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Gallery Climate Coalition on eliminating carbon footprint in the arts sector

STIR speaks with Gallery Climate Coalition team about its mission to reduce greenhouse gas emission and waste sources in arts sector.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Feb 06, 2023

I may sound pessimistic here, but I genuinely feel that the climate crisis has reached a point of no return. Whatever we may do now will be too little-too late. Nature, however, has its ways to course correct itself. Dinosaurs became extinct and only then did humans flourish. So, in the future, if the human population is wiped out (or at a minimum reduced considerably), the flora and fauna is bound to flourish too! We got a glimpse of that when all of mankind was practically caged due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not everyone naturally subscribes to the thought mentioned above. And as such, there are serious efforts being made by governments, private organisations, and not-for-profit entities alike to make a difference. Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) is one such international charity organisation that is working towards reducing the carbon footprint in the arts sector. “…environmental responsibility for the art world means taking effective action to urgently reduce the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and waste that are specific to the visual art sector, in the most equitable ways possible,” mentions the GCC team that comprises Aoife Fannin, Project Coordinator; Heath Lowndes, Managing Director; and Poppy Paulus-Nicolas, who is responsible for Communication, Membership & Fundraising.

I speak with the GCC team on its various initiatives and vision.

GCC Founding Committee | GCC | STIRworld
GCC Founding Committee Image: Courtesy of the Gallery Climate Coalition

Rahul Kumar: How would you define "environmentally responsible art world?"

Gallery Climate Coalition team: The environmental crisis is a global crisis. Every sector of society has the responsibility to make effective changes in the areas it has influence over. This is as true of art as it is of other sectors. Even if our relatively small sector is significantly less environmentally damaging than industries such as agriculture or construction, we still have a responsibility to act.

An environmentally responsible art world is one that takes this seriously by acknowledging consequences of actions, striving to urgently reduce further damage and transition to low impact operations, in line with the best current guidance from climate scientists.

The only way to achieve this is through collaboration. By aligning on targets, terminology, and strategies and by bridging the gap between the public and private sub-sectors, the art world can set new standards and new ways of working which place environmental considerations at the core of decision making. Practically, this means greater cooperation, sharing of resources, and incorporating notions of climate justice, regenerative growth, and circularity at every level.

But in simple terms, environmental responsibility for the art world means taking effective action to urgently reduce the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and waste that are specific to the visual art sector, in the most equitable ways possible.

Heath Lowndes, managing director of GCC, and Aoife Fannin, GCC’s Project Coordinator, at Frieze Art Fair 2021 in London | GCC | STIRworld
Heath Lowndes, Managing Director of GCC, and Aoife Fannin, GCC’s Project Coordinator, at Frieze Art Fair 2021 in London Image: Ben Westoby

Rahul: What are the objectives of GCC and how is it set up?

GCC team: Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) is an international charity and membership organisation providing environmental sustainability guidelines for the art sector.

GCC’s work is underpinned by two clear targets, which all members must commit to supporting before joining the coalition:

  1. A minimum 50 per cent CO2 emissions reduction across the sector by 2030 (reduced from a pre-Covid baseline year. Whilst this target is a sector-wide minimum, we do encourage members to go beyond this and a reduction strategy for 70 per cent is outlined in our Decarbonisation Action Plan)

  2. Near-zero waste operations by 2030, where facilities allow (near-zero waste is defined by GCC as "as close to nothing as possible going to landfill or incinerator, in the regions where facilities permit”).

GCC is a membership organisation, and everything we do is based on collaboration with our networks and stakeholders. At present the challenges we face can seem insurmountable. But by working together - simultaneously on local and global scales - necessary changes become possible and the transition to a sustainable future, smoother and faster.

GCC membership is free and entirely open: anybody that works in or is affiliated with the visual arts sector can join, and as of October 2022, we are proud to say we have over 800 members from across 40 countries. You can see, via our membership breakdowns, that art galleries make up the largest group of members - with roughly 300 gallery members.

