Art Institutions Aren’t Doing Enough to Lead on Climate Change. Here’s How the Industry Should Rethink Its Responsibility
It’s 2022 and the warning lights are flashing more urgently than ever. Climate change-induced heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, floods, and forest fires are crippling our planetary operating system. In 2021, the U.S. set more heat records than it had in the previous three decades. Even so, as one strolls through the world’s galleries, art fairs, and museums, this shared emergency hardly stands out as a core concern. It’s not just that we could use more art and exhibitions about climate change. The art world and its institutions need to lead the way in helping society respond, partly by making lasting changes in their own behavior.
It was with these considerations in mind that we, on behalf of the Asia Society and together with the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, initiated a call to an emerging generation of artists—those who will face the incipient environmental collapse head-on—to put forward works that directly address the scale, urgency, and complexity of the climate-change threat.
As part of the Frankenthaler Foundation’s recent prioritizing of climate action, it has launched an initiative to help American museums rectify the climate impact of their facilities. In April, the foundation, along with Asia Society, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Environmental Defense Fund, and and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C., will announce the three winners of the Frankenthaler Climate Art Awards. The recipients, all current or recent MFA graduates selected via a free open-call process now underway, will each receive a $15,000 award at the Kennedy Center. The event will coincide with Coal and Ice,” an exhibition of some 40 photographers visualizing climate breakdown, including how melting glaciers in the Greater Himalayas are disrupting river systems in Asia.
Global solutions to climate change demand the cooperation of all nation-states, foremost among them the U.S. and China, the two largest carbon emitters. But artists are central, too, because it is they who can change hearts and minds. Artists are often among the first to sound warnings about impending crises and the dangers of political action or inaction. Throughout history, artists have called attention to the travails and injustices of the day—from Francisco Goya depicting the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars to Judy Chicago unfurling the flag of feminism in the 1970s to Ai Weiwei championing freedom of expression and human rights.
Artists, after all, have unique tools at their disposal to capture public attention and start conversations. They can flesh out the ethical and political ramifications, and help people fathom the sheer enormity of the difficulties ahead.
There are, of course, many powerful examples of works and organizations tackling the climate crisis. The International Coalition of Museums, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, and the Gallery Climate coalition have held workshops and drafted tool-kits to spur action. Yet there is so much more to be done. Art need not necessarily be didactic, but it can sometimes help us better relate to the world in which we live. And as with other pressing issues—from gender and racial equity to ethical technology to creeping illiberalism—it’s not enough for artists to formulate compelling positions. Those positions must be embraced by the art institutions so that they can be seen and heard.
On the whole, for all the sober-minded panel discussions on environmental awareness, the climate crisis—arguably our most pressing concern as a species—has yet to command the scale of artistic and institutional response it truly deserves. And making room for ideas about climate change in arts programming is just part of the solution. Institutions must also act upon them. What would that look like?
First, there is the question of making cultural spaces climate-friendly, sustainable, and resilient. In Germany, where environmental consciousness runs deep, the new Green Party culture minister, Claudia Roth, is establishing a “Green Culture Desk” to provide guidance on the energy impacts of cultural facilities. The guidance is timely, since there is scant shared understanding about what needs to be done.
Climate adjustment is not just about tweaking around the edges. Bold—and costly—solutions may be required to prepare for what’s to come. The Louvre’s conservation and storage facility on high ground in Liévin, 120 miles from Paris, and the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV’s astonishing elevated “Noah’s Ark” Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen, in Rotterdam, are recent examples of the sort of future-proofing institutions may need to undertake.
In our view, some of the oft-suggested measures fall short of a meaningful response. One hears, for example, that museums should drastically curtail international loan exhibitions. But would jettisoning such a key function of museums be worthwhile? Paintings, we have learned, can travel without human couriers. Shipping materials and exhibition-design elements can be made reusable. Catalogues can be shared online. The transformative expansion of virtual programming during the pandemic points to a future in which people can access cultural institutions without burning gas or jet fuel—a habit that arts audiences have found hard to kick. All of which is to say, the response to the climate emergency should be seen in the context of a comprehensive reframing of art institutions’ connection to their communities and visitors.
Without doubt, the most consequential adjustment has to do with the art world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for brand new buildings. Construction is among the world’s most polluting industries. One less new museum building or wing would have a net-positive environmental impact to offset hundreds of exhibitions. And say what you will about London’s Barbican complex or New York’s Lincoln Center, forward-thinking urban planning—including physical and organizational combinations of cultural facilities sitting on public-transport hubs—can yield significant ecological benefits.
In the end, it all comes back to the question of what cultural funders and institutes can do to help stimulate more innovative, exciting, and impactful art, and bring more artists into the conversation about our common future. At a time when so many aspects of institutional behavior are under scrutiny, from collecting policies to hiring practices, still far too few galleries and museums showcase work done by artists dedicated to shaping public perceptions about how to save our planet from the ravages of climate change. There is no time to lose.
Orville Schell is director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, a longtime writer, and most recently author of the novel My Old Home: A Tale of Exile. András Szántó is a strategic advisor to arts and cultural institutions, and the author most recently of The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues. Information about the Frankenthaler Climate Art Awards and the open call may be accessed at climateartawards.org.