Lessons Learned About Climate and Art from the Van Gogh Soup Can Protest

By now many have heard about the group “Stop Oil Now” pouring a can of soup on “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery. The incident was originally reported via Artnet. The intent of the activists involved (according to their messaging) was not to damage the painting that was protected behind glass, but instead to call attention to their climate-centered mission and encourage society to question what we value on the whole. The Climate Activists said at the time of protest, “What is worth more, art or life? … are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

The protest and this statement have sparked a range of opinions and passionate responses from across the spectrum. Many who fear the impending climate crisis do not see this act as criminal, but rather an important statement about impending climate change. Others, such as Art Insurers and those whose job it is to protect cultural patrimony, see it in another light-one of a threat to something they value and hold dear. Both sides feel the stakes are high. Is there something to be learned by this incident? Is there a middle ground?

As a former Risk Manager at Sotheby’s, these were the sorts of moments that would keep me awake at night. I was hired to protect the organization against loss, including both employees and the Fine Art. At all times I was to be conscious of what was happening to important objects in our care, and see after the safety of employees and patrons. There were steps that we took to protect art such as having visitors check baggage, adding protective glazing to pictures, and reviewing alarms and security. If I were still a Risk Manager, I would also be reaching out to my insurer to check on my coverage for Vandalism and Malicious Mischief and setting a threshold of value at which we add protective glazing and security barriers to viewing items.

At the same time, can one care about the safe keeping of art, but also be concerned about the environment? As a nature lover, I have to say it is a resounding yes. If I stop to look at my actions as an individual and from within an organization in this moment, am I “giving in” to what might be considered unlawful behavior? I think not. I can take this opportunity to look at my behaviors and consider what the motivation is behind these protests and make appropriate adjustments.

There is certainly room within the Art World for more sustainable practices. Several art shippers including Crozier & Momart have begun implementing more art shipments by sea and sustainable practices. And generally speaking, any organization can look at its carbon footprint and find ways to be gentler on the planet. And as an added bonus, you reduce costs while also aligning with the values of those who care about the environment. According to the New York Times titled, “Mindful of its Impact on the Planet, the Art World Aims for Sustainability” :

Some 70 percent of collectors, for instance, now think about “sustainability options” when purchasing art or managing their collections; 64 percent are concerned with reducing their personal travel to art-related events and 68 percent are open to employing more environmentally conscious delivery methods when shipping pieces of art.

A large percentage of art collectors care both about the Planet and art, and this will only increase with time. To not consider these statistics would be a misstep for any organization. If you wish to learn more about sustainability in the Art World, here are a few organizations that are making strides in the area::

Superflex https://superflex.net/

Gallery Climate Coalition https://galleryclimatecoalition.org/

ROKBOX https://rok-box.com/

Julie’s Bicycle https://juliesbicycle.com/

Serpentine’s General Ecology Program https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/general-ecology/

Does the Art World value the protection of the painting more than that of the planet? Or is it possible to care about both? I think the latter, although there is always room for improvement. In the meantime, protest activity is bound to continue, so check with your insurer for ideas and strategies to protect collections. Additionally, review your carbon footprint and sustainability protocols to see if there are areas for adjustment.

In the meantime, to protect art and the Earth can both be priorities for art organizations that are not mutually exclusive of one another. The creation of art historically was often a form of protest or appreciation of nature, and is worth preserving. And Nature, the very thing that allows art to exist, down to its very pigments and matter, is also worth preserving in the most urgent way.

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