As well as our members we are proud to work alongside five international volunteer teams, in Berlin, London, Italy and LA, with the most recent being GCC Taiwan. The groups are semi-autonomous and represent the coalition at regional levels, either nationally or for specific cities. GCC’s general resources provide broad-stroke instructions that are universally applicable but lack localised details and directions on how to apply the recommendations. The Volunteer Teams are instrumental in providing this region-specific information via their own sub-sites. It is this granular detail that makes such a difference.

GCC regularly works with external environmental advisors, across the UK and Europe. They are experts in our field of activity, and as such all content that GCC produces is done in collaboration with them. As of October 2022, our advisors include an Environmental Strategy and Digital Innovation Advisor (Germany), an Environmental Policy Advisor and Carbon Foot-printing Expert (UK), and a Specialise in the use of Alternative Materials in a Fine Art Context (The Netherlands).

GCC is also a proud founding member of Partners for Arts Climate Targets (PACT). PACT is an international coalition of organisations within the visual arts engaged in collaborative efforts to accelerate the sector’s broad adoption of collective climate action: Art to Acres, Art + Climate Action, Art/Switch, Art to Zero, Artists Commit, Galleries Commit, Gallery Climate Coalition, Ki Culture. By advocating for every individual’s agency, PACT amplifies voices and promotes collaboration for global change. Each organisation within PACT brings offerings to the sector, inviting multiple pathways for engaging in meaningful climate action and allowing each initiative to innovate, explore solutions, and build community while supported by and supporting a collective, aligned network.

Gallery Climate Coalition booth at Frieze London 2021 | GCC | STIRworld
Gallery Climate Coalition booth at Frieze London 2021 Image: Courtesy of Ben Westoby

Rahul: How are you making this movement more inclusive? For instance, how are galleries globally being included into the net?

GCC team: By keeping our membership free and open to all, we ensure that we maintain a large and diverse membership representative of the entire sector. The only stipulation is that all members must be aligned to GCC’s targets and agree to adhere to the coalition commitments prior to registering.

Although environmental problems are global, possible solutions are often linked to local resources, which can only be researched and developed by a team embedded within the region. This is why GCC operates at both local and global levels to implement GCC's key principles of collaboration and action, which in turn lead to significant systemic change. GCC is excited to be extending our international network, with the most recent team being GCC Taiwan, our first volunteer group in Asia. The new chapter of the international charity will develop a dedicated platform of environmental information and resources for Taiwan-based art organisations and professionals. We invite other groups to form in line with the International Volunteer Team guidelines.

Infographics: Air Freight and Sea Freight | GCC | STIRworld
CO2 used from London to Hong Kong Image: Courtesy of Ben Westoby

Rahul: Further, how is GCC ensuring they are motivated to comply with the best practices? How have these best practices been developed?

GCC team: GCC’s resources contain information on best practice relating to the key areas of environmental impact for arts organisations, primarily international freight, business and individual travel, grid energy consumption, packaging and materials, waste and recycling and digital. The best practice guidelines are developed in collaboration with GCC, volunteers from within the sector, as well as our environmental advisors.

On October 19, coinciding with the two-year anniversary of our public launch, GCC launched the “Active Member” designation, celebrating the organisations and individuals that have already taken effective steps towards environmental responsibility. GCC’s current strategy for encouraging environmental action has been based on raising awareness about sector-specific impacts, building a community aligned to the same targets. When registering, all members agree to take urgent and effective action as part of the Coalition Commitments. But just signing up to the coalition and appearing on a members list does not necessarily mean that action has been taken. Active Membership will be awarded to GCC members that can demonstrate that their organisation has implemented environmental sustainability best practice in line with GCC’s Resources. From Spring 2023, successful members will receive an Active Member badge for use across their platforms and will be highlighted on the GCC members lists.

