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5 Ways Galleries Are Making the Art World Greener

By Maxwell Rabb

This year’s Earth Day comes against a stark backdrop. Last year was the warmest on record, and a recent UN climate report recently warned that it’s “now or never to limit global warming.” 

As the impacts of climate change grow increasingly urgent, the art community is recognizing its role in addressing environmental challenges through various initiatives and practices. Among the most significant of these is the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), founded in 2020, which unites a network of galleries in their commitment to sustainability. The organization—comprising over 900 members—emphasizes how galleries can collectively help to curb environmental damage. 

Hauser & Wirth, a prominent member of the GCC, is one of the galleries spearheading these changes, committing to halve its emissions by 2030, which aligns with the 2015 UN Paris Agreement and the GCC’s mission statement.

“We are working in an industry that has entrenched habits and behaviors, and we need to steadily identify ways in which to shift the dial,” said Cliodhna Murphy, Hauser & Wirth’s global head of environmental sustainability. “I have been regularly meeting with a group of like-minded individuals from galleries of scale to discuss how we standardize the approach to sustainability across the art world, working towards the same goals. This is something that the GCC is also active in promoting in order to create a level playing field across all of the galleries and how they report their findings.”

In recognition of Earth Day, Artsy spoke with six galleries to identify five key ways that they are making strides toward a greener future.

Introducing greener shipping solutions

The use of air travel to transport artworks is one of the pivotal practices being addressed by galleries to mitigate their environmental impact. The use of sea freight—which, according to the GCC, is 60 times less environmentally damaging than air transportation—is one of the main shifts that is taking place in this regard. 

Hauser & Wirth is among the galleries using sea freight for transporting its high-value artworks. “There is a long-held preconception that sea freight is not an option for high-value painting, but I discovered that with the right crating, insurance, and remote supervision, it is absolutely a viable route,” Murphy told Artsy. “As a result, last year, we saved 200 [equivalent tonnes of] carbon dioxide by shifting six exhibitions to sea freight. That’s equivalent [to] 150 return economy flights between London and New York.”

Echoing this commitment, Roberts Projects’s senior registrar and sustainability liaison, Siobhan Bradley, revealed that the most considerable way the Los Angeles–based gallery has improved is through its packing and shipping methods—specifically by introducing alternative packing materials, reusing crates, and consolidating shipments. By doing so, the gallery has cut both environmental and financial costs. “These changes have been well received, particularly because they are generally cost-saving,” Bradley told Artsy.

Taking direct action with benefit exhibitions

Several galleries are integrating environmental issues into their exhibition programs by hosting benefit exhibitions that directly tackle climate change. One example is Tribeca’s 1969 Gallery, which recently hosted “World Beyond World” from January 18th to February 24th this year. This exhibition brought together 20 artists to support ocean conservation. Proceeds were donated to Only One, a nonprofit based in New York dedicated to restoring ocean health and addressing the climate crisis.

“Eric Oglander has these wonderful sculptural jars filled with an entire ecosystem of algae, snails, and plant life,” said the gallery’s founder, Quang Bao, reflecting on the exhibition. “We had to help keep the jars clean, lit over the days we were closed to help photosynthesis along. I loved them, and I think visitors, especially children, seemed to understand the deeper lesson—that you really have to handle the world we live in with conscience and handheld care.”

Charles Moffett is another gallery taking a similar approach. The New York gallery is currently gearing up for its own benefit exhibition next month, working closely with Art to Acres, an initiative focused on funding high-integrity conservation projects worldwide. The show, titled “Not Too Late,” will run from May 3rd to June 7th and will feature all 10 of the gallery’s represented artists, among several others. “[Art to Acres] is converting the actions of what we do in the art world into meaningful change,” founder Charles Moffet told Artsy. 

Hauser & Wirth is also hosting an Earth Day 2024 event with Art to Acres, where artist Mika Rottenberg will release a series of lamps. Proceeds will benefit both Art to Acres and the artist’s innovative studio in Tivoli, New York, where she employs plastic reclamation to create her fantastical and playful sculptures with intrusive vines in the Hudson Valley forests. 

“One single artist studio or gallery can’t shift the landscape, but collective action amplifies our efforts, builds a movement, and contributes to climate resilience,” said Murphy, referencing that several of the gallery’s artists have embraced sustainable practices, including Anj Smith, Pipilotti Rist, and Larry Bell. 

Advocating for sustainable supply chains

Actively reducing everyday waste is another way galleries are embedding sustainability practices into their operations. London’s Cristea Roberts Gallery, for example, is taking strides in integrating sustainable materials into its day-to-day operations. Alan Cristea, co-director of the gallery, noted that the gallery is focused on reducing energy consumption and has actively banned polystyrene and reduced single-use plastics in favor of sustainable materials. 

“There is still much work to be done, but by opening up conversations and making changes, however small, we hope to build long-term momentum for a sustainable art sector,” said Cristea. “Galleries are also in a unique position to leverage collectors, shipping partners, and the art sector in general to consider working in more permanent, environmentally responsible ways.”

Often, by switching to sustainable materials and making conscious everyday decisions, galleries and their artists are making a difference. “It’s been really incredible to watch a lot of galleries and artists become more invested in more sustainable practices, whether it’s as simple as changing how we get our power or changing the way in which we ship,” noted Moffett. “These small efforts do tend to have a ripple effect in a business and the art world.”

By implementing these measures, these galleries are both minimizing their environmental impact and influencing the art supply chain to adopt greener practices.

Encouraging online engagement

As digital technologies evolve, so do opportunities for reducing physical travel. Alan Cristea notes that the biggest leap for galleries is circumventing industry norms—which often demand environmentally taxing methods. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic halted the international art world circuit, galleries have become accustomed to exhibiting and selling art online. This also extends to their outreach when it comes to building and maintaining relationships with clients worldwide. In San Francisco, Hosfelt Gallery has drastically reduced unnecessary travel by supplementing in-person meetings with online interactions.

“The worst thing any of us do is fly,” founder Todd Hosfelt said. “We need to do less of it. Instead of hopping on a plane for every event, ask, ‘What do you hope to achieve by going?’ and ‘Can you achieve it without flying there?’ In other words, is that trip actually necessary? I used to fly all over the world to do studio visits or meetings....Now, I mostly use Zoom. How many staff people do you really need at an art fair? Can you tack your holiday plans onto the front or back of a work trip? I’m not suggesting never flying anywhere; I’m saying do it thoughtfully.”

Spreading awareness

The more people that know about how to make their businesses sustainable, the wider adoption will be. From learning about auditing their environmental impact to getting involved with organizations like Art to Acres and the GCC, gallerists are making each other aware of what they can do. “A big part of it is just education, and awareness, for me, is the first building block in all of this,” said Moffet. “If you don’t understand the impact of your gallery or your museum or your organization, you don’t know what it is that needs to happen in order to reduce your footprint,” he noted. 

Programs that address environmental issues—whether in fair-funded talks or action-oriented gallery exhibitions—are crucial ways of fostering a culture of sustainability, which is essential to empowering sustainable action across the art world. 

“Galleries—especially members in senior positions—should fully support their staff’s interest in sustainability,” said Robert Projects’s Bradley. “To me, this means creating and allocating time for staff to do research, attend educational seminars or meetings with environmental groups, and then genuinely listening to what they’ve learned and what they feel can be implemented at individual galleries.”

Image courtesy of Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photo by Eric Staudenmaier