The relationship between the science of sustainability and art exhibition logistics
Visual arts and the environment have had a successful and long-lasting relationship. Artists such as Monet, Turner, and those of the Hudson River School found no better inspiration for subject matter than the contrasting power and fragility of the natural world.
For the arts as an industry, however, the story is different.
By Allison Palenske
Most art galleries and museums have yet to prove their esteem for ecological resources with the same reverence as the artists they exhibit. The logistics of running an art gallery provide a difficult situation for those looking to uphold principles of sustainability. Specific lighting and climate control is necessary to accommodate and preserve precious artworks—however, these elements often add layers of energy consumption to a building’s carbon footprint. The commercialization of the arts is in itself contradictory to the ecological principles that many contemporary environmental artists chose to advocate.
How can the science of design and proven principles of energy consumption along with the effect on ecology be applied to the tricky requirements of an art exhibition space? Some galleries and museums are starting to change their behaviors, and are setting reasonable standards for others to follow.
Nestled in a retail compound in Rock Island, Illinois, Zola Gallery appears upon first impression to be just another commercial gallery. However, the gallery serves as an example of how changing a business model can renovate the practices upheld by commercial galleries and their role in the art world. Aside from containing art of an ecologic subject matter, Zola Gallery is the first eco-art gallery in the Quad Cities area.
Part of the larger Eco Arts Council Quad Cities (EACQC) network, the gallery moves beyond the traditional idea of art as a commercial product. Environmental art is defined by Zola Gallery and the EACQC as a discipline that “encompasses products, processes and presentations that help educate, advocate, celebrate and improve our relationship and connection to the natural world.”
Zola Gallery serves as a meeting place and creative incubator, hosting eco-arts workshops and environmental education events. Sales are generated through art rentals, wherein clients can rent art for three-month increments, choosing to purchase after their rental period, or rent a new piece of art. By moving beyond just showing the product, but also elucidating process and presentations, Zola Gallery sets an exemplary precedent for eco-arts galleries.
Manchester Art Gallery
On the other side of the pond in the UK, the Manchester Art Gallery has been a hotbed for sustainable retrofit activity. With a collection that includes historic and modern landscapes, it comes as no surprise that the Manchester Art Gallery is aiming to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions.
Occupying three buildings in the city center, the gallery buildings’ historic listing and Italianate architecture provided a specific challenge of updating the facilities without losing any historic charm. The gallery decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 12% from 2011 to 2012, by installing low energy gallery lighting, and replacing outdated doors. In addition to these efforts, the Manchester Art Gallery has been testing alternatives to the energy-consuming environmental controls that certain works require. The gallery also promotes the use of public transportation and bicycles, as well as hosting its own bee colony amid the rooftop garden.
Despite the abundance of eco-art, environmental art, and social art practices that call for change in the way people consume, the business of the arts does not always follow suit. However, as cities look to become more environmentally progressive, gallery and exhibition spaces will soon become more aligned with the underlying principles of the environmental arts movement.