Last spring, a woman clad in a coat of living grass rode a white horse into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall at the head of a procession of artists and activists demanding that cultural organizations declare a climate emergency. In the wake of school strikes and traffic stoppages across London by protesters incited by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, the theatrical action marked one of many mounting high points for a cause gathering momentum in the cultural sphere.
In a high-profile move three months later, Tate—a network of four museums including Tate Modern, which ranked as Britain’s top tourist attraction, with 5.9 million visitors in 2018—announced it would join the cause and pledged to cut its carbon footprint by at least 10 percent by 2023. “Large public buildings, attracting millions of visitors from the U.K. and overseas, require energy,” reads a declaration issued in July, which saw the highest-ever temperature recorded in the U.K. and record-setting heat across Europe. “We see caring for and sharing a national art collection as a public good, but it also consumes resources. . . . That’s why we pledge to make our long-term commitment ambitious in scope. We will interrogate our systems, our values, and our programs, and look for ways to become more adaptive and responsible.”
The promise caught the notice of the art press as well as observers from outside the art world’s closest orbit. In an article a few days later aligning installation art with pop songs, movies, and TV, a writer for the Guardian suggested that artists—and, by extension, the institutions that support them—“have discovered a crucial role for themselves, making an issue that sometimes seems abstract instead feel emotional and urgent.”
Others expressed skepticism over Tate’s pledge, with Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group (which oversees London’s Science Museum and other related institutions) sending a leaked email to staff suggesting that the announcement had generated minimal media coverage “perhaps because press releases that are more statement than substance do not always play well with a jaded media . . . I prefer action, not words.”
However much opinion fluctuated, the time had arrived for Tate to begin to figure out how to implement a plan whose long-term effects remain to be seen and whose costs are still being calculated. “The 10 percent was very conservative,” Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, told ARTnews six months after the museums’ pledge was issued. “Tate is famously modest in making claims because we’re so open to being shot down.”
The 10 percent target, Morris explained, follows a previous 40 percent cut in energy consumption since 2007/2008, which resulted in part from updating machinery for heating and cooling, replacing old illumination with LED lighting, and monitoring the organization’s water use. New buildings such as the $340 million Switch House extension designed by Herzog & de Meuron for Tate Modern have been built with sustainability in mind, enlisting methods for natural ventilation, rainwater harvesting, and solar-power generation.
For further ways to advance the cause in the future, Tate has assigned Julie’s Bicycle—a London-based organization that works with creative enterprises on sustainability measures and policy ideas in the fight against climate change—to conduct a full external audit and explore next steps. “We’ve been doing quiet, sustained work for 10 years,” Morris said. But after publicly declaring an emergency, “we thought we’re really going to have to articulate how we’re getting our house in order, which we’re doing now. Then we begin to share that with the outside world, because it’s incredibly important to deliver on promises. We have to be a trusted role model because so many institutions and individuals are waiting for best practices to follow and for demonstrable examples of how they can respond.”
The commissioned audit is expected to be completed by late spring or early summer. But as part of its plan to go greener in the future, Tate has already moved to an energy supplier that matches the institution’s usage to purchases of renewable energy obtained on its behalf. “We pay an additional amount extra to ensure that our electricity is sourced from 100 percent renewable generation,” said Stephen Wingfield, Tate director of finance and estates, of a move that should significantly reduce certain greenhouse gas emissions produced from heating and cooling buildings as well as general electricity that together currently stand at some 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide yearly.
Tate has also implemented a train-first travel policy that suggests employees on the road consider traveling by rail rather than by air, and Morris noted that curators at Tate Modern had already been drastically adapting their travel habits in a manner that led to a 68 percent decrease in their carbon footprint over the past three years. “That wasn’t achieved by saying you can’t travel—it was achieved by asking every curator to really think if they needed to travel,” the director said. Spending on travel actually rose over the same period by 10 percent, to £682,000 ($876,000), due to increased rail and flight costs overall (train fares are often more expensive than budget airlines in the U.K.) as well as additional hotel bills for employees incorporating as many meetings as possible into each journey rather than taking multiple trips over time. But overall, carbon emissions from travel for Tate as a whole (curators plus others in the organization) have fallen 30 percent, from 777 tons to 549, since the 2015/16 fiscal year, a Tate spokesperson said.
Beyond those measures, Tate is incorporating greener thinking in its commissioning and programming, as evidenced by its recent blockbuster exhibition by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, around which Tate Modern organized a number of environmentally themed debates and talks. In a similar fashion, for Tate Britain’s annual winter commission to decorate its facade, British artist Anne Hardy transformed the Neoclassical exterior into a ghostly ruined temple in a post-apocalyptic future to draw attention to the climate crisis.
