Art Activists Spotlight Museums’ Ties to Fossil Fuels and Climate Change
In an open letter released on Tuesday, March 24, 2015, by the Natural History Museum, a project of the New York city activist art collective Not An Alternative, over three dozen leading climate scientists, scholars, and museum professionals called for natural history and science museums nationwide to sever their bonds with the fossil fuel industry. The letter was disseminated to 330 museums through the mobile Natural History Museum, which focuses on tracing the impacts of sociopolitical forces on nature.
Emphasizing that the primary duty of science museums—to transmit valid scientific information to the public—is at odds with donations from organizations and individuals known for misrepresenting climate change, the letter argues that “this corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost.” It specifically mentions David Koch, of oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries—a major donor, exhibit sponsor, and trustee on the boards of directors at both the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Koch has donated millions of dollars to these institutions, but he has also spent over sixty-seven million dollars since 1997 in support of groups that deny widely accepted climate change science.
An exhibit at the Smithsonian’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins was subject to scientific and public criticism in 2010 after the New Yorker described it as unfairly minimizing the role of fossil fuels in fluctuating global temperatures. Rather, the exhibit’s passive central premise is that “humans evolved in response to a changing world.” Founder of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School Eric Chivian, who signed the open letter, likened museum conduct in organizing such an exhibit to a situation wherein “a major tobacco company offered to fund an exhibit for them devoted to lung diseases.”
Five years later, the Smithsonian exhibit has not been revised, according to Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and head of ClimateProgress.org. Meanwhile, Koch continues to support American museums; he also funded major renovations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fifth Avenue façade completed in September.
These issues did not go unchallenged by artists, either. On September 9, as the Met prepared for an evening gala honoring Koch for his $65 million contribution to the renovation of the museum plaza bearing his name, the art activist group Occupy Museums (an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011) performed street theater mocking Koch’s politics and business practices and distributed fliers explaining that “Koch Industries is the largest funder of climate science denying organizations in the world, outpacing even ExxonMobille”; the group was joined by members of the Big Apple Coffee Party, who distributed fliers about the boycott of Koch Industries products. The protesters then performed a ritual cleansing and rechristened the museum plaza “Art for the Planet Plaza.” As guests made their way through the Met’s entrance to the gala, another group of cultural activists, NYC Light Brigade, literally shone light on the museum’s collusion with Koch, projecting images onto the museum’s façade that read “Koch = Climate Chaos” and “The Met: Brought to you by the Tea Party.” The Light Brigade’s projector-equipped van, known as “the Illuminator,” made several passes near the museum, projecting the slogans onto its façade, before police arrived to arrest the three artists manning the Illuminator and ticket them for “illegal advertising.”
While the Natural History Museum’s open letter did not criticize specific fossil fuel companies for misleading philanthropic practices, a mutually beneficial relationship between corporate sponsorship and climate research has become increasingly prominent in recent months. A New York Times article published in February exposed Wei-Hock Soon, a researcher at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, for accepting more than $1.2 million over the past decade from the fossil fuel industry to fund frequently discredited research denying the human role in climate change. Soon failed to disclose the conflict of interest in at least eleven papers he published since 2008. Recent Smithsonian contracts released by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center state that the Smithsonian will share “advanced written copy of proposed publications,” with coal utility Southern Company Services “for comment and input.”
In light of these scandals and to accompany the letter, the Natural History Museum also created a petition to remove Koch from the boards of trustees for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American Natural History. As of April 20, 2015, the petition had 177,026 signatures, and the letter had been signed by more than 130 scientists, scholars, and museum professionals.
To read the letter and view the petition, visit thenaturalhistorymuseum.org.
Art and Climate Change: A Growing Movement
Campaigns such as those by the Natural History Museum, NYC Light Brigade, and Occupy Museums are among a growing movement of artists using novel and varied means to address the politics of climate change. The theme of the recent 52nd Society for Photographic Education National Conference (March 12–15, 2015, in New Orleans), for example, was “Atmospheres: Climate, Equity and Community in Photography.” [Ed. note: See the report in Afterimage Vol. 42, no. 6 (May/June 2015)]. Among the estimated 400,000 protesters who took to the streets of New York and more than two thousand other cities worldwide on September 21, 2014, in the People’s Climate March were myriad artists who collectively produced thousands of public and participatory art pieces for the historic event.
Last week, on April 14, Occupy Museums, NYC Light Brigade, and the Guerrilla Girls were among several groups protesting the recently constructed fracked gas pipeline underneath the Whitney’s new Meatpacking District outpost with a guerrilla inauguration. The groups called on the museum to commit to an arts program addressing climate change, as the Light Brigade’s Illuminator projected images of climate disasters along with the words “1% Museum,” “Warning! High Pressure Gasline,” “Whitney: The Finest Collection of 20th-century American Art in the World, Now Featuring a Brand New Pipeline!” and “Climate Change: Contemporary Land Art?” on the building’s façade. Sending a letter of solidarity with the action was the London-based Liberate Tate network, founded in 2010 at a workshop on art and activism commissioned by the Tate Museums, and dedicated to “taking creative disobedience against Tate until it drops its oil company funding.”
As these initiatives and campaigns demonstrate, not only are artists increasingly making work that seeks to engage the public around the problem of climate change, but many are self-reflexively focusing their attention and critique on the specific roles and responsibilities of cultural workers and cultural institutions vis-à-vis the issue.
The Artists and Climate Change blog details the work of a growing number of art initiatives worldwide addressing the problem of climate change and sustainability. Another bellwether is the ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE festival, currently on view April 11–May 17, 2015, and organized by the Melbourne, Australia-based CLIMARTE (Arts for a Safe Climate). Featuring twenty-five exhibitions, keynote lectures, public forums, and events throughout Melbourne and regional Victoria, the festival brings together artists, scholars, and activists from around the world together with local participants to address the “challenges and opportunities, impacts and solutions, arising from climate change” with the aim of helping to bring about “a creative, just and sustainable future.”
For more information, visit:
Artists and Climate Change: artistsandclimatechange.com
Occupy Museums: occupymuseums.org
NYC Light Brigade: facebook.com/NycLightBrigade
Gas Pipeline Under the New Whitney Museum: whitneypipeline.org/about
Liberate Tate: liberatetate.wordpress.com
Chelsea Butkowski is an editorial intern at Afterimage. Lucia Sommer is the associate editor of Afterimage.