Artists, curators and activists met to discuss what art can (and can’t) do, to tackle gender inequity, the growing wealth gap and the climate emergency.

Artists, curators and activists met to discuss what art can (and can’t) do, to tackle gender inequity, the growing wealth gap and the climate emergency.

This article is part of our special report on the Art for Tomorrow conference that was held in Florence, Italy.

FLORENCE, Italy — The world today has twice as many billionaires as it did in 2012, and their wealth has more than doubled since then.

Women represent half the population of the planet, but only about 10 percent of the artworks bought by United States museums in the last decade or so were created by female artists.

As many as 700 million people in Africa — or about half of the continent’s total population — could be displaced by the global climate emergency by the end of this decade.

These sobering statistics were cited last week at the three-day Art for Tomorrow conference, an annual event organized by the Democracy & Culture Foundation featuring panels moderated by journalists from The New York Times. This year, the event was held in Florence, Italy. Three years after the coronavirus outbreak, the gathering was a chance for arts professionals, collectors, curators and artists to take stock and to ask: Can the arts help meet the challenges that the world faces today?

Speakers at the Florence forum seized the opportunity to highlight the enduring gender and income inequalities in the world of arts, and the actions needed to head off a climate catastrophe. Also on the agenda: a detailed discussion on the crash of the market for nonfungible tokens, or NFTs.

Among the first topics broached was gender. In a spirited conversation, Rachel Lehmann, co-founder of the Lehmann Maupin gallery, an international art dealership, denounced the vast and enduring gap between men and women when it comes to the display and the purchase of art.

Ms. Lehmann acknowledged that, in the past decade, progress had been made. The ratio of women artists shown in the Whitney Biennial in New York City had risen to 48 percent from 28 percent, she said, adding that nearly nine out of 10 works in the 2022 Venice Art Biennale’s main exhibition were by women.

But “the buying power is still with men,” she said. “Men buy art. Men buy male art.”

“It is female collectors who support my gallery, who support the many female artists we represent,” she added.

The only way to balance things out, she suggested, was to raise children in a more equal world: offer prolonged maternity and paternity leave (as Nordic countries do), and allow roles and tasks within the family to be “really shared” and fairly split.

“It’s going to take a while,” she said, adding “the power is with females,” citing the example of the women of Iran, who were leading the pro-democracy protests.

Sounding another alarm in Florence was Clare Farrell, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, a United Kingdom-based international environmentalist movement that has staged large-scale protests in the past few years.

Ms. Farrell painted an ominous picture of the planet’s future. “We’re facing something that I think nobody can actually get their head around the severity of,” she said, arguing that “millions if not billions of people” could die in the absence of urgent action.

Commenting on the recent spate of attacks on art masterpieces by environmental activists — such as the pair who threw canned tomato soup all over van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London in October — she condoned the move, because it led to “the conversation that these young people want you to have.”

“It’s obscene for people to be more concerned about potential damage to one piece of artwork when we know that we are seeing such extraordinary damage” to the planet, she said, noting that the paintings were covered with glass and undamaged.

“We have lost touch with our humanity if we are more interested in a conversation about how some soup might get onto a painting,” she added.

Fellow panelist Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, acknowledged that climate activists were “using every means necessary to call attention to the situation we’re in as a planet.” She added that museums would be “absolutely irrelevant” if they were not part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Yet Ms. Pasternak refused to condone the attacks on art, and said she longed for “the good old days of ACT UP and AIDS activism” — referring to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an advocacy group established in New York in 1987 that successfully raised awareness of the AIDS epidemic.

She said ACT UP members “were really creative about their activism, and they weren’t destroying anything,” and were also getting “global press and positive attention.” Referring to the recent acts of vandalism against paintings, she warned that the activists “could damage things,” and concluded, “I really would have to question that this has any positive outcome for climate change.”


Police standing guard outside the Mauritshuis museum, after climate activists targeted Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”Credit…Phil Nijhuis/ANP, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Brooklyn Museum is one of a large number of museums around the world that are striving to slash their carbon usage. The Serpentine Galleries — whose artistic director, Hans Ulrich Obrist, was at the Florence event — is another.

The Serpentine regularly stages shows by artists whose works interact with the environment. From June 1 to Sept. 10, the artist Tom?s Saraceno is taking over the galleries with a solo show that’s all about the climate emergency. During that period, Mr. Obrist said, “there won’t be air conditioning” at the Serpentine. “He’s also positioning a series of solar panels on the roof, and the videos will only work through that.”

At the same time, the Serpentine is, he said, changing its own ways of working. It is recycling exhibition walls, partitions and designs, reusing rather than scrapping them. For its 2021-22 retrospective dedicated to the Haitian-French artist Herv? T?l?maque, a decision was made to borrow all works from French museums and collections, and to “bundle everything” in a single truck, Mr. Obrist said.

And going forward, the idea is to program exhibitions for much longer periods of time: “There is no reason one would set up a complex exhibition and then keep it for six weeks,” he said.


Art aficionados gather at the St. Regis, Florence, for the annual Art for Tomorrow conference.Credit…Giacomo Ligas

One art form that has been a major source of pollution is NFTs. They are priced in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which require a massive amount of energy to mine on the blockchain. (At one point, the process of mining Bitcoin consumed more electricity than Argentina did). In the last year, the value of cryptocurrencies has collapsed, so NFTs have crashed concurrently.

In 2022, sales of NFTs reached $55 billion, not far off the figure of $67.8 billion that the traditional art market generates in sales every year, according to data cited in a panel on NFTs.

This year, the total sales of NFTs, by the end of the year, is likely to be radically lower. Daily sales of NFTs averaged $500 million in August 2021, said the panel moderator Scott Reyburn, citing statistics from CryptoSlam; today, daily sales of NFTs average about $20 million.

One of the panelists, Micha?l Zancan, a programmer and painter who introduced himself as an NFT artist creating images with lines of programming code, remembered becoming the top-selling artist on the Tezos blockchain. He said he kept his earnings in cryptocurrencies, rather than converting them into hard currency — and had taken a big financial hit.

He said the crash of NFTs and cryptocurrencies was more a “problem for investors,” and not for artists, who had to continue making work. He welcomed the fact that NFTs today were viewed more as art than as speculative financial instruments, and said: “In the future, NFTs will be associated with good art.”

What about the central question of whether the arts could be a way to confront some of the world’s many challenges?

“I don’t think that art changes reality,” said the Israeli-born filmmaker Amos Gita?. It keeps “a trace of the memory, and this is not nothing.”

He recalled that Picasso’s landmark painting “Guernica,” showing a Basque village being bombed during the Spanish Civil War, had not stopped the dictator Francisco Franco from ruling Spain until the 1970s, and noted that fascism is still resonating in the liberal democracy that is present-day Spain.

Still, he recalled, when a new prime minister came in several years ago, he set as a top priority taking the bones of Franco out of the mausoleum where he was buried. “It’s only because of memory,” Mr. Gita? said.

“If artists, militants, poets, writers did not do their job, it would not happen,” he said. “We need to keep these traces. And the traces make the work.”