24 October 2022

How Art Fairs and Exhibitors are Adopting Climate-Conscious Practices

By Annabel Keenan


Sustainability has become an urgent concern for collectors, dealers, artists, and institutions across the industry. While groups and individuals have been taking steps to implement sustainable practices on micro and personal levels for several years, coordinated efforts for system-wide changes have steadily gained traction since the pandemic began. Groups, collectives, campaigns, and resources have popped up across the globe, and wasteful practices have come under heavy scrutiny. As a major part of the industry, art fairs have also taken steps to address sustainability, creating pathways to environmentally conscious operations that fit the specific needs of each fair.

As temporary events that bring exhibitors and visitors from across the country and abroad, art fairs face unique challenges and roadblocks to sustainability. People and artworks travel to the fairs, resulting in emissions from flights, packing, and shipping. Materials like crates and pedestals are often custom-made, making it difficult to reuse items. Moreover, insurance companies and customs agencies may have specific requirements, such as using new materials for crates.

One of the best ways to reduce waste is to slow down and plan ahead, which is difficult based on the short period of an art fair. Shipments by sea are environmentally friendlier than those by air, but securing sea freight takes time and flexibility. Exhibitors often don’t have this flexibility, in particular those showing new works that may have just left the artist’s studio. Moreover, the goal of an art fair is ultimately to sell art, meaning the works an exhibitor brings ideally will not return with them, resulting discarded materials after the fair ends. A work that was flown in a crate or exhibited on a pedestal might end up in a collection down the road, sending unneeded items to a landfill.

Before its launch in 2012, Untitled Art took steps to weave sustainable solutions into its operations. The fair’s unique home on the sands of Miami Beach required organizers to work closely with the city’s Department of Environmental Protection to comply with local regulations. Untitled has a “zero-impact presentation”, meaning when the fair is over, the beach is returned to its original state without any trash, oils, or waste spilled.

“The very nature of the fair on the sands of Miami Beach has meant we have needed to take the surrounding location and wider environmental concerns into consideration from the moment we launched,” says Jeff Lawson, founder of Untitled Art. “We work closely with the city to ensure we leave the beach exactly the way we found it and even pay fees to help maintain the beach and surrounding areas.”

Caption: Antonia Wright’s And so with ends comes beginnings (2019) viewable from the beach at Lummus Park in Miami during opening night of Untitled Art 2021. Image courtesy of Casey Kelbaugh.

Unlike other fairs that take place in permanent spaces like convention centers, Untitled relies on temporary structures. Recognizing the environmental and economical benefits of reusing materials, Untitled uses the same tent, walls, and furniture annually, with the exception of the VIP lounges that change with the fair’s needs. Untitled continually adapts to more sustainable practices. They shifted to digital passes in 2013 just one year after launching with physical passes and installed an energy efficient generator in 2021 to improve air flow and reduce carbon footprint. In 2019, the fair hosted programming and special projects related to the environment, highlighting South Florida and the Everglades in particular.

“The art industry’s impact on the environment is something I have always felt passionately about and something that has been drawing increasing attention. We know that art fairs have a real impact on the environment, whether that means VIPs flying in on private jets or waste generated from the build of the fair. We are always looking to innovate and see where we can mitigate this impact as much as possible,” says Lawson.

Other fairs are also taking notice. In 2021, Frieze launched a sustainability committee that consists of employees from all parts of its organization who share information on challenges and work together to find solutions. Part of understanding the fair’s impact requires concrete data, so Frieze has begun conducting carbon footprint audit for its fairs to learn how to make tangible, calculable changes. Seeking to cut down on the waste, Frieze encouraged its Los Angeles 2022 exhibitors to use the peer-to-peer website Barder.art, which allows users to post items for free or for sale anywhere in the world. In time for Frieze London, Barder has just launched a free shuttle within Central London in partnership with the sustainability non-profit Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) and the shipping and logistics company Queen’s.

Art Basel also announced its commitment to sustainability in June of 2022, outlining steps the fair is taking and will take to reduce its ecological impact. The fair hired a specialized consultancy to calculate its carbon footprint to better understand the myriad factors that contribute to its overall emissions. The fair has also become members of GCC and adopted the non-profit’s goals of facilitating a greener art industry, achieving near zero-waste practices, and aligning with the Paris Agreement by reducing the art world’s collective emissions by 50% by 2030.

