Art and Action at the Climate Museum in Soho

Ten Years in the Making, Bursts with Excitement  

Art and action are the name of the game at the Climate Museum’s pop-up location in New York City’s Soho. This refreshing, sunlight-filled space on Wooster Street among many high-end retail stores emphasizes that climate change is hot, happening, and ready for action. One of the most exciting current adventures of the Climate Museum is a participatory contemporary art exhibit featuring Someday, all this, a postcard mural created by artist David Opdyke. Using 400 hand-modified vintage postcards, Opdyke reflects on the origins and future of the climate crisis, using his art as a tool to invite people into active engagement with the issue. The pop-up location is open until December 22 and may be extended. 

Ten years in the making, one of the impetuses for the Climate Museum was in fact Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that swept New York City and its outer boroughs in 2012 leaving thousands of people in the dark for over a week and homeless for months. Businesses were shuttered and recovery is still going on today ten years later. The founder of the museum, Miranda Massie, was not only a civil rights lawyer who was impacted by Hurricane Sandy but also someone who cared deeply and strongly about important social issues, including civil rights, affirmative action, environmental justice, immigrant justice and disability rights as written in this Washington Post article. The impact of Hurricane Sandy along with several factors at the time in her life propelled her to take action.

The Climate Museum is indeed the first climate-dedicated museum in the U.S. Its mission is to inspire action on the climate crisis with programming across the arts and sciences that deepens understanding, builds connections, and advances just solutions. Its first public programming took place in late 2017.

Art and Action

True to its mission, the pop-up museum all on one floor in the beyond cool SoHo district of NYC embodies art and action. In the front of the exhibition space David Opdyke’s beautiful art installation draws visitors in with its hundreds of individual, early 20th Century postcards coming together to simultaneously depict the American landscape through the past 100 years and the potential chaos of an imagined future. In the back is the “action incubator” which comprises educational and take-action activities for all ages. 

The artist, David Opdyke makes artwork that explores globalization, consumerism, and civilization’s abusive relationship with the environment. His work is held in the collections of MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, and more. “This installation at the Climate Museum Pop-Up is particularly meaningful to me because in the past, my work has evoked big feelings but then the viewer had nowhere to go with them. Here, the connection with the action incubator allows people to find a pathway to move from climate despair or feeling overwhelmed toