Why has the fine art logistics industry been so slow to adopt eco-friendly practices?

By Jonathan Kennedy
November 11, 2021 12:52pm

With the latest in a growing line of environmentally-focused events, both within the art industry and at a more macro level, I recently had the privilege of attending The Gallery Climate Coalition’s first in-person conference at the Barbican Centre here in London. The conference, focusing on ‘Decarbonising the Art World’ made me consider why it was that the fine art logistics industry specifically has been slow to adopt more eco-friendly shipping practices.

Having worked in the industry for over 20 years now, I’ve moved and installed artworks for some of the world’s top galleries, museums, artists, and private collections. What’s evident to me is that, certainly up until the last 3 years, the conversation around the environment within the sector was limited. Of course, it was known that shipping large quantities of artworks to art fairs around the world had an adverse environmental impact but there was little appetite for that to change. The conversation around that is shifting.

I feel that galleries, in particular, are starting to give much more thought to the type of packaging they are using and its sustainability. With the likes of Hauser & Wirth, for instance, where a Global Head of Environmental Sustainability has been appointed, you can see a start of a shift in emphasis. I also credit The Gallery Climate Coalition in being instrumental in identifying and shaping demand when it comes to sustainable shipping and packing options. Since they launched just over a year ago, we’ve seen an increase in the number of clients enquiring about more sustainable solutions.

Although they’re certainly not reasons to hide behind, I believe that there are three primary reasons that the fine art logistics industry has been slow to adopt more ecologically sound practices, all of which we should be working on how to overcome.

Firstly, we work in an environment where best practice evolves or is communicated from the top down. Museums and public collections (and maybe to an extent insurers and conservators) define what that best practice is in terms of packaging and that is adapted and applied by commercial galleries and by fine art logistics providers to varying degrees dependent upon the fragility and value of an artwork.

What we define as best practice is somewhat ingrained and, therefore, can be slow to change or develop. Although we are seeing a shift in mindset from the larger institutions, who now recognise their position and clearly want to be agents for change, I’ve only witnessed that happening in the last 3 years. This point was referenced by two prominent museum directors at the Gallery Climate Coalition conference last week. You can view this here.

Secondly, there is also a need for research and development for alternative packaging solutions but, until recently with the development of a shipping sub-group within The Gallery Climate Coalition, there has not been an appropriate forum within which we as shippers could collaborate, nor has there been an appropriate forum where other stakeholders (museums, registrars, art handlers and technicians, conservators, insurers) could provide their necessary input in order to shape the R&D that is needed.

Thirdly, it’s only natural that new solutions are always going to be more costly, at least initially, so historically there has always been a challenge to find the balance in which costs we, as fine art agents, absorb and which costs we pass on to our clients. Recently when we investigated using a fantastic eco-friendly alternative to polythene film. Although this was perfect for many projects, it soon became apparent it was cost-prohibitive – being five times more expensive than standard polythene film.  Up to now, shipping agents would have struggled to justify that additional cost. That’s now changing.

Cyclical packing solutions also have the potential to be a huge step-change for the industry, but they come with their own logistical issues which has slowed adoption. Speaking personally, when I am looking at a packing solution for a given project it’s almost like muscle memory, that’s to say I’m accessing my memory bank for similar issues I’ve addressed before. I think as individuals we need a nudge to push us towards change. I can, for instance, think of many examples where, with the benefit of hindsight, I might have been able to use a cyclical solution, for example, a ROKBOX, rather than a single-use solution.

I believe there are a series of steps that we can take to move more quickly when it comes to adopting more environmentally friendly practices.

Communication and collaboration is going to be key. The fine art logistics sector needs to engage much more closely with stakeholders, whether that be at museums and registrars conferences such as UKRG or at an event like last week’s Gallery Climate Coalition conference, in order to build consensus on what’s needed and what’s appropriate in terms of packaging development. I’d love to see a panel of some kind where commercial galleries, museums, conservators, insurers, and shippers can have these conversations on a regular basis to really push the agenda forward at pace. If we take a moment to work with other agents to negotiate more competitive material rates and co-fund research and development projects costs then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to overcome these issues.

I think ROKBOX is a fantastic product and, in an ideal world, I’d love to see the fine art logistics industry becoming far more collaborative in order to build networks and share their inventory to expand potential use. The major challenge we face is to get these products back efficiently when a movement is only one way, from London to New York, for example. Sharing a network of resources and cyclical materials would help with this.

We also need to be open when we find great alternatives to those materials that we use habitually. We did, for example, recently find a great alternative to single use gloves which we have now switched to throughout the organisation. There are easy changes that can be made today and making these changes publicly available will only serve to benefit us as a whole rather than diluting competitive advantage.

We need to foster a culture within our businesses where we are constantly looking at how we can improve our environmental credentials, considering how we can adapt our processes accordingly at every opportunity. Stakeholder engagement within our organisations is key.

There’s a long way to go but I believe we’re heading in the right direction and, with greater collaboration, I’m sure we will reach our ambition to reduce our carbon emissions by 50% in line with the Paris Agreement.

We would welcome collaboration across the industry, so if you’d like to work with us to develop and trial more eco-friendly packaging solutions, please do get in touch via info@queensfineart.com





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