While art fairs are working to improve their own operations, exhibitors are embarking on similar journeys to make sustainable decisions. Over the last two years, several groups and initiatives have formed that support galleries, artists, art workers, and institutions to identify areas of improvement and share resources and solutions. The aforementioned GCC launched in London in the fall of 2020 and has since expanded to Berlin, Italy, Los Angeles, and Taiwan. GCC consists of artists, institutions, businesses, and other non-profits and provides guidance, tools, and resources to reduce the sector’s climate impact. A vital service GCC provides is a free, user-friendly carbon calculator tailored for the art industry.

In New York, the worker-led initiative Galleries Commit formed in April 2020 to support climate-conscious operations and an equitable future. Its website includes a climate action database where members list useful resources, actions they’ve taken, and plans for future actions. Galleries Commit also partnered with the land conservation non-profit Art to Acres to support the permanent protection of over 200,000 acres of cloud forest in Peru, which was achieved with funds from over 40 art institutions.

In April 2021, Galleries Commit launched a sister initiative, Artists Commit, to provide artists with tools to improve their operations and hold institutions accountable to do the same. A keystone of Artists Commit is the Climate Impact Report (CIR), which examines the impact of an exhibition beyond its carbon footprint. The reports focus on: cutting emissions, eliminating waste, assisting collective action, and supporting people. Artists Commit provides a template that is easy to adapt to diverse practices and offers guidance through the process. The reports are listed publicly on the group’s website, allowing others to learn from previous examples.

London-based gallery The Approach worked with Artists Commit to conduct a CIR for their 2022 Frieze New York booth to better understand the impact of their operations and find ways to improve them in the future. They shared a booth with New York-based Simone Subal Gallery, allowing them to share resources such as lighting and furniture. With the support of Simone Subal’s team, fewer staff members from The Approach needed to fly from London, helping to reduce emissions related to international travel. The Approach also opted not to use items that could contribute to waste after the fair like pedestals and single-use objects but noted that leftover crates were likely to go unused. The gallery plans to ship artwork by sea in the future.

Caption: Recognizing the environmental and economic benefits of reusing materials, Untitled uses the same tent, walls, and furniture annually, with the exception of the VIP lounges that change with the fair’s needs. Image courtesy of Casey Kelbaugh.

One of the benefits of CIRs is the transparent recognition of problems, which is useful for other galleries and for the businesses that support them, such as art fairs and shipping companies. Like many exhibitors, The Approach noted that it hoped to find a reusable option for crating its artwork. In response, companies like ROKBOX have emerged that are working to create adaptable, reusable shipping solutions. Similar climate-conscious solutions like EARTHCRATE are being explored to use recyclable materials to custom-build crates that reduce waste even if they have a limited use. Art fairs, including Untitled, also encourage exhibitors to use consolidated shipments.

Marking a concerted effort to work towards a sustainable industry aligned with the Paris Agreement, GCC and Galleries Commit joined forces in July 2021 with five other climate activist groups to form Partners for Arts Climate Targets (PACT). Along with Art to Acres, Art + Climate Action, Art/Switch, Art to Zero, and Ki Culture, the groups formed PACT to amplify their individual efforts and center on the four main pillars of reducing emissions, shifting to zero waste, achieving unified standards of sustainability, and incorporating intersectional environmentalism that includes social justice. Now joined by Artists Commit, the eight groups hail from across the globe and have diverse approaches to the common goal of a sustainable industry.

While these groups, initiatives, and climate-conscious decisions might look different, the vision is the same: a sustainable art industry. Data reporting and conversations continue to raise more questions, which will enable the industry to reevaluate operations and find sustainable solutions in the future. If artists ask galleries to commit to sustainability, galleries will in turn ask art fairs and shippers to provide climate-conscious options. The goal is to change the industry system wide so that sustainability is part of every decision from the studio to the art fair to the artwork’s final home.

Annabel Keenan is a widely published writer and editor and has contributed to several digital and print publications, including The Art Newspaper, Cultured Magazine, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, and Artillery Magazine, among others. She specializes in contemporary art, market reporting, exhibition reviews and is actively promoting sustainability in the art world through her writing.