Sustainability in art matters. But what are artists themselves doing about it?
By Chere Di Boscio and Parikrama Rai
We all love art – whether we’re gazing upon it in a gallery, or purchasing it to decorate our homes. But have you ever given a thought to why sustainability in art matters?
Sure, we know there are artists raising awareness of issues such as pollution and climate change through their work. And that’s important, but it’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about the art itself being sustainable.
Sustainable art is nothing new. Artists have been working within this field since the 1960s, mostly under the collective banner of ‘eco-artists’. However, it is worth noting that these works have been mostly conceptual, larger in scale, and rather avante garde..
Earth Art (or Land Art), for example, has been an important part of this movement. Many artists challenged the gallery model by creating site-specific work that incorporated the surrounding natural elements. Case in point: Robert Smithson’s memorable Spiral Jetty – an enormous spiral, built using 5,000 tons of basalt rock out in the Utah desert, which was named Utah’s official state work of land art in 2017 (you can see it in the video below).
Betty Beaumont is another renowned Earth Artist. Her diverse body of work challenges global socioeconomic and ecological practices, and explores solution-based sustainability strategies that reflect contemporary, historic and cultural perspectives.
One of Beaumont’s most notable works is the environmental installation Ocean Landmark (1978-1980), a grand-scale underwater project. It consists of 17,000 neutralized coal fly-ash blocks strategically submerged three miles off Fire Island National Seashore to lay on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, creating an artificial habitat for marine life.
Such sustainable works are undoubtedly interesting and raise important points about ecology, but they’re not exactly accessible.
There are, however, increasing numbers of artists who are making a more positive impact on the planet by simply changing the media they use.
Many artists have begun to shun common materials like oil paints for everyday recyclable materials or more eco-friendly media to create new and interesting pieces. The use of milk and mineral based paints (instead of oil); organic cotton or recycled plastic canvases, and the rediscovery of materials like charcoal, found objects and water colours are all contributing to making the art world more sustainable. The only problem is that few artists employing eco-friendly media actually make a big statement about it.
Fortunately, I’ve discovered a few galleries – both physical and online – that are specifically offering what’s now referred to as ‘sustainable art’ to their clients.
One such gallery is Victory Art. Specialising in showcasing the work of young Eastern European artists, they boast a Sustainable Art category that features paintings and drawings such as ‘Today’s State’, below, by Jagoda Kalisz. This young Slovakian artist has a talent for making energetic, abstract pieces come to life through the use of recycled plastic.
Another artist whose works caught my eye is Naďa Kučerová. Sustainability in art truly matters to Kučerová. She uses paper cutouts to depict the experiences, emotions, and vices of humanity, such as Passion, as seen in the black and white image of a woman, below.
More Than Materials
Beyond creative supplies, though, there are other environmental issues that plague the art world. Let’s take shipping for example.
Few realise that moving artworks can have some pretty dire environmental consequences. This is true not only for sending products out to buyers, but also flying works out for exhibitions.
Add to that the number of collectors flying in to attend those shows – often via private jets – and it is obvious how polluting the organisation of a major exhibition can be.
You may be asking yourself: if collectors are flying privately to make their purchases, do they even care about the ecological impact of art? Would they be willing to pay a ‘carbon tax’ for moving their art? Is there a demand for sustainable art?
These are questions that Lisa Schiff, an art advisor and advocate of greener art, has deeply considered. She told ArtNet: “Buying art is expensive. When you first start collecting, it’s shocking just how expensive it is, in terms of shipping, insurance, and storage.” Therefore, she doesn’t think adding carbon neutralising costs to gallery invoices would be very welcome. Instead, she suggests such fees should be hidden in the price, rather than presented as an additional cost.
“I know plenty of collectors who are huge environmentalists and who are changing the world, but when they’re buying art, that’s just not where he or she may be putting their energy,” she said. She believes the onus is on the galleries, rather than on collectors, to be greener.
Others, however, disagree.
Contrasting Schiff’s perspective is Bruno Brunnet, a veteran dealer and co-founder of Berlin’s Contemporary Fine Arts. He insists that it’s ultimately the collectors who could motivate more sustainable practices from galleries.
Brunnet admits that so far, there’s very little environmental concern expressed by collectors, though. “We have not had any requests for greener shipping or hesitation to travel on sustainable grounds from any collectors, though these are conversations we would be open to.”
Nevertheless, despite a lack of demand, some companies are shifting towards a more environmentally friendly model anyway. For example, Dietl, one of the industry’s largest transporters, cares deeply about sustainability in art, and is re-routing its shipping paths so there are fewer transits, and therefore, lower CO2 emissions, when moving artworks.
More specifically, ahead of Art Basel Miami Beach, Dietl’s team has organized a 747 charter to fly from Luxembourg directly to Miami, as opposed to going through Atlanta or New York, the usual art transport route that requires more carbon dioxide-emitting ground travel.
Dietl is also using greener products like RokBox, a reusable crate that is lighter (and safer) than wood. Replacing wood with RokBoxes can make an enormous savin in CO2 emissions.
A Digital Shift
Finally, one of the most promising shifts towards greener behaviour in the art world is the trend of purchasing artworks online. Since the coronavirus crisis, more people have warmed up to the notion of attending art exhibitions virtually, and they’re also more open to purchasing art they’ve ever only seen online.
Realistically, however, large art fairs are still a huge part of the industry and are therefore are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Neither is the conventional shipping of artworks around the world. Change here is at best, incremental.
Regardless, there are still positives. Art has always been reflection of the concerns of the day. Artists make us realise what we value and what we need to address. I have no doubt that art will inspire change in its own realm soon enough.