Green is the New Black might seem a rather facetious title for a column that covers how the art world is responding to our collective climate and environmental emergency. But I am also aware that, after decades of globe-trotting, private jet-hopping and conspicuous consumption, the art world’s recent embracing of matters green, while undoubtedly a positive, should also be viewed with a clear eye and a sometimes raised eyebrow.
Amid the current plethora of environmentally-themed exhibitions and initiatives, the aim of this column is to zero-in on what and who are actually making a tangible difference, rather than simply making a noise. These can be artists, organisations, or individuals. If our sector is going to play its part in averting the climate and ecological crisis, then actions rather than gestures are needed. Motives are always going to be mixed (this column is sponsored by a shipping company after all) but the genuine outcomes and how they are being achieved are what I will be focusing on.
Let’s look at where we are at so far. In the UK the public institutions have been the trail-blazers in consideration of the environment. As early as 2008 the then-Tate director Nicholas Serota delivered a paper to the Bizot Group of international gallery directors offering environmentally friendly guidelines for controlling museum environmental conditions. Encouraged by Culture Declares, an initiative founded by artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, Tate then declared a Climate Emergency in 2019 and has since nailed its environmental colors to the mast by publishing a comprehensive Environmental Policy for 2021-3. Now Tate is well on the way to its target reduction of carbon emissions across all its buildings by 50% by 2023 and achieving net zero emissions by 2030.
In 2012, Arts Council England (ACE) became the first cultural body in the world to include environmental reporting and actionable outcomes in its long-term funding agreements with arts organisations. Now ACE insists that all its portfolio organizations submit their carbon data and have environmental action plans as a condition for funding. Beyond the UK, other proactive institutions include the Guggenheim, which in 2020 launched a Sustainability Leadership Team to implement environmentally friendly practices across all of its operations. This year Guggenheim Bilbao was the first museum in Spain to measure its carbon emissions and to publish a comprehensive sustainability plan across all its programs and activities.
And now at last the commercial sector is starting to catch up. The Gallery Climate Coalition was launched in London in October 2020 by a voluntary group of gallerists and art professionals—including myself—to develop what we saw as a long overdue response to the growing climate and ecological crisis by our profligate, polluting industry. Now the GCC is an international registered charity with more than 800 members encompassing all aspects of the art world from big name commercial galleries, to small artist-run spaces, public museums and galleries; and from auction houses to artists and private individuals. As well as GCC London there are now volunteer teams operating in Berlin as well as across Italy and in Los Angeles, with New York in the pipeline and offers to form teams in Spain, Brazil and Japan.