Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the art world was just beginning to come to terms with yet another global existential crisis—the climate emergency. Between packing and shipping artworks, the amount of resources required to produce art fairs and events, and the jet-setting habits of collectors, art dealers, and curators, the in-person art world has become notorious for its outsized carbon footprint and waste production.
This year, despite a dip in emissions caused by the lack of travel forced by the pandemic, the United Nations reported that global warming remains steadily on track to increase by 3°C in the next century. Drastic change is critical. In the arts, central players in driving this push toward sustainability are collectors.
“There is no doubt that climate consciousness needs to be on everyone’s mind in the art world, even if it is hard to uphold when it comes to the fast pace of the field,” said Julia Stoschek, collector and founder of eponymous institutions in Berlin and Düsseldorf. “Temporary exhibitions, fairs, shipping, and travel are not very resourceful. If there’s one thing we learned during this pandemic, it is that we can all fly a lot less.”
While this past year has put certain wasteful habits into perspective, the art world still has a long way to go when it comes to reducing its environmental impact. Here, we unpack what collectors can do to push forward a climate-conscious agenda in the art market.
Harness your purchase power
One of the most effective ways collectors can advocate for a more environmentally friendly industry is to screen whether the gallery, museum, or artist they’re looking to do business with is part of a leading climate solutions group. In recent years, collaborative initiatives such as the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), Art to Zero, and the climate board at MOCA Los Angeles have gained significant momentum, bringing together players from throughout the industry to find actionable solutions, both big and small.
The London- and Berlin-based organization GCC boasts a steadily growing membership that includes galleries, artists, and, most recently, auction houses—Christie’s joined the group this past March. GCC members commit to getting carbon estimates and audits from the organization and to reducing their carbon footprints by 50 percent over the next 10 years.
Christie’s doubled down on this commitment, pledging to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, actioning change across all areas of the business from shipping and business travel to energy consumption and waste.
This bold move by one of the world’s leading auction houses speaks to the fact that if collectors say that the climate matters to them, the industry follows suit.
Stay informed of best practices
Being aware of sustainable options allows collectors to make informed decisions and suggestions when dealing with artists, galleries, auction houses, or museums. Something as simple as asking that local artwork deliveries be made via an electric or hybrid vehicle, or be compensated for via carbon offsets, sends a message. By seeking out and learning about institutions with substantial climate crisis–mitigating credentials, collectors can help move the needle and put pressure on those art world players whose efforts toward sustainability are lagging.
Collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also suggests collecting and supporting climate-conscious artists as a way to invest in proactive change. Through her collection and eponymous Turin-based museum and foundation, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo has established a longstanding commitment to the environment. The institution has run on green energy since 1995 and has been able to offset the entirety of its carbon footprint. Additionally, in 2008, the museum dedicated a year’s worth of programming to environmental concerns. It continues to work with artists who deal with climate change and sustainability in their work, and this focus is an intrinsic part of the museum’s program.
“Collecting artists who care about these urgent issues is the first step to promoting and spreading private and public awareness,” Sandretto Re Rebaudengo said. “Investing in cultural initiatives that are thematically, structurally, and methodologically working on these issues generates new spaces for the public to drive change.”
Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also recommended working from the ground up by reconsidering habits and investments and initiating new ways of doing things. “Even small gestures can make the difference,” she said.
Amplifying the conversation
Many high-profile collectors have a platform and an audience, and they can keep the conversation around climate change going. Born out of Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza’s TBA21 collection in Vienna, TBA21-Academy is a contemporary arts organization whose mission is to create awareness around the preservation of the world’s oceans.
For co-founder Markus Reymann, while the uptick in environmental concern is encouraging, he remains cautious. “I’m not 100 percent sure that these hopes will manifest in the ways that people have imagined,” he warned. “We saw what was possible with the strict travel ban and the standstill in industrial production
, but when considering pollution, it was only a tiny dip in terms of carbon emissions.”
Still, Reymann sees this as an opportunity to continue to advocate for decisive action when it comes to art and climate change. “Many people are full of hope that this is a turning point in our relationship to the environment, the constant level of consumption, and the challenges this extractive mode forces onto the planet,” he said.
As environmentalism and sustainability become increasingly en vogue, it is critical that collectors stay vigilant in their advocacy and commit to creating these changes, even if they are sometimes inconvenient. “Environmental consciousness should not just be a trend,” said Sandretto Re Rebuadengo. Building an international collecting community that’s passionate, informed, and vocal is a critical step in creating lasting, effective change for the better.