Operations are being reassessed for improvements in efficiency that can add up. The organization is updating its working relationships in consideration of the sustainability of contractors, reusing plinths and walls built for exhibitions, reducing plastic in catering and retail spaces, and focusing on recycling. Kara Walker’s current commission for Tate Modern’s spacious Turbine Hall—the 44-foot-statue Fons Americanus (on view until April 5)—was constructed with reusable cork, wood, and metal, while its surface material was made with a nontoxic acrylic and cement composite.
During Eliasson’s show, Tate Modern operated a circular economy for T-shirts whereby nearly 1,000 visitors exchanged old shirts (which Tate sent away to be recycled) for new organic, Fairtrade cotton T-shirts featuring the Tate brand or a design relating to an exhibition. Studio Olafur Eliasson (SOE) Kitchen in Berlin helped develop a special green menu in Tate Modern’s restaurant that noted the carbon footprint of each dish. “Tate agreed to run the menu at 10 to 20 percent less profit [per meal] rather than raise the price,” the artist said at a panel discussion on climate issues. Tate has also introduced more vegan and vegetarian options in its restaurants and adapted its thinking about all varieties of food. “By using different cuts, we are often able to source higher-welfare meats,” a Tate spokesperson said, “i.e., those more sustainably produced, for a similar price.”
Price is no small concern against a backdrop of falling government funding for museums—down 13 percent in England over the course of the decade leading up to 2017, according to a recent government-commissioned review. Another factor is the loss of a significant corporate income source since British Petroleum ended its 27-year sponsorship deal with Tate, a relationship that had prompted a string of image-damaging protests by environmental activists. BP accounted for annual funding of £350,000 ($449,000) between 2007 and 2011 (excluding a larger one-off payment during the 2012 Olympics), according to figures Tate was ordered to disclose after a three-year legal battle with the British campaign group Platform. And that was on top of £3.8 million ($4.9 million) Tate received from BP over the 17 years between 1990 and 2006, an average of £224,000 ($288,000) annually.
“Loss of an individual sponsor is offset by the addition of other sponsors,” said Morris, who noted that the institution is aiming to diversify its donor base and build membership while “working imaginatively, particularly through Tate Commerce and Tate Eats, to increase the amount of income we self-generate in a green way.”
Tate receives around £35 million ($44.9 million) from the government, making up some 30 percent of its operating income, which last year stood at £120.2 million ($154.3 million). The rest is self-generated through a combination of Tate’s own enterprises and private sources such as gifts, sponsorship, and membership. With the sustainability audit still in the works, Wingfield was reluctant to go into detail relating to prospective cost comparisons between the past and future. But on one significant measure, Tate’s annual accounts show that in the 2018/19 tax year (the U.K. fiscal year runs from April to April), its annual energy spending rose 51 percent to £3.4 million ($4.4 million) over 2007/8, when Tate began measuring and reporting emissions. The reasons for that owe in large part to increased air-conditioning needs over the hot summer and the installation of a new air-cooling system at Tate Modern. (Wingfield also noted that energy prices in general had increased significantly in recent years, and that Tate had expanded its buildings, including Tate Modern.)
In another measure, since 2007/8, Tate has brought its waste production down 10 percent annually by recycling or reusing more waste. Spending to reduce waste with such efficiency in mind, however, rose by 47 percent, to £184,000 ($236,000).
Despite this rise in costs, Morris said she believes that operational changes already underway at Tate “should ensure we have sufficient flexibility in the budget to invest in climate emergency. What we don’t have is a separate budget—it’s embedded in everything we do.”
Having declared its short-term energy-saving target, Tate now must deliver if it is going to lead by example in a museum milieu working with the rest of the world to think its way through climate change. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, an institution comparable to Tate in certain ways, is pursuing its own carbon-reduction drive, though in a more internal manner. “We just launched an institution-wide commitment to think about sustainability,” Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, told ARTnews in early January. The commitment applies “not only in terms of energy consumption,” he said, “but everything we touch, from materials we purchase to materials we use to how we deal with information that is circulated to the public.”
MoMA decided not to release specific targets or figures without detailed research, Lowry said, but is aiming “to reduce energy consumption year-over-year by meaningful amounts.” To do so will require wholesale rethinking related to matters big and small. “Think about paper consumption—we produce thousands of leaflets and brochures and maps a year in paper,” he said. “Can we move completely to digital? Is that practical? Will it work for our public?”
