The Climate Crisis: What Can the Art World Do?

The climate crisis is a phrase that has quickly become a widely used term to describe the heightened state of emergency the planet is now faced with. The world is starting to become aware of our implications on the earth, with activists desperately trying to encourage faster action to be taken. But how does the art world fit into all of this? Art is a form of expression for the individual and community alike. It can often express what words are not able to fully convey. As the severity of the climate crisis has been put into perspective, the anxiety that surrounds the future of the earth as we know it has grown. Activist groups like Extinction Rebellion have been at the forefront of the climate movement. The art that has come to symbolise their protests not only attracts the world to their plea but also reminds us that art can and should be used as a tool for change. Art is extremely powerful and has proved itself to survive generations of turmoil and periods of extreme, rapid change. Art institutions show no sign of becoming dismantled, and the alterations that museums and institutions are making to keep up with the climate crisis movement hint at the significant impact the art world has.


Extinction Rebellion group protest in Oxford Circus in April 2019

In April last year, Director of Tate Modern Frances Morris welcomed climate activists into the Turbine Hall. This marked the beginning of the movement Culture Declares Emergency that sought to challenge the cultural sector to do their part. Continuing the welcome of discussion and activism, Tate Modern will host a conference for leaders of the cultural sector later this year. Since last April, other institutions have swiftly followed suit. Based in South London, the Horniman Museum and Gardens declared a state of ecological emergency. The museum later published an online manifesto detailing how it will advocate for climate action and reduce its carbon footprint. As a museum that is home to over sixteen acres of gardens, it’s easy to understand why the movement is so crucial. “As the only museum in London in which nature and culture can be viewed together, in both indoor and outdoor spaces…the Horniman has a moral and ethical imperative to act now”, writes the manifesto. It sets plans to educate the public about the climate emergency through its collection, whilst reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases. The chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, Nick Merriman, went as far as to establish a group within the UK’s National Museum Director’s Council targeting institution’s involvement in reducing their carbon footprint.


The Horniman Musem’s main collection.

The Horniman is not the only example of the change in viewpoint. The Serpentine Galleries declared its 50th anniversary would centre on ecology and ignite a long-term initiative titled Back to Earth. Running from June to September this year, this will promote artists whose works respond to the climate crisis. Earlier this year, artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist pledged to significantly reduce his flying to mark the organisation’s anniversary. The gallery is also the first to appoint a curator solely dedicated to ecology, Lucia Pietroiusti. It is clear that ecological concern has quickly become the heart of the Serpentine’s future. Obrist wrote extensively on his own concerns about the implications of travelling on the arts. It remains common practice for curators and directors alike to frequently travel the globe in search of new acquisitions. As Obrist notes with brutal honesty, paying a carbon offset fund every time one flies is simply no longer enough. Frieze magazine went into more detail on this in their aptly titled article, Can the Art World Kick its Addition to Flying?


The Serpentine Galleries, London

Examples such as these question the role of the cultural sector in response to the climate change movement. Art galleries and museums have the ability to act as the voice of the public, and as such have a huge part to play. The climate crisis is shifting the practice and focus of the art world and it is this new way of thinking that will spark global and transnational change. Our changing environment puts art and the collection of museums at risk. Now more than ever the voices of authority and action that sit within museum walls need to speak up and do their part.


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