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How Bay Area Art Galleries Are Confronting Their Role in the Climate Crisis

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A street view of a small, one-rrom gallery with floor-to-ceiling windows
Exterior view, Friends Indeed Gallery, Chinatown Location. Courtesy Friends Indeed Gallery, San Francisco.  (Graham Holoch)

Most Bay Area residents will never forget that eerie September day in 2020 when the sky turned an apocalyptic orange from wildfire smoke—a wildfire caused and made worse by climate change. Deeply disturbed by that event, Micki Meng, president of Friends Indeed Gallery, emailed her contacts across the art world with a call to action. The result was the formation of Art + Climate Action, “a collective of California arts professionals and advocates responding to the climate crisis,” which Meng started with curators Jodi Roberts and Devon Bella.

Over the last several years, organizations like Art + Climate Action have been springing up around the world to address the detrimental environmental impacts of the art industry. These organizations focus on issues like waste from packaging materials, emissions from building energy use, art transport and art-related travel.

The art industry relies on shipping artwork all over the world, between artists, galleries, collectors and institutions, as well as to international art fairs, which have become central to the art market. According to “The Art of Zero,” a 2020 report by the organization Julie’s Bicycle, art dealers took an average of 12 work-related flights in 2020, while only one in 10 of the global population took a flight in 2018 at all. The report finds that the combination of three main factors—building energy use, the transport of artwork and people, and procuring of goods and services—accounted for around 18 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gasses (an output the size of a small country such as Croatia).

Two paintings side-by side, of shapes and colors
Installation View, Livien Yin: Ka-la-fo-ne-a, Friends Indeed Gallery, Bayview location. Courtesy Friends Indeed Gallery, San Francisco.
(Graham Holoch)

Art + Climate Action is helping Bay Area museums and galleries minimize their carbon output by providing “carbon audits” and offering strategies for how to reduce waste. Of their efforts, Meng says, “Climate change is the most pressing issue of our generation. In a place known for leadership and activism, California arts workers are organizing out of urgency and care for the future of humanity.”

In New York, the collective Galleries Commit formed to support galleries in similar efforts. The collective offers a comprehensive plan around four core action areas: eliminating waste, cutting emissions, supporting staff, and increasing impact through collective action.


Meanwhile, the London-based Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) provides research, strategies, and practical tools that will support galleries and other art-sector businesses in cutting carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030. One such tool is their “Carbon Calculator,” which helps galleries measure their carbon footprint and provides a breakdown of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions (Art + Climate Action uses this calculator for its carbon audits).

A purple-hued representation of childbirth
Judy Chicago, Childbirth in America: Crowning Quilt 7/9, 1982. Quilting and embroidery over drawing and hand-painting on batik fabric. 28 x 48.5 inches. 71.12 x 123.19 cm. Courtesy of Jessica Silverman Gallery.
(John Wilson White)

A number of Bay Area galleries are implementing changes in response to these concerns and initiatives. At San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman, for example, the gallery is committed to reusing packing materials such as wooden crates and plastic poly sheeting. Cardboard and foam that is no longer suitable for packing is cut down and used for fill. They also source necessities that are closer to home and thus carry less of a carbon footprint. When possible, the gallery uses compostable materials rather than polyethylene (moving blankets for packing, glassine paper for wrapping art, as well as “green” polyethylene bags).

The gallery recognizes that the most detrimental aspect of the art industry is the pollution that comes from shipping. According to a Jessica Silverman representative, an audit of their planning for several recent Judy Chicago exhibitions revealed emissions could be significantly reduced with advanced planning. As a result of its coordination with the de Young and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the representative says the gallery was able to “consolidate shipments and reduce the number of trucks going between Judy’s studio (in New Mexico) and San Francisco,” thus lowering the carbon footprint of the exhibitions.

Like Jessica Silverman, Friends Indeed, which Meng co-founded with Eric Li and Nazlı Ercan, is committed to reusing packaging and works to consolidate shipments when organizing exhibitions. The gallery also participates in just three art fairs, one local, one in Miami, and one international, thus cutting down on travel. For the latter two, they try to work with local artists, who will not have to fly to be there and can deliver their own work. Presenting easily transportable media like video also reduces—or altogether removes—the burden of shipping.

Meng notes that shipping by sea instead of air is another effective way to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, according to ARTA, an art transport company dedicated to leading the industry in reducing its carbon footprint, “A switch from air to sea on a transatlantic shipment of an average-scale crate can lower carbon emissions by a factor of up to 40.” This, however, requires significant advance planning, since the journey can take as much as four times as long (air freight typically lasts 5-10 days and shipping by sea 20-40). Meredith Blechman, head of marketing and partnerships for ARTA, also points out that sea freight transit times have been “further exacerbated by the global supply chain crisis.”

In addition to strategic approaches to art shipment and travel, a number of galleries and art organizations are making contributions to offset their carbon footprint. For example, Galleries Commit, ARTA, Friends Indeed, and numerous other art organizations contribute to the California-based, artist-founded nonprofit, Art into Acres. Art into Acres helps artists and art institutions invest in large-scale land conservation efforts, focusing on old growth forests and other ecologically vital land.

A vertical illustration and a horizontal image of an African American man with digital enhancements, in diptych
David Wilson, Claremont Canyon, 2018, watercolor on found board, 19 ⅜ x 25 ¼ in. (artist-built frame).
Nkiruka Oparah, Poetics of Reverie, 2014, digital collage on archival paper, 24 ⅛ x 18 ¼ in. framed, edition of 5. (Courtesy Round Weather Gallery.)

For small, hyper-local galleries like Round Weather in Oakland, carbon emissions from shipping and art travel are not an issue. Director Chris Kerr founded Round Weather in December 2020 to specifically help alleviate the climate crisis. The nonprofit gallery primarily focuses on local artists and collectors and does not participate in art fairs. Additionally, Kerr commits 40% of proceeds from sales to environmental causes chosen by Round Weather’s board of advisors, which includes environmental experts such as author and activist Bill McKibben.

For galleries whose business model is embedded in the larger, global art market, however, it can be difficult to put new systems in place. When asked what makes reducing emissions so challenging, Blechman points out, “Some galleries have hired employees that focus solely on sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint.” In other words, this work is a full time job. Most galleries are working with lean teams and tight budgets. As a result, Blechman says, “The number one reason that more galleries and businesses aren’t changing their business models in more environmentally conscious ways is because they don’t have the internal resources to dedicate to it and, often, they don’t even know where to start.”


Meng agrees it’s challenging but says it’s not impossible. “It’s just a matter of consciously embedding these protocols into operations,” she says. As we approach near-irreversible climate change, clearly, anything we can do to make changes in every sector is necessary and important.

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