The UAE has long been known for its rapid economic growth and impressive infrastructures. In recent years, the nation has set its sights on fostering sustainability across various sectors, including the art industry. The intersection of art and sustainability is a burgeoning concept gaining traction within the UAE’s vibrant cultural landscape. The local art sector is striving to embrace sustainability and is set firmly on its journey towards a more environmentally conscious and socially responsible future.
Embracing sustainable practices
The art sector in the UAE has historically been synonymous with opulence and grandeur, showcasing larger-than-life shows and architectural marvels. However, the paradigm is shifting as stakeholders recognise the need to integrate sustainable practices into the art ecosystem. Institutions, galleries, and artists are increasingly embracing eco-friendly approaches to their operations and creations.
Art Jameel, a major art institution in Dubai that partners with international players such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum, is at the forefront of the movement.
“Culture plays a key role in communicating the complexities of the climate crisis to a broad audience and drawing them in as active participants that can then engage in sustainable practices. At Art Jameel, we’re engaged in new research, looking at how the arts can resist and adapt to climate change from the perspective of the Global South and harnessing the power of the arts to address the climate crisis,” says Antonia Carver, Director, Art Jameel.
“We’ve also been doing carbon footprint studies for a few years now and adapting our own practices and buildings, including Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai’s contemporary hub for arts and ideas, in Jaddaf Waterfront,” she says, adding, “I don’t believe the art market is so involved in environmental awareness, but the not-for-profit and museum sectors are becoming ever more invested and involved.”
Dubai-based Firetti Contemporary is one of the art galleries that has embraced eco-friendly practices as part of its ethos. “Sustainability in the art world transcends canvas and sculptures; it’s a commitment to reflecting and addressing the crucial issues of our time,” says Celine Azam, Gallery Director.
“Contemporary art, as the purest expression of our contemporary world’s feelings and situations, becomes a powerful vehicle for raising awareness on urgent matters like climate change. Artists, as societal mirrors, play a vital role in sensitising the public. The art market becomes a catalyst, amplifying their voices and fostering a collective responsibility towards a sustainable future. At Firetti Contemporary, we believe in the transformative power of art to inspire change and contribute to a more environmentally conscious society.”
Apart from institutions and galleries, there are artists like Anja Bamberg who work mainly with recycled material as a matter of principle.
“Creativity and sustainability are closely linked in my art,” says Bamberg. “As an artist, I have the unique opportunity to use my creative skills to convey messages of sustainability and raise awareness of environmental and social issues. Furthermore, my art is sustainable in that I use eco-friendly materials and techniques. I do this by working mainly with recycled paper.”
She adds: “My favourite material is paper bags. Since there are restrictions on using plastic bags, they are now often replaced by paper bags. In my opinion, this doesn’t make much sense in principle because they are usually only used once before they end up in the trash. Many people are not even aware that a tree had to be felled for this. For more than a year, I have been using almost exclusively recycled paper for my art, mostly in the form of paper bags.
"I asked friends, neighbours, and artist friends to keep them for me, and I gathered a good pool of different colours and shapes of paper bags. My intention was, is and will be to explore the beauty of the water through the use of waste paper, expressing the spirit of sustainability while counteracting the throwaway culture entrenched in today’s society.”
Azam sees the art world channelling its energies towards creating awareness of the situation. “The relationship between creativity and sustainability is deeply intertwined in most of our art. Artists, as societal mirrors, possess a profound ability to articulate the concerns and pain of the society they inhabit. In the face of the significant impact of climate change, many artists within our gallery community are channelling their creativity to express profound concerns about the beauty of nature that we are unfortunately losing. It’s a powerful intersection where art becomes a poignant medium to raise awareness and evoke a sense of responsibility towards the environment.”
Challenges and solutions
Short-term events such as art fairs produce thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions and generate waste in the form of plastic wrapping, discarded crates, and temporary building materials, all for a few days of art marketing and sales. In light of these issues, how can the art market’s responsibility towards sustainability be fulfilled?
