Art and sustainability - Reducing the sector’s environmental impact

Banner image courtesy of The Gallery Climate Coalition.

Early in March 2023, I had the lucky opportunity to talk to Heath Lowndes, the Managing Director for The Gallery Climate Coalition. What does it take to organise the art world at a global level to reduce our sector’s environmental impacts? We talked about ethical fundraising practices and a balanced funding model for the intersection of art and sustainability. The following article is a summary of that interview. All quotes belong to Heath.

GCC formally launched in October 2020 after about 10 months of development research, building the tools hosted on the website, and commissioning an environmental advisor to build the carbon calculator.

Their original intention was just to serve London’s commercial galleries and, somehow, 3 years later, they find themselves serving the entire visual arts sector at a global level. Heath credits it all to the demand and the interest. Serving just London felt ambitious at the beginning, but GCC soon started seeing members from around the world showing up. There were all different types of organisations and individual professionals, and GCC realised they needed to change tactics. They couldn’t just cater to commercial galleries in London, but align everyone towards the same targets using the same strategies to avoid duplicating efforts.

When the cofounders of GCC first started speaking about this, there was no such thing as COVID. We intended to do an in-person event, gathering people from the community to talk about issues, see who had done what already, and what we could do collectively. We wanted to ask a lot of questions. We sent out the invitations the week before the first lockdown and immediately realised later that an in-person event wouldn’t be possible.

Things had to change, so instead of asking the questions, GCC ended up giving the answers. They realised they had a bank of information that could help people. All the people who had received their invitations now came to GCC virtually with offers of support and insight. They all offered their lockdown time to help out with the projects. It was like jet fuel for the movement.

And then the conversation about environmental responsibility and climate action has gone mainstream in the last few years, so GCC was able to surf the waves. They have been able to provide all the information that everybody else was hoping to find for free. For the commercial gallery sector, GCC became the default place to go. Julie’s bicycle has been providing this information for the cultural sector as well as Culture Declares Emergency, but GCC’s model of providing free services through a coalition membership is unique.

Art and sustainability from a non-profit perspective

I asked Heath about funding. How does a non-profit working in the art sector for sustainability secure an income? He mentioned an initial amount of luck and overwhelming support for the cause from the sector. The increasing demand for GCC’s services every month is creating new challenges.

How do you provide a high level of quality and expertise if your membership system is free?

One of the things the founders of GCC were clear on from the beginning is that all the information had to be available for free. There should be no barriers to entry.

Everyone should be able to access the resources they need to take climate action and reduce their environmental impact. The issue is that the demand for this information is increasing every month - and the quality and expertise provided by GCC need to remain high. GCC is committed to providing updated information on best practices as informed by scientists and environmental consultants.

So the challenge remains, how do you fund that?

GCC accepts small voluntary donations, but they also have a Supporters Circle made up of three tiers of giving: Patron £10k, Donor £5k, and Supporter £2k. The majority of the support coming from the Circle is from commercial galleries.

The idea is that the biggest earners in the art industry tend to be the biggest polluters as well (think about the environmental costs of putting up expensive exhibitions and auctions). In order to make up for that, the big earners can subsidize the access to the information for other smaller organisations and individuals in the sector who can’t afford private consultancy.

It’s a sort of environmental data crowdfunding which allows everyone to have the same information regardless of their size or income. Are you a small museum or a huge commercial gallery? You still get the same advice so you can take climate action at your level.

Some of the larger member organisations can afford a private auditor or a consultation with an environmental advisor to reduce their waste, so this is a way of sharing that information with everyone else. This model has allowed GCC to support its operations for the first few years, but it will continue to evolve as the demand grows.

How are for-profit and non-profit GCC members different?

There seems to be a certain reluctance from non-profits in museum settings, a certain feeling like money is a bad thing which you’re not supposed to get, or you’re not supposed to ask for even though you need it.

There is a big point of contention in art funding regarding where the money comes from. There can be uncomfortable conversations about dependencies. Is it possible to find “good” money? Is there “clean” money?

Heath has heard a lot of weary people in the art world say, “All money is dirty, just take it,” but he prefers to believe that there is good money out there. It’s just harder to find.

Sustainable funding for art - Is it clean?
Money that seems clean today may not be clean anymore tomorrow. How do you navigate the pitfalls of securing funding for your heritage or art institution? Your reputation is always at stake.

