The green transformation of the art world gains pace

·4-min read
The island of Vallisaari will host the first edition of the Helsinki Biennale from June 12 to September 26.

Between blockbuster exhibitions and works being transported by airplane, the art world is often accused of having a considerable environmental impact. But awareness is slowly growing, especially since the beginning of the health crisis. The goal? To make the sector more environmentally responsible.

It may be hard to believe, but art pollutes. So much so that its carbon footprint has become a genuine concern for artists and professionals in the field. This is why Maija Tanninen-Mattila, the director of the Helsinki Art Museum, decided to make the inaugural edition of the Helsinki Biennial as environmentally friendly as possible. An artistic choice that also reflects the Finnish capital's desire to become carbon neutral by 2035.

"Artists have embraced the topic of climate change for decades, with museums and galleries often exploring this theme in their exhibition programs too, but putting this urgent topic into real motion -- beyond the conceptual -- can be daunting. Yet with the tools now available to allow organizations to track and improve their carbon footprint, the art world can and must begin to tackle its own excesses," wrote the director of the Helsinki Biennial in a tribune on Artnet News.

Raising the alarm without demoralizing

The organizers of the biennial have adapted their modus operandi to accommodate Helsinki's ecological commitment, and have chosen to present one third of the works exhibited on the island of Vallisaari. "The biennial's artists have been inspired by Vallisaari and have worked there on a site-specific basis," note Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, the head curators of the biennial. "The themes arising from the island offer various perspectives on interconnection and mutual dependence. These themes include relationship with nature, time and change, boundaries and identities, and connection and empathy. The name of the first biennial, 'the Same Sea,' is a reminder that everything is connected to everything else and therefore mutually dependent. This has become increasingly evident during the current ecological crisis and coronavirus pandemic."

The Helsinki Biennial is not the only artistic event to take up the issue of the climate crisis in order to raise awareness in a milieu in quest of environmental responsibility. The eighth edition of the Anglet-Côte Basque international biennial of contemporary art , which will be held from August 7 to October 31, will be placed under the theme "L'Écume des vivants" (The foam of the living) to raise public awareness of the major environmental issues of our time. An ambitious program put together by Lauranne Germond, co-founder of the association Coal, which aims to facilitate the emergence of a new ecological culture.

Germond teamed up 11 artists such as Jérémy Gobé, Bélen Rodriguez and Angelika Markul to present works that question the transformation of the landscape and the way of inhabiting the world today. But without demoralizing the visitors, emphasizes Lauranne Germond. The objective is "rather to reconsider the joy and the wonder that nature gives us!"

Revisiting how the sector functions

While environmentalism is gaining ground as an artistic theme in its own right, it is also beginning to make its way into museums and galleries. The Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) is at the forefront of this "green" revolution. This NGO has been campaigning since 2018 for the art world to adapt its operations to the climate emergency. It must be said that between the transport of works of art, the materials used for the scenography of exhibitions, the tons of waste produced by art fairs and conservation standards, the art market does not exactly go light on its carbon footprint. The Gallery Climate Coalition intends to monitor this over-consumption with its own "CO2 calculator."

This tool was launched last October to allow CCG members to measure the carbon footprint of their activity and identify potential sources of savings. International art transportation is one of them: using ships instead of planes could reduce the climate impact by nearly 95%, according to the organization's estimates.

But are museums and galleries ready for this change? It would seem so. While the Gallery Climate Coalition started with 14 members, today there are more than 360. ""We have been overwhelmed by the interest and enthusiasm across the sector internationally," Heath Lowndes, managing director at GCC and exhibitions coordinator at Thomas Dane Gallery in London, recently told Artnet News. Proof that attitudes are slowly but surely changing in the art world.

Caroline Drzewinski