The environmental toll of the art world: how are fairs contending with Miami’s fragile environment?

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Concerns for the climate impact of the art industry are heating up. With dealers and collectors boarding planes to Miami en masse, it is hard not to worry about the environmental toll of North America’s main destination fair week. As short-term events, art fairs are inherently difficult to plan with sustainability in mind. People and works of art are flown across the world along with wasteful packing materials. Temporary tents, walls, VIP lounges and event spaces are built, used and seldom repurposed. While these activities have gone on with little scrutiny for decades, fairs are finally having to account for their waste, a topic of particular urgency in an area with such a fragile ecosystem as South Florida.

The city of Miami has always been vulnerable to some of the most damaging weather phenomena, including hurricanes, floods, heatwaves and coastal erosion that has already proved to have fatal consequences for infrastructure. With throngs of dealers and collectors descending on this fragile environment, some art fairs are finally recognising their responsibilities to address and reduce the impact of their operations and take Miami’s climate into consideration.

As the main event of Miami Art Week, Art Basel in Miami Beach is under increased scrutiny and organisers have taken note. “Art Basel is strongly committed to improving the ecological footprint of our fairs and concrete measures have already been in place at our Miami Beach show to reduce its environmental impact,” an Art Basel spokesperson says. “In 2019, we launched a comprehensive analysis of our carbon footprint to understand the full environmental impact of our shows, not only in terms of our direct emissions, but also concerning associated emissions, such as those stemming from galleries shipping art and collectors travelling to shows.”

Aiming for zero

The fair works with a sustainability consultant to develop long-term initiatives to improve its impact and assist exhibitors in doing so as well. Art Basel is also a member of the climate non-profit Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) and adopted its commitment to achieve zero-waste practices and reduce the art industry’s collective emissions by 50% by 2030, in alignment with the Paris Agreement. Art Basel also reuses the wall systems, aluminium truss systems and energy-saving LED lighting for all its fairs, storing these near Düsseldorf and shipping them to Miami by sea. The lifespan of those materials is seven to ten years, after which they are repurposed for other trade shows.

Art Basel’s organisers also took Miami’s environment into consideration when planning. “Our show in Miami Beach is intentionally scheduled outside of the hurricane season,” the spokesperson says.

The satellite fair Untitled Art also reuses materials, most notably the large tent it erects every year on Miami Beach, which is reused annually (apart from the VIP lounge areas). But opting for a temporary tent presents its own challenges. While Art Basel adopts the sustainability requirements of the Silver LEED-certified Miami Beach Convention Center that hosts the fair, Untitled works closely with Miami’s Department of Environmental Protection to develop “zero-impact” operations, which requires the fair to leave the beach exactly as it was found, without any oils, rubbish or waste left behind.

Future shock: a vision of a flooded Miami. The city—and the wider South Florida area—has always been vulnerable to damaging weather phenomena that have already had fatal consequences BackyardBest/Alamy Stock Photo

While fairs seem adept at reusing materials, repurposing them is more challenging. Waste associated with art fairs is rampant. Preparations take place over several months, but the aftermath of the events is less straightforward. Items such as pedestals and crates are often no longer needed and end up in landfill. Resources such as the peer-to-peer sharing site Barder are helpful to find new uses for materials, but fair structures and fittings have to be broken down and cleaned out immediately after the events end.

Waste not, want not

In an effort to reduce this waste, the GCC has developed a waste survey available for exhibitors of any art fair, including those in Miami. The survey analyses the types of materials used, in particular packaging materials. GCC uses the information collected to develop best practice guidelines for fairs and exhibitors to reduce single-use plastics and improve waste management.

Outside of Miami, the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) announced its sustainability initiatives at its The Art Show fair in New York early this month. Included is a sustainability roadmap developed in collaboration with the architecture and planning firm Gensler that analyses a variety of factors that contribute to the fair’s environmental impact. Much of this data will be informed by Climate Impact Reports (CIRs) that several exhibitors are conducting with the worker-led initiative Galleries Commit. The CIRs take into consideration several factors beyond energy consumption, including packing, shipping and waste. The fair plans to continue to update and improve the roadmap as more data are collected.

“This is an evolving process and we have a long road ahead,” Maureen Bray, the ADAA executive director, says. “Once complete, the roadmap will be made publicly available to assist and encourage all galleries participating in next year’s fair to adopt sustainable practices that we have found to be most successful. I feel confident that we can establish a healthier model for art fairs worldwide.”

Information-sharing is necessary to evaluate operations, and collaborations within cities are crucial to compare the needs of similar environments. Untitled’s relationship with Miami’s ecosystem is perhaps the most direct example of a fair depending on the environment of its host city: the very foundation on which the fair’s tent stands is eroding. While predictions about the rate of sea level rise vary, there is no denying it is rising, putting Miami’s beaches at risk. “The beach is a natural environment that changes year to year,” Untitled Art’s founder Jeff Lawson says. “Each year, there are different grades, different heights, different challenges to consider. Some of this, of course, is natural, but inevitably climate change is playing a role. We are not environmentalists, so we’re not tracking this in a reliable way, but it is something we must account for in our forward planning.”

Miami Beach will inevitably continue to change. So too will the infrastructure of the city as the climate crisis alters the coast and increases the frequency of natural disasters. The goal is to understand how all operations within the art industry, fairs included, can be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.

• A previous version of this article was featured on Untitled Art’s editorial platform

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