“Traditionally, the art market has faced ecological challenges, notably in shipping and packaging. The carbon footprint associated with transporting artworks globally and the waste generated from traditional packaging have been significant issues. The industry must actively adopt sustainable practices. Many in our community are increasingly embracing virtual experiences, reducing the need for physical transportation. We prioritise sustainable packaging approaches and promote recycling initiatives. To ensure a better future for our planet, the art market must continue to shift towards virtual engagement, invest in sustainable packaging alternatives, and advocate for responsible shipping practices,” Azam says.
Carver highlights an important initiative Art Jameel is helming. “We have teamed up with the British Council to launch a grants programme for artists and institutions in the Arab world, inviting artists to create projects that raise awareness and institutions to apply to purchase hardware to reduce their waste and carbon footprints. Grants worth a total of GBP 250,000 are available and the deadline for submission is January 15,” she says.
“Art Jameel has also teamed up with Dubai Culture on a scheme, Research and Practice Platform 2023-24, specifically to encourage UAE-based artists and creatives to address climate change in their work. This also includes grants and additional programmes, in association with Al Quoz Creative Zone. From a museum perspective, there is an increasing awareness of the environment and a sharing of ways that we can collectively address this, for example, through shipping by sea rather than air; through recreating works onsite rather than shipping; through reducing use of water and power,” Carver adds.
Art to the rescue?
It is said that it’s through art that we can envision potential alternatives for sustainability. But does the art world have the power to tackle climate change, and does it have the potential to take a leadership role in building a sustainable future?
Carver believes it can. She says: “At Art Jameel, we’ve staged several exhibitions over the years looking at ideas around the future of food and on water as a precious resource. These exhibitions included original research by artists, writers, and others on how we can address the climate crisis from the perspective of the Global South. Most often, the debate and standards around, for instance, temperature and humidity control in museums and art collections are set by the Global North – by powerful museums in Europe and America.
However, the vast majority of the world lives in different climates and circumstances; we’re discussing with colleagues across Asia how we can build realistic new ways of working that relate to our own environmental conditions and experiences and that help combat climate change. We’ve also recently launched a special fellowship, the first such in the world, inviting researchers to come work with us and our art collection to develop original thinking out of the Gulf on how caring for and displaying art could and should adapt for the age of climate crisis.”
Azam is on the same page. she says the art world possesses immense power to envision and inspire potential alternatives for sustainability.
“Artists, with their unique perspectives, can effectively communicate the urgency of addressing climate change. We firmly believe that the art world should play a leadership role in building a sustainable future. Through thought-provoking exhibitions and advocacy for sustainable practices, the art community can contribute to shaping a collective consciousness that fosters positive environmental action. Art has the potential to ignite change, and it is our responsibility to harness this power for the betterment of our planet.”
Several initiatives and organisations are leading the way in steering the art and cultural sectors towards a sustainable future, says Azam.
“Some notable examples include Julie’s Bicycle, based in the UK, which works with the creative community to integrate sustainability into their work. They provide resources, tools, and certification programmes to help cultural organisations reduce their environmental impact. Likewise, the Green Art Lab Alliance brings together artists, curators, and institutions to explore and promote environmentally sustainable practices in the arts. So also Art to Acres, an initiative by artists and galleries that contribute a percentage of their sales to land conservation projects, linking art sales directly to environmental protection.”
Azam adds, “Locally, I can mention the National Bank of Fujairah’s support for artists focusing on sustainable art is commendable. Initiatives like these play a crucial role in fostering creativity while promoting environmental consciousness. It’s inspiring to see local organisations taking an active part in the intersection of art and sustainability, contributing to a more vibrant and responsible cultural landscape.
“These organisations are fostering sustainability in the art world through various means, such as promoting eco-friendly practices, raising awareness, supporting environmentally focused art projects, and encouraging responsible consumption within the cultural sector. Their efforts contribute to a more sustainable future for the arts and culture.”
Bamberg sounds a note of caution. ”I think the art world can undoubtedly have a significant impact on society, including the way we approach climate change. Art can help us make emotional connections and present complex issues such as sustainability and environmental awareness in a creative way. But, it is important to recognise that art alone cannot solve climate change. Tackling climate change requires a comprehensive commitment from governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals. However, the art world can certainly make a valuable contribution to raising awareness, promoting dialogue, and highlighting alternative paths to sustainability,” she says.