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The Art Industry Is Grappling With How to Shrink Its Carbon Footprint. But Will

The Art Industry Is Grappling With How to Shrink Its Carbon Footprint. But Will

12 December 2019

Despite the art world’s self-image as a socially conscious avant-garde, its structure is becoming increasingly untenable. Jet-setting from fair to fair is an obvious polluter (and the private jet travel preferred by collectors is by far the most polluting), but the shipping of artworks, which tends to be done by truck and air freight, is also a major culprit. Dietl International, a prominent shipping company, will generate 1,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide due to its shipment to Miami this year alone. For comparison, the average US car emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide… in a year.

With this reality increasingly impossible to ignore, many in the art world are trying to make changes to the way they do business. Some artists are offering compelling work on themes dealing with the climate; galleries are trying to trim their waste and reuse where they can afford to; Art Basel Miami Beach will hold a symposium on how to respond to challenge climate-change denial this coming Saturday. Many members of the art industry have become vocal about the wastefulness woven into the very fabric of doing business in art. But where, exactly, are the collectors in our current wave of ecological awareness?

A reciprocal relationship exists between those who buy art and those who supply it. Greener alternatives are needed—but the art industry can’t always afford to make changes until collectors demand them.

A look inside of one of Dietl International’s warehouses

Who Cares?

Up until now, there has not been any serious overhaul of the way galleries and art fairs—or even artists, save for a few—are delivering messages to collectors about sustainability.

“From a communications perspective, we know that people are motivated when they feel an issue and related action connects to and supports their identity and value system,” Christine Larivière, a climate change communications specialist, tells me. “Many economists—and others—believe climate action could be accelerated once the right financial incentives are put in place.”

However superficial transformation at the consumer level may be in the battle against climate change, rapidly changing customer choices offer some some modest good news: Single-use plastics have become intolerable to today’s vanguard and short-haul flights have become positively uncool. But, at the top end, shifting awareness and tastes is more than a matter of a few dollars.

“Buying art is expensive. When you first start collecting, it’s shocking just how expensive it is, in terms of shipping, insurance, and storage,” says Lisa Schiff, an art advisor who has been vocal about climate change. As one example of a proactive approach, I ask what she thinks about carbon neutralizing costs being tacked onto gallery invoices. She says that to work, such added fees would need to be buried in the price rather than presented as an additional cost. 

“I know plenty of collectors who are huge environmentalists and who are changing the world, but when they’re buying art, that’s just not where he or she may be putting their energy,” Schiff says. She stresses that, in her mind, the onus is on galleries, the suppliers, rather than on collectors, their consumers.


12 December 2019
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