Financial investors are pressuring companies to reduce their carbon emissions. Could art collectors do the same at galleries?

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Art collector and billionaire at the head of investment firm Blackrock Larry Fink had a clear message in his annual written address to the CEOs last January: “No issue is higher than climate change on our clients’ priority lists. They ask us about it almost every day.

Although the letter was stamped with environmental concerns, Fink’s main point was that greener approaches are good for business.

“This is the start of a long but rapidly accelerating transition, one that will unfold over many years and reshape the prices of assets of all types,” Fink wrote. “The climate transition presents a historic investment opportunity,” he said, adding that “climate risk is an investment risk”.

In the art industry, where Fink is living his second life, galleries have taken notice. Many are by making net zero carbon commitments. Dealers participate in symposia to discuss new sustainability strategies. Christie’s announced that it would become net zero by 2030, and multinational gallery Hauser & Wirth announced the same. Both hired dedicated staff to meet the challenge.

“Any organization that wants to continue to exist and perform its function in 10 years must take this seriously,” said Danny Chivers, climate change researcher and environmental advisor at the Climate Coalition Gallery, which was founded in October to encourage individuals and art businesses to halve their emissions by 2030.

BBut there are major differences between the investment industry and the art industry. In the financial world, investors are under significant pressure: they injected $ 288 billion into sustainable assets in 2020, an increase of 96% compared to 2019. In addition, increasingly standardized rules and rankings make it easier for customers to buy in or out of business — a business based on its sustainability merits. Nothing like this exists in the art industry.

In addition, the pressure in the art world comes mainly from artists and dealers, not collectors, who have been less vocal. Are they finally going to show up and start pushing?

Hauser & Wirth, Durslade farm, Bruton, Somerset. Photo: Jason Ingram.

Where are the collectors?

In October 2020, the founders of the Gallery Climate Coalition started with only 14 members. Six months later, they numbered 500, including merchants, advisers, fair managers and auction houses. Yet no collector is listed on the organization’s website. (Circle of supporters of the CCG requires a one-time donation of at least £ 1,000). [Update, June 24: There are a few collectors, GCC tells Artnet News, who have donated but who did not want to be listed.]

Resellers told Artnet News that the imperative to act largely comes from within. Ewan Sales, CEO of Hauser & Wirth, said it is the artists who have been a major catalyst towards greener business practices. But little is said about collectors demanding low-carbon shipments, and no dealer has mentioned that their business would be compromised if they failed to clean up their gallery’s carbon footprint. (One dealer said his gallery would first organize itself internally before offering customers the option to “green” the way they buy and ship artwork.)

On the other hand, Tineke Lambooy, professor of corporate law and member of the advisory board of Art / Switch, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainability practices in the art sector, told Artnet News that in the financial world, investors are asking companies to “comply with OECD guidelines which are in line with the principles of the United Nations Global Compact.

“Business leaders and CFOs need to be guided by the attitude of investors towards a greener environment. How this fact translates into the art world is not yet completely clear ”, Venters said. (This year, the gallery hired a full-time environmental sustainability manager.)

“We are in a climate emergency, and if we don’t do things differently, the planet will be in trouble,” he added. “Every sector seems to understand this. “

The founding members of the Gallery Climate Coalition.  Courtesy of GCC.

The founding members of the Gallery Climate Coalition. Courtesy of GCC.

Where are our green labels?

When it comes to those who engage, transparency is key: promises are only worth the numbers. As Fink wrote: “Data and disclosure issues”.

Tom Woolston, global operations manager for Christie’s, told Artnet News the company is in the process of seeking validation of the Science-based targets initiative (SBTi), an independent body that helps private companies achieve science-based sustainability goals to align with the Paris Agreement, and issues certifications to companies that meet the qualifications.

“You see a lot of organizations that make promises without necessarily always following them,” Woolston said. “We are very sincere in our ambition. Christie’s now plans to publish an annual environmental impact report.

“It can be a very complicated and technical field and we are all on a learning curve,” added Woolston, suggesting that the complex issues made it essential to partner with an organization specializing in the subject such as SBTi.

Another point of progress would be a gallery ranking system.

“It’s relatively easy for investors in other industries to find companies through rankings and make decisions based on them,” Lambooy said. The ESG rankings (environment, social and governance) for most actions is a click on Google. “It’s time to formulate them” for the art market, she said.

Image courtesy of Christie's.

Christie’s has committed to be net-zero by 2030. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

A green art market

Things are improving rapidly. Just a few years ago, you would have struggled to find climate talks at an art fair, let alone see sustainability as a top concern for art dealers. But the pandemic has made the world smaller and more fragile. This also led to the the biggest drop in CO2 emissions since World War II, up to 7.5 percent. What will behaviors look like when the world returns to some sort of normalcy?

In a recent article by the editorial board of Financial Time, the editors warned that as the world emerges from this pandemic, we may see the second largest to augment in carbon emissions.

As the art world recovers, many in the business are saying it’s time for collectors to start voting with their dollars.

“The art sector, private and public, is where the imagination of society resides,” Chivers said. “If we want to imagine and build a better future, we need everyone in art to be on board. “

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