There will be no avoiding the most urgent issue of the 21st century, the climate emergency, at this year’s Frieze London. The Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), an international charity determined to facilitate a greener and more sustainable art world, will occupy a stand at the fair, bringing a climate-conscious agenda to the 276-dealer event.
The move is timely. Matthew Slotover, the co-founder of the Frieze fair and GCC advocate, told The Art Newspaper last year that the “climate emergency is the biggest issue of our times—it should be on the front page of every newspaper every day”. The GCC’s presence also brings into sharp focus whether galleries are going greener for the post-pandemic return to big business.
The GCC was founded in October last year by gallerists and art professionals such as Thomas Dane, Sadie Coles, Kate MacGarry, Lisson Gallery’s curatorial director Greg Hilty, Frieze board director Victoria Siddall and The Art Newspaper’s contemporary art correspondent Louisa Buck. The London-based non-profit is voluntarily funded and open to everyone in the sector: galleries, art suppliers, art workers, institutions and artists.
The goal is for its members to collectively reduce their carbon emissions by at least 50% over the next decade, working towards zero waste. So far, more than 550 UK and international organisations and individuals have joined, ranging from the Australia Council for the Arts to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Gagosian Gallery.
The Frieze London stand is the first opportunity for the GCC to connect with members as the world edges towards a post-pandemic normality. A work by the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (Lignin Duress, 2014), and donated by his gallerist Maureen Paley, will be sold in aid of the charity, while advocacy organisations such as the London-based climate charity Julie’s Bicycle and ClientEarth will conduct presentations and meetings on the stand. “We’ll use this opportunity to engage with as many people as possible about sector-specific environmental issues, giving full access to our resources,” says Heath Lowndes, GCC’s managing director.
One of the GCC’s “jewels in the crown”, Lowndes says, is an online carbon calculator developed by Artlogic that offers members a free and effective way to audit their consumption, which is a GCC commitment. “Other calculators are much less user-friendly, but this can be used with relative ease,” Lowndes says. “It’s really the starting point for the whole journey; it’s a lightbulb moment when people complete the report and realise their impact.” Returning carbon reports will, he says, become as commonplace as filing tax returns.
Siddall is evangelical about the GCC’s mission. “The will is there to achieve the shared goal, and GCC’s role is to give everyone the resources and information to do this,” she says.
In 2019, Frieze London’s carbon footprint was audited by Hope Solutions. The fair had reduced its emissions considerably in a year, recording 88.1 tonnes of CO2, compared with 207 tonnes in 2018. The audit credited Frieze’s decision to use a new fuel made from waste vegetable oil, Green D+, which reduced carbon emissions by over 60%.
But the audit did not account for the footprint of Frieze visitors or exhibitors, nor the carbon costs of transporting the works to the fair. And this, overwhelmingly, is where art’s climate costs accrue.
“We’re trying to unpack the reasons why people travel and redefine what essential travel is”
The Art of Zero, a report by Julie’s Bicycle, published in April 2021 but based on 2019 figures, estimated that the art world’s global carbon footprint was around 70 million tonnes CO2e per annum. To make up for this—to become carbon neutral—the global art world would have to plant 22 million hectares of unbroken forest.
This mostly comes down to travel—both of people and of art. An estimated 26% (18 million tonnes of CO2e) of the art world’s footprint comes from the upkeep of buildings, the shipment of art and the executive travel of industry professionals. That is equivalent to six million hectares of unbroken forest.
It remains to be seen whether fairs and galleries will make the necessary material changes—by switching from air to sea freight, for instance, or cutting back on the number of art fairs and subsequent flights—as trade reawakens.
“Travel is a huge hurdle,” Lowndes says. “We’re trying to unpack the reasons why people travel and redefine what essential travel is. There may be an expectation from a client or artist to be present, for instance, but we’re collecting data and talking to members to find ways of tightening this up. The transatlantic two-day trip should soon be a thing of the past, hopefully.” Dealers are increasingly turning to train travel; MacGarry says she recently decided to take the train to Art Basel where she shared a stand with The Approach gallery, thereby reducing the number of staff in transit.
“We need to identify modes of transport that are less carbon intensive; not everyone needs to fly from New York to Boston, the train works just as well,” says Tom Woolston, Christie’s global head of operations. Christie’s is also participating with the GCC on a working group focused on sea freight, trialling new routes from London to both New York and Hong Kong. “We can leverage our buying power to raise standards in the logistics supply chain,” Woolston adds.
The auction house has been proactive in implementing a carbon reduction strategy, announcing in March a pledge to commit to the Science Based Targets initiative, which will help achieve the 1.5°C warming trajectory required to avoid dangerous climate change. In collaboration with GCC, the auction house has also launched Artists for ClientEarth, which will see the inclusion of key lots in seven sales taking place over the coming year. The aim is to raise between $5m and $10m for the environmental charity ClientEarth.
Christie’s environmental impact report released in July shows a 50% reduction in total carbon emissions in 2020 compared to 2019. “We expect our emissions to now rise but we’ve had the opportunity to identify those things during the pandemic that made a difference and build on them,” Woolston says. Sotheby’s is also acting on plans to hold a global audit for all of its locations; it plans to join the GCC, a spokeswoman says.
Covid-19 looms large, prompting debate about whether the pandemic will derail the progress made by some of the sector. “There have been temporary backlogs at ports, pushing up sea freight charges,” Lowndes says.
Solutions and ideas are also emerging, focused on collaboration and “thinking locally”. There may be a shift in art fairs, which could become more local affairs, Lowndes suggests.
Many sector figures say digital has also transformed the landscape, switching in-person meetings for virtual encounters. But digital technology is coming under increasing scrutiny for its potential to generate significant GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, according to The Art of Zero. “Every newsletter carries a carbon cost; a lot of people don’t know that digital marketing is not entirely carbon neutral,” adds Lisa Panting, a GCC member and co-founder of Hollybush Gardens gallery in London.
So is the art world finally realising the gravity of the situation? Alison Tickell, the director of Julie’s Bicycle, says that the “collective psyche” has shifted in the art world with institutions such as White Cube, Tate, The Whitworth in Manchester and Serpentine Galleries taking action and engaging with their communities on sustainability issues.
Catherine Bottrill, the co-author of The Art of Zero, agrees that Tate and some art fair leaders “are starting to have a bigger conversation” about the climate crisis but more needs to be done. “Key operators and curators need to be part of the conversation. The first step is understanding your carbon footprint,” she says. Lowndes sums it up: “We have to act; we don’t have time to be complacent,” he says.
• The Art Newspaper is a member of the Gallery Climate Coalition