It’s 2022 and the warning lights are flashing more urgently than ever. Our planet’s operating system is being hampered by climate change-induced heat waves and hurricanes, as well as floods, flooding, and forest fires. In 2021, the United States set more heat records that it had in the past 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, must lead the charge in helping society respond. Partly by making lasting changes to their behavior.
It was with these Take into account 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. Each recipient, which will include all MFA graduates, will receive a $15,000 award from the Kennedy Center. The event will take place in conjunction with Ice and coal,” 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 for climate change require cooperation from all nations, especially the U.S.A. and China, which are the two largest carbon emitters. Artists are also important because they can change hearts and minds. Artists are often the first ones to warn about imminent crises and the dangers that political action or inaction can bring. 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 have unique tools to grab the attention of the public and start conversations. They can help people understand the enormity of the challenges ahead and explain the ethical and political implications.
There are many strong examples of organizations and works that tackle the climate crisis. Workshops were held by the International Coalition of Museums, International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art and Gallery Climate coalition to encourage action. There is still so much to do. Art does not have to be didactic. However, it can help us better understand the world in which our lives are taking place. 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. They must be accepted by institutions of art so they can be seen, heard, and understood.
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. The solution is not complete if we don’t allow climate change ideas to be part of arts programming. They must be implemented by institutions. What would that look and feel like?
First, cultural spaces must be made climate-friendly, resilient, and sustainable. 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. This guidance is timely because there is not much common understanding of what needs to happen.
Climate adjustment does not mean 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.
We believe that some of the commonly suggested measures do not provide a meaningful response. For example, one might hear that museums should severely limit international loan exhibitions. But would it be worth giving up such an important function of museums? We have learned that paintings can travel without the use of human couriers. You can make shipping materials and exhibition-design elements reusable. You can share catalogs 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 new museum building, or wing, would have a net-positive impact on the environment that offsets 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.
It all boils down to the question of how cultural funders can help to stimulate more innovative, exciting and impactful art and bring more artists into our collective future. Even though so many aspects are being scrutinized, including collecting policies and hiring practices, museums and galleries still don’t show work by artists who are working to change public perceptions of how to save the planet from the ravages caused by climate change. There is no time to waste.
Orville Schell, who is the director of the Center on U.S. China Relations at the Asia Society, is a long-time writer and was the 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 ofThe Future of the Museum – 28 Dialogues. You can find information about the Frankenthaler Climate Art Awards as well as the open call at climateartawards.org.
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