Infographics: CO2 used by Air travel classes | GCC | STIRworld
Infographics: CO2 used by air travel classes Image: Courtesy of the Gallery Climate Coalition

Rahul: Art is not a need; it is said to be a luxury. This by itself is contradictory to care for ecology, right? How do you balance the two opposing ideologies then – one that encourages reduction of usage, keeping it local and the other producing something not a need.

GCC team: We would wholeheartedly disagree with the assertion that there is no ‘need’ for art.

Art and creativity have been central to cultural identities for millennia and serve a vital function beyond its intrinsic value; improved learning, increased tolerance, opportunities to come together with others - enhancing quality of life and increasing overall well-being for individuals and communities.

Art has long played an important role in social movements and continues to do so - with regards to the environmental crisis - by raising awareness to the issues, engaging audiences through storytelling and documentation and inspiring action.

It’s true that certain aspects of the market treat artworks as luxury commodities, to be traded, speculated on and profited off - this can’t be denied. The high-end commercial art market tends to grab a disproportionate number of headlines, and we acknowledge this side of the industry’s connection with capitalism is not compatible with sustainability. However, it would be wrong to assume that this is true of all art, in all of its various forms and iterations.

There is a lot more work that needs to be done. We must ask serious questions about ingrained behaviours and how the mechanisms of the industry must be addressed and will hopefully lead to major systemic changes. Some of those bigger questions are being discussed, and there are some very exciting and creative solutions in the pipeline, which we intend to be part of. But first, we have to get the basics right, and mobilise the art world to set examples of transitions to low carbon travel and shipping, as well as zero waste and circularity. This needs to be done in a coordinated, collaborative way if it is going to be successful.

We want art to continue to flourish, push boundaries and inspire, we just want this to be done in a more considerate and environmentally responsible way.

Infographics: CO2 used per tonne of Cargo shipped 1km | GCC | STIRworld
Infographics: CO2 used per tonne of cargo shipped 1km Image: Courtesy of the Gallery Climate Coalition

Rahul: Finally, there is a view that ecological deterioration is inevitable. Whatever we may do will be too little/too late. Given where we stand in the context of global warming and the climate crisis, how optimistic are you to make an impact?

GCC team: At GCC, we are optimistic about making positive changes within the visual art sector in line with the best current guidelines for what humanity can do to avoid the worst possible potential climate catastrophe.

The progress that GCC has made since launching two years ago is evidence that change is not only possible, it is already happening. So far, over 800 arts organisations have signed up to the coalition, representing potentially tens of thousands of individual professionals, who have decided to act with hope, positivity, and ambition in the face of the climate crisis.

We are not alone in taking action. The conversation in other industries and the general population is accelerating quickly. We are optimistic about the potential for our example to encourage further change beyond the visual arts. Every day we speak to incredible people and organisations from across our sector, and beyond, who are stepping up too.

Furthermore, we are optimistic that over the coming years, innovation will accelerate, new technologies will become available, new ways of working will become the norm, and public expectations and demands will shift, placing more pressure on governments to act effectively.

However, our optimism does not mean we are blind to the science and the realities of the terrible situation we are facing on a global scale. The science is clear about the direction we are heading; the environmental crisis is the most significant challenge humanity has ever faced. Of course, one sector of society cannot single handedly solve the problem. But - as mentioned at the beginning - we all have a responsibility to do what we can and to encourage others to do the same. In the absence of any serious intergovernmental intervention or effective legislation, we are doing the best we can to encourage this responsibility across the art world.

For sure it's a challenge but hope and optimism are some of the best tools we have in tackling these challenges. To quote Kumi Naidoo, “Pessimism is a luxury that we simply cannot afford.”

Infographics: CO2 used Return Flights from Hong Kong | GCC | STIRworld
Infographics: CO2 used by flights returning to different destinations from Hong Kong Image: Courtesy of the Gallery Climate Coalition

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