While citing aspirations among MoMA staff to help improve the museum’s green credentials, Lowry said, “I think one can look at what we need to do better, but we also have to be realistic about what we can achieve. We have to set for ourselves ambitious but realistic targets and improve on ourselves year over year. There is an eagerness to embrace new approaches in order to make the institution work in a better way—the challenge is realizing them.”
Museums can make significant progress even with rising costs and budget constraints, according to Christiana Moss, founding principal of the architecture and design firm Studio Ma, based in Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s absolutely, practically feasible—it’s just a matter of priorities,” she said.
Studio Ma recently completed three projects in the museum sector, including consultation on ground-up construction for the Museum of the West in Scottsdale, Arizona, where design technology was used to ensure low carbon emission, and minimal energy and water use in a demanding desert location. “Using simple solutions for new museum buildings, such as energy-efficient passive design principles that maximize insulation and solar yield, for example, green museums needn’t cost any more than standard ones,” said Moss, who added that the Museum of the West in fact cost about one-third the total that comparable museums otherwise might. And then: “Moreover, they tend to cut costs over time.”
Studio Ma also designed a research complex at Arizona State University, integrating a biome into its facility that press materials claim “requires zero energy as it scrubs carbon, purifies water, cleans the air, and even creates food while displaying an array of plant life within a modern, glass-enclosed living machine.” As Moss said, “Today, we have the know-how and technology to create museums that make more energy than they use, that recycle rainwater, and eliminate carbon emissions—even generating resources for their communities.”
To fund such ambitious schemes, donors and museum boards need to adjust their approach to sponsorship beyond the visual appeal of branded exhibitions and buildings, Moss said. “It’s not necessarily the most glamorous thing to have a donor step up to make something net-carbon-positive. They have to get to a point where they have donors interested in doing things that may not pay back within a 10-to-15-year time frame but, instead, extend on to, say, 50 years in terms of payback.”
In the next three years, Tate should have little trouble meeting its 10 percent pledge, industry experts agree. While it’s difficult to discern the exact costs to be expected, Moss suggested that Tate’s planned steps could increase overhead by 10 percent but likely less, with a potential increase to its overall budget, in her estimation, of £1 million ($1.28 million). “Switching to green electricity may incur a fraction of added cost, and better recycling of packaging and plinths may mean more staff time,” Moss said. “But their policy and operations changes may have no cost at all.”
“It doesn’t feel like a hugely difficult or onerous target,” said Oliver Kerr, senior commercial manager at the consultancy Aurora Energy Research. “Other corporates have set significantly more ambitious calls.” British retailer Marks & Spencer, for example, set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030 and, like museums, has to contend with moving goods around the world and energy-guzzling heating and cooling systems.
Within the European cultural sector, other museums are also setting ambitious carbon-cutting targets. Centre Pompidou in Paris has set a goal of reducing energy consumption by at least 25 percent by 2030, which will involve a renovation of its iconic building’s external mechanical staircase, among other things. The Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, meanwhile, established a target of achieving zero emissions by 2030. According to Rafael Hernández, the institution’s head of architecture and maintenance, the museum already cut energy consumption by 15 percent from July to November of last year, and green-house gas emissions decreased by 200 tons, putting it on track to cut its carbon emissions by 650 tons annually.
While Tate has taken an important public step in committing to act on the climate emergency, Morris said she and the institution are aware of the need to be “much more responsive and much more radical.” Acknowledging the scale of the issue, she said, “Of course we all want to meet [our] targets, but those targets may not be enough.”
Part of the progress needed will call for rethinking aspects of the museological model and, as she has championed since taking Tate Modern’s helm in 2016, maintaining a strong international focus over a more local, parochial approach. “We’re not going to save the world by just thinking about Britain,” she said. “International art, networked art, the way we connect across the world, and the power of conversation across culture I think will be even more visible over the next two years than they have been.”
Museums globally should stop competing with each other, in Morris’s view, and instead work together in looking at alternative models such as joint ownership and collaborative commissioning to reduce energy impacts and rampant travel. “What will be interesting [to see] is how museums begin to share more closely, to collaborate,” Morris said.
What’s already clear—as the measures of climate change mount and calls for action intensify—is the need for radical thinking for radical times. “They’re difficult conversations to have, obviously,” said Morris. “But it is the most important thing we will be thinking about over the next few years, and there’s a broad consensus that we need to meet the challenge.”