“Climate emergency” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ “word of the year” in 2019, a year in which the art world began, finally, to grapple with the extent of the issue. More than any other, 2020 will prove pivotal in terms of our response.
Last month, a closed-doors climate change meeting in New York—the city declared a climate emergency in June last year—was supported by museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Taking part was the group Culture Declares Emergency (CDE), which had organized a highly visible march through central London, prompting the Tate to join a growing list of supporters, along with Sadler’s Wells, Somerset House and the Akram Khan dance company.
More change is coming. Next month, Tate is launching “Climate Assembly: Tate”, a series of internal and public discussions, and the Serpentine Galleries has announced it will mark its 50th anniversary with a multi-year program, “Back to Earth”, focusing on the environment and ecology. Its artistic director and inveterate globetrotter Hans Ulrich Obrist recently announced his plans to “significantly reduce” his flying, saying “we are pledged to a new way of thinking and acting: ecology will be at the heart of everything we do”.
But what does that mean? Here are some of the key takeaways from a talk at The Arts Club in London in February, during which Lucia Pietroiusti (the Serpentine’s curator of general ecology), Maija Tanninen-Mattila (the director of the 2020 Helsinki Biennial), and Heather Ackroyd (artist and activist, and one of the founders of CDE) gathered to discuss the sustainability of the art world.
1. The challenges are structural—for the art world too
Whether or not capitalism is the cause of—or the solution to—climate change remains a hot debate. In her 2015 book This Changes Everything, Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein blamed the climate emergency on “deregulated capitalism”. Meanwhile, the right-wing UK think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, unsurprisingly disagrees, arguing that market levers such as hefty carbon taxes would be more effective.
Either way, to make meaningful change, action has to be taken by transnational and national policy-makers. Four countries and economic blocs—China, the United States, the European Union and India—accounted for more than 50% of the 36.1bn tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, according to specialist researcher Carbon Brief.
But there is growing discussion about the degree to which the art world must examine its own structures. In the past 30 years the art world has globalized. When Art Cologne was founded in 1967 it was the only contemporary art fair. Now there are around 280 fairs each year. When the Sydney Bienniale launched in 1973 there were just seven other biennials; now there are more than 300. There has been a worldwide explosion of contemporary art museums, all flying and shipping people and works to mount blockbuster exhibitions.
Tanninen-Mattila, who is also director of the Helsinki Art Museum, says we may well “have to tear the system up”. She calls for “museums to reinvent themselves”, including developing a greater focus on their own collections rather than circulating artworks. “It is up to us curators, because curating is at the core of decision-making that either does or doesn’t lead to a more sustainable way of working.”
2. Small acts have impact
The Serpentine Galleries and CDE are among a number of organizations, including Arts Council England (ACE), now working with environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle. It helps museums, opera companies, theatres and music producers find ways to cut carbon emissions and increase biodiversity, and was responsible for helping bring Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch sculpture (a group of large ice blocks that slowly melt) to Paris and London.
Its biggest contribution, according to ACE, has been encouraging arts organizations to report on their environmental impacts in detail each year. In 2018/19 a group of 747 not-for-profits reported they had produced nearly 115,000 tonnes of CO2, more than 50% generated by museums, visual arts galleries and multi-arts centers. According to Nicholas Serota, the chair of ACE, the simple act of reporting has encouraged this group of arts organizations to find ways to cut their emissions by 35% in just five years from 2012-13 to 2017-18, which he calls “a staggering effect”.
3. Let’s save Venice
The Venice Biennale represents the possibly intractable conundrum at the heart of the art world. It stands for everything it values: an unmissable opportunity to experience contemporary art made by artists from around the world, which a diverse group of museums, curators, academics and patrons deem the most exciting, relevant and deserving of attention.
But Venice itself is in trouble. It is threatened by sea level rise and its fragile lagoon ecosystem is being damaged by the constant wash of huge cruise ships. Locals have complained that biennale exhibitors have done little to minimize the impact of transporting artworks and installing exhibitions, and that caterers dispose of vast quantities of plastic water bottles. And, instead of walking, the wealthiest biennale VIPs rely on gas-guzzling water taxis—or moor their vast yachts next to the Giardini. In 2019 25,000 invited visitors, mostly from abroad, arrived for the preview week. Overall, 600,000 people travelled to the show—the local population is just 60,000.
“Everybody loves Venice, it is an extraordinary event, in an extraordinary city,” Ackroyd says. “But there are other extraordinary waterway cities. Why don’t we explode the concept and mount Venice in different places across the globe? You’d still have people travelling, but curatorially it could be beautiful, the benefits would be spread and Venice itself would bear less of a burden.”