The GCC has an ethical fundraising policy and ethical partnership policy which they put together specifically to guide their decision-making about who the GCC will and will not work with.

As a new organisation, the GCC does not have a questionable history of funding which many old institutions grapple with, so they have the lucky opportunity to use a policy that delineates which money they can take and which money they should not accept. However, this does not mean that there are no potential traps.

15 years ago, the majority of UK cultural institutions were being funded by oil money, and, today, this is a source of shame. It is no longer considered acceptable for the arts to take that money.

It was very difficult for many institutions to wean themselves from that kind of stable funding stream. Then the Sackler Family scandal in 2018 meant yet another philanthropy funding stream was no longer considered clean or morally acceptable.

So how do non-profits in the arts function? How do they do the work they need to do without falling into these funding traps?

Honestly? You just try your best and hope for the best. You put systems in place like policies. You can’t check every $50 donation you get, but you try.

In the case of GCC, you say no to some organisations that take their funding from certain banks that have funds tied up with hydrocarbon fuels because that would make no sense. By the way, if you want to see what this fundraising policy looks like, you can find it on the GCC website.

Setting personal boundaries and getting advice

What kind of advice would Heath give someone working in a similar non-profit organisation situation?

Starting something from scratch that feels very personal to you and becomes woven with your identity is probably not a healthy way to go about it in the long term.

You might end up giving it evenings and weekends, far beyond what is a healthy work-life balance. It’s tempting to throw everything into a project that you want to succeed in, but it’s also important to take a step back and rest sometimes.

Get other people’s advice. You might be cautious about feeling like you can reach out to certain people to ask questions, but whenever you find someone who is even slightly interested in your topic, they will be incredibly generous and supportive.

“It’s just like reaching out to people you don’t necessarily know, but they’ve got something to offer you and love to do it. It has been an incredible experience. If I had known earlier that I could, I would have had the audacity to ask more questions from people in positions of power or knowledge.”

So who are these people? Directors of institutions, leaders of other climate initiatives, people working in the same cross-section of art and sustainability.

Don’t consider them your competition, but rather your allies. Collaboration and support are not only possible but also hugely rewarding and beneficial.

How easy or difficult was it to set up the GCC as a charity in the UK?

There is, as usual, government paperwork if you want to set up a charity. There are regulations which you probably know nothing about. Some of the colleagues in the GCC were able to sort out some of it, but eventually, they had to find an accounting firm that supported them with the official paperwork. Some of this was pro bono, and some of it was covered by a small donation to cover the administrative costs before they were even set up.

The fee to become a charity is not much, but the accountancy work to get there is not cheap. There is a monthly cost for accounting as well as bookkeeping. It will be different for everyone, but by the time GCC officially launched, they had already spent about ₤8,000. This is just to set you up before you can even receive donations.

What is your best advice for someone starting a non-profit in the heritage sector?

If you start something, it’s probably because there is either a need for it or because you are personally passionate about it (or both), so remind yourself of that as your purpose. When you get lost in the minor details and then forget you have a purpose because you are so busy managing an organization, you can lose sight of your original vision.

You know it’s not the best-paid sector in the world and a lot of people expect free work at some point, so you really have to care about it. Unfortunately, it can’t be a 9-5 job that you switch off. In order to make it a success, you have to really, really, really believe in it and care.

Climate is a very emotive topic. There’s pressure to do the work because of this massive thing hanging over us, but that’s a motivating factor. Find what motivates you and make sure it keeps you ticking. That’s very crucial.

And don’t forget it’s all about collaboration. If you are a small team with big ambitions, you can’t do it without teamwork. You can’t do anything without it, whether it’s sharing a building, resources, or a project. Forget working alone or having rivals in your sector. We don’t have time for that and it’s not going to make any of us better at what we do.

Working together makes you stronger, makes you more informed. Things are changing every day, every week, month to month. If you are working by yourself, how are you going to stay up to date? Be open.


I would like to thank Heath Lowndes for his time and honest insights into funding non-profits for climate and culture. I write this article in the hopes that Heath’s shared experience will help us in some way or another. Are you interested in collaborating with the Gallery Climate Coalition? Let me know!

This article is part of the Founders in Heritage series. Read about the experiences of other founders and entrepreneurs in the heritage world through the links in the main blog.

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