conferences and digital programs offer important insight into current and ongoing issues, as well as how people are working to address them. On the gallery front, London’s Serpentine Galleries has launched a multi-year, interdisciplinary program to support artist projects that address the environmental crisis. The initiative called Back to Earth, began in April of 2020 and includes both physical and virtual projects and campaigns. Included in the program are works and campaigns by Olafur Eliasson, Judy Chicago and Swoon in partnership with Jane Fonda, and Carolina Caycedo, among others. Similarly, Art Expo Chicago will present a digital, three-day long program focusing on art and sustainability on their newly launched microsite. The program, Alternate Assembly: Environmental Impact in the Era of Pandemic, will include panels and films addressing the role of contemporary art in environmental discourse within the Covid-19 pandemic, and will take place January 21-23.
Also promoting sustainable practices in the arts, Art/Switch is a non-profit started in the fall of 2019 that acts as a think tank and resource-sharing group. Part of their plan to support this initiative was the launching of an annual conference series, which began in October with a virtual conference on institutional sustainability, and will continue in January and March with discussions on “Reshaping Exhibition Practices” and “Sustainable Logistics and Conservation”. The January conference will take place on the 29th.
Art and large-scale conservation are both about legacy and what we leave behind for future generations. Both represent time – an artwork represents a moment in time, whereas a conserved location is the visual of all time compounded.
Haley Mellin, founder, Art into Acres.
Another important way that artists and galleries have woven sustainability into their operations is through land conservation. Increasingly, galleries and museums have become aware of the impact that their operations have on the environment. As a result, organizations have taken to reviewing and reducing their carbon output in an effort to cut unnecessary emissions. They have also focused efforts on land conservation as a way to support the long-term health and biodiversity of the planet. One initiative assisting artists, collectors, and institutions in these efforts to conserve land is the non-profit, Art into Acres. Founded by artist Haley Mellin, Art into Acres has worked with 47 artists and collectors to date to turn artworks into large-scale land conservation support wherein one artwork conserves one location. Through the donation of works, as well as through direct collaborations, Art into Acres has conserved over 20 million acres of land, focusing on globally recognized areas that are carbon-rich, have high biodiversity, are of indigenous import, and are old-growth forests. The non-profit works with conservation partners and oversees conservation due diligence, audits, and location reviews and arranges matching project funds. Alongside artists, the initiative has engaged a range of institutions in their climate-based conservation efforts, including Parker Gallery, Los Angeles, the Guggenheim, New York, MOCA Toronto, and the MCA Chicago. Mellin says, “Art and large-scale conservation are both about legacy and what we leave behind for future generations. Both represent time – an artwork represents a moment in time, whereas a conserved location is the visual of all time compounded. High biodiversity and living carbon ecosystems are critical to conserving the climate and for global wellbeing. I appreciate conserving land on behalf of fellow artists and the art community.”
The importance of sustainability is not a new topic by any means, but the urgency of the issue has taken a desperate shift in the last four years with the monumental changes undertaken by the Trump Administration. During his time as president, Donald Trump initiated the rolling back of over 100 environmental regulations, undoing years of progress and pushing the climate crisis to a new level. Globally, Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement slowed international progress and marked a dark moment in the fight against climate change. As is clear in many sectors of American society, we are at a significant moment of change with the incoming Biden Administration.
For the art world, climate-conscious councils, resource-sharing platforms, and groups dedicated to learning and promoting sustainable practices are all part of a much larger network working towards a better future. The diversity of approaches to sustainability is a testament to the diversity of activities and institutions within the art industry itself. This diversity and the incredible steps people and organizations are taking to reduce their impact on the environment and adopt sustainable practices is promising. There is no one right answer or right path when it comes to sustainability, just as there is no one right answer or right path to creating, preserving, and engaging with culture. What is important is that all of these groups, resources, think tanks, and institutions are working towards a common goal: a greener, enduring, and sustainable future.
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Writer, Cultbytes Annabel Keenan is a New York-based art advisor and freelance writer. While her art career began in the museum world, she has shifted to fine art sales, first as an assistant at Gagosian, and then as an associate at the legendary printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.. As an advisor, Annabel specializes in prints and multiples, and aims to make the process of collecting art more accessible. She has held positions at the Broad Museum, the Morgan Library and Museum, the American Academy in Rome, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She holds a B.A. in Art and Architectural History from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.