4. Where artists lead, we can follow
“Climate change strikes the Venice Biennale, but why is so much of the art it inspires so dull?” asked The Economist in 2019. The author had perhaps had not seen Sun and Sea (Marina), an operatic installation by film-maker Rugile Barzdžiukaité, librettist Vaiva Grainyté and composer Lina Lapelyté, curated by Pietroiusti. For an hour, visitors looked down on a changing tableau: adults and children reading, looking at their mobile phones and singing about mundanities, anxieties and allusively to loss and the changing world.
The New York Times called it a “remarkable achievement” which “avoids didacticism with poetic obliqueness, and a haunting simplicity that insinuates itself into your memory and, possibly, your opinions”. Art has potential, the panel argued, to change hearts and minds through such emotional experiences, and by its ability to bring artists, scientists, politicians, activists and other actors together.
The Helsinki Biennial, which launches in June (12 June-27 September) on the island of Vallisaari, will feature environmentally sensitive installations by 35 artists. “You need to create an experience. The natural environment, and the artworks in the landscape will—I believe—really make an impact on people’s lives,” Tanninen-Mattila says.
5. Exert your influence
Not every arts organization is like the Tate, with its long list of international council members and acquisitions committee members. But many arts organizations have a network of influential patrons and supporters (the Serpentine’s donors are a Who’s Who of the internationally powerful including Michael Bloomberg and Maja Hoffmann) who they can get on side. Museums often have direct connections to city, local and national government, and to business.
“You have to look at what you do [as an organization], at what you have, and then you leverage everything you’ve got, your networks, anyone you have with any influence whatsoever,” Pietroiusti says.
The city of Helsinki has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2030, and achieve neutrality by 2035. “We have a vision that one day, people will be able to visit Vallisaari in an electric boat,” Tanninen-Mattila says. Meanwhile, the biennial is creating a virtual-reality experience to encourage people to “visit” without traveling. “We have the opportunity to have a much wider impact with this event, because museums are listened to, we can play a symbolic role in the city’s infrastructure,” she adds.
6. We are all hypocrites, but let’s work together anyway
There have been sustained protests in the UK and countries such as France and the Netherlands against museums taking sponsorship money from fossil fuel companies such as BP and Shell. A number of art museums including the Tate, the Van Gogh Museum and the Mauritshuis did not renewed long-standing sponsorship deals with these companies when the contracts came to an end. Others, such as the British Museum, which receives sponsorship from BP, robustly defend their sponsors.
But are the protests hypocritical when almost everyone in the Western world uses fossil fuels to heat their homes, get to work and cook their food. No, says Ackroyd. “We shouldn’t be shamed for hypocrisy, because we are all fossil-fuel children, and we are all conflicted. But you have to ask who is ultimately to blame?” she says. “We are forced into dependency and the pushers who want to maintain the system do so by trying to show up people who call for accountability.”
Meanwhile, in November, a group of high-profile artists, actors and musicians including Benedict Cumberbatch, Nan Goldin and David Byrne asked Extinction Rebellion (XR) to circulate an open letter to journalists “who have called us hypocrites”, asking them to focus on “a more urgent story…. We are facing a man-made disaster on a global scale. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilization and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.
7. We have to face up to scale of climate change
“There’s no buffer here: any comfort zone went 20 years ago. We have to tell the truth about the degradation of our living planet,” Ackroyd says. Governments are not yet committed to addressing the scope of the problem. In 2015, nearly 200 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, organized by the United Nations (President Trump has since indicated he intends to withdraw the US from the agreement before the next climate summit, scheduled to take place in November in Glasgow). They agreed to limit the increase in global warming to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and pledged to find ways to lower that maximum to 1.5 oC.
Yet Christiana Figueres, the UN official who brokered the Paris accord, says that the scientific consensus now is to cut emissions to net zero by 2050, and that reductions of 50% each decade are needed to achieve the 1.5 oC upper limit. Meanwhile, activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR), which mounted protests across London, New York and major cities across Europe and Australia last year, is calling for a cut to net zero in just five years.
Now is not the time for inaction. “We could become nihilistic now, but if we have hope we can make the difference between one-and-a-half, two, three degrees—and that’s the point that is a death sentence for sub-Saharan Africa,” Pietroiusti says. “In one way it’s too enormous to do anything, but we have to, because there’s no choice. You don’t need to understand it all. You just need to feel part of our planet.”