Environmental impact and the art world

The logistics of art fairs are impressive. The scale of endeavor required to crate, ship, uncrate, install, re-crate and re-ship thousands of artworks is remarkable. Behind the scenes: mountains of bubble wrap, polypropylene and hardwood crating; tons of carbon emissions for trucking and flying artwork to the fairs. Most packing material has at most two lives before it joins recycling (best case) or landfill (common case). All of which raises questions about how the art world defines and discharges its environmental responsibilities.

Many artists are thoughtfully and seriously exploring environmental and human sustainability issues through their work. In the rest of the art world, however, institutions continue to use “sustainability” mostly to refer to financial models. Many are recycling office materials and seeking a balance between conservation vs. environmental impact for lighting and climate control. Nevertheless, I don’t see much beyond these basic initiatives that virtually any large corporation engages in today. I must admit, I barely think about it with regard to my own gallery operations.

Other industries are years beyond the art world in considering environmental impacts. One can argue that many of these industries are also the source of the problem–the carbon footprint of even a large museum doesn’t come close to a typical automotive, chemical or high tech manufacturing facility. Nevertheless, we should be able to look to the arts for progressivism and imagination in all domains, right?

Quite possibly this discussion is happening in a serious way, and my cursory web searches hasn't turned it up. If so, and you know where it's happening, let me know. I would love to find a sustainability model for the gallery to adhere to, and I’d love to understand how all parts of the art world (not just artists) can work together in providing social leadership around sustainability. Fair directors: let's see some thought leadership, since the temporary, travel-intensive and chaotic nature of fairs make them a perfect environment for waste.

(On a side note, it is a coincidence but a propitious one that I started drafting this text on Monday morning, and that afternoon the IPCC report on climate change hit the news.)