The Art Market and the Environment: The Artists Themselves

[20 May 2022]

The art world is belatedly but resolutely assuming its responsibilities with respect to the natural world. This is the second in Artprice’s series of ArtMarket Insights devoted to the ecological challenges and expectations facing the art market. The first discussed some of the initiatives adopted by the art auction and art fair spheres (see: The Art Market and the Environment : The secondary market), the second highlights artists who are committed to environmental issues, and the last will focus on the challenges facing the online art sphere as it seeks to adopt a more sustainable and eco-friendly model.

“We have been studying and implementing ways of reducing our ecological impact for several years now”, says Isabelle Bertolotti, Director of Lyon’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC Lyon). “and we are increasingly showing ecology-inspired projects that are often substantially more advanced than own policies and which would have been unthinkable in an artistic context until very recently”

Of course artists didn’t wait for the climate emergency to use their creations as warning messages. They have been putting nature at the center of their representations for ages. The natural world has been their muse and their inspiration, usually shown as eternal, but not immutable: its fragility and its degradation over time has modified the artist’s relationship to the landscape and to natural and urban spaces.

The artist and his environment…

7000_Eichen_-_Friedrichsplatz_2020-12-07

Josef Beuys, 7000 Oaks, Kassel, documenta 7, 1982

Among the first to tackle environmental issues were American artists like Iain BAXTER, Helen Mayer & Newton HARRISON in the 1960s/1970s, whose work focused on a whole range of pollutants from synthetic DDT, to toxic fumes and oil spills. In 1982, Joseph BEUYS planted his 7,000 oak trees during Documenta 7 in Kassel, trees which had an impact 25 years later when Ackroyd & Harvey grew cuttings from Beuys’ oak trees. Beuys believed that cities and towns should be “like forests”.

In the early 2000s, artists projecting messages of environmental protection were marginal. The art world has traditionally maintained a cautious distance from such issues, seeming remote from the concerns of collectors. Today, some form of environmental concern is omnipresent in artworks, exhibitions and art publications all over the world. From simple quotations to militant commitment, from extensively-researched projects to thought-provoking creations, there’s a whole range of different approaches. Here, notions of recycling and ephemerality… there, projects deliberately designed to raise awareness… elsewhere, direct exhibitions of scientific research.

“Artists can help us develop the imagination and implement concrete solutions by drawing a more positive representation, more inspired by a world in which people can project themselves”, explains Loïc Fel, one of co-founders of COAL (Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development), a French association created in 2008 to encourage artistic practices on these issues. According to Alice Audouin, who has been involved in sustainable development for more than 20 years, including 17 years on the link between contemporary art and the environment, “A new generation of artists – for whom the ecological crisis has been a real issue ever since they were very young – is placing environmental issues at the very heart of their practice. The ecology is not a ‘work theme’ for them, it’s their relationship to the world. They assume a pioneering role and look forward with optimism to a future where cooperation prevails over competition.” But how?

Caring for a sick planet, each in their own way

“I, the sculptor, am the landscape” Barbara Hepworth

Considered the female alter-ego of her compatriot Henry MOORE in the history of abstract sculpture, Barbara HEPWORTH (1903-1975) sought a new aesthetic, favoring the language of volumes and spaces. The animal, aquatic and plant kingdoms were great sources of inspiration. Her organic sculpture is above all a vision of the world: eschewing the pathos of the post-war period, the dehumanization of urban societies and the glorification of machinery, the sculptor’s universe of fullness and emptiness suggests an interior ecology in harmony with nature.

 Jérémy Gobé, Corail Restauration variation 10 ©jeremy-gobe

Jérémy Gobé, Corail Restauration variation 10 ©jeremy-gobe

Only an artist could make the link between marine biology, an age-old craft, art and ecology… By bringing together a traditional activity in decline (lacemaking in Puy-en-Velay) and an endangered environment, that of coral reefs around the world, the French artist Jeremy GOBE (1986) could well have found a way to save them. For his Corail Artefact project initiated in 2017, he studied coral reefs, reproducing their arabesques in his artistic creations. His subsequently saw a visual connection between common lacemaking patterns and some of the structures naturally produced by coral. This revelation then became the subject of a scientific research program and the development of innovations capable of regenerating coral reefs. Gobé decided to pursue the idea even further via research and partnerships with traditional manufacturers, conducting tests on natural concretes to recreate destroyed coral reefs, and curtains that depollute the air (his Coalition installation was exhibited in November 2021 in the hall from Saint Lazare station in Paris). In this case, ‘ecological art’ transcends its vocation as a whistleblower or awareness-raiser; it actually involves concrete action. Jérémy Gobé’s market has not yet followed the dynamic of his work (his best auction result is $14,000 for L’adresse), but the growing interest in art that addresses urgent environmental issues could soon trigger substantial interest in his work and raise his prices.

While Jérémy Gobé dives to the rescue of the oceans, it is the air we breathe that has inspired Tomas SARACENO (1973). His first auction room records were hammered after his remarkable appearances at the Biennale de Lyon and at Art Basel in 2017, but especially after his carte blanche at the Palais de Tokyo at the end of 2018. The Argentinian artist, famous for his cobwebs exhibited in the dark, is fascinated by the possibility of living ‘in the air.’ His Aerocene is an international and multidisciplinary project that suggests new ways of inhabiting the world, without borders or fossil energy. In contrast to the Anthropocene, the artist imagines a new “era/air” based on an ecological conscience in harmony with the environment and the atmosphere. A real movement has been created around Tomas Saraceno and a community of artists and scientists from all disciplines has mobilized to raise awareness about the environment and, above all, to experiment with ethical mobility solutions without carbon emissions.

Do green artists sell?

Christie’s is particularly advanced in its support of eco-committed artists. As part of its partnership with the Gallery Climate Coalition, the London-based auctioneer and its various international branches are launching a series of sales benefiting a charity supporting the environment. In July 2021, it announced a first initiative, a sale titled “Artists for ClientEarth”: seven works by artists like Antony Gormley, Cecily Brown and Rashid Johnson were included in the sales in London, New York and Hong Kong during the year. ClientEarth uses the expertise of specialized lawyers to block certain ‘programs’ that generate too much pollution. Integrated into its classic sales and sold through branches closest to where they were created (to limit transport), these works – donated by artists and member galleries, including Hauser & Wirth, Thomas Dane Gallery and White Cube – all reflect the environmental commitment of their authors.

“The whole art world seems to be in agreement about the fact that we need to change our ways” Cecily BROWN (1969)

Christie evening sale on 15 October 2021 in London opened with Cecily Brown’s There’ll be bluebirds. Having featured in the artist’s solo exhibition at Blenheim Palace the previous month, the work (Lot 1) elicited strong bidding to reach $4.8 million, seven times its low estimate! In the sales catalog the work was headed “Bidding for a greener future: property sold to benefit ClientEarth”.

Likewise for a work by Rashid JOHNSON (1977) a month later in Christie’s New York sale of 21st Century Art. An energetic large-format abstract painting in shades of blue titled Bruise Painting « Or Down You Fall », it was the first work from that series by the artist ever auctioned. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of $650,000 to $850,000, it was a huge success, generating an all-time high for the artist at $2.1 million. His previous record stood at $1.6 million for Anxious Red Painting December 18th. Artprice’s price index for Rachid Johnson shows substantial inflation since 2018.

 Rashid Johnson, Price Index ©Artprice

Rashid Johnson, Price Index ©Artprice

The Artists for ClientEarth collaboration continued with XIE Nanxing’s f o r a d a c a s a #3 (2020) in Hong Kong on 1 December 2021, also exceeding its estimate at $224,600. Antony GORMLEY’s sculpture Root was offered at Christie’s London sale of 20th/21st Century Art. Resembling a tree root it evokes the interconnectedness of the natural and man-made worlds. The next work to be sold under the Artists For ClientEarth banner will be a painting by Beatriz MILHAZES at an upcoming 21st Century Evening Sale.

Clearly the Artists For ClientEarth initiative was a very positive collaboration for all parties involved. Christie’s confirmed its role as a “green pioneer” in the art auction sphere; artists enjoyed the ‘ecological exposure’ (with LEDs of course) and even new auction records, and the beneficiary organization can set up new alert programs on environmental issues. In the same vein, Christie’s has also partnered with Change Now for an auction of sustainable artworks as part of the “Art for Change” program of the next edition of the ChangeNOW summit from 27 to 29 May 2022 in Paris. The sale, titled MoreArtLessCarbon will highlight the concept of “déjà là” (already there) with 16 works by French and international artists, including Caroline Venet, Linda Sanchez, Rachel Marks and Jordane Saget, who work with techniques and materials that minimize the environmental impact of their creations, either by limiting the use of toxic materials or by using recycled or upcycled materials. For example, street artist Tim Zdey recovered the door of a Citroën ZX from a junkyard in the suburbs of Paris to create On the Road Again. Rachel Marks’ work, titled Journaux de confinement (Lockdown Diaries), takes the form of three notebooks made of organic matter such as leaves, moss and twigs.

According to Ronan de la Croix, curator of the exhibition at ChangeNOW, “The works are neither ‘green’ nor ‘militant’; they do not necessarily address ecology as a theme, but integrate it into the creative process”. The works are estimated between €3,000 and €20,000 euros (approximately $3,500 to $24,000). Proceeds from the sale will be shared between the artists, their galleries and the nonprofit ChangeNOW Communities, to promote and encourage low-carbon artistic creation. The co-founder and CEO of Change NOW, Santiago Lefebvre, explains that this Christie’s sale marks the birth of the association, which will launch the ChangeNOW Prize for Sustainable Creation, supporting artists working in the field and organizing events dedicated to low carbon creativity.

It remains to be seen whether creating in a responsible and sustainable way will generate more art sales. Artists committed to other causes such as LGBTQA+ or ethnic minorities have sometimes turned auction podiums into platforms for their causes. Artists committed to environment protection are clearly at the forefront of a growing wave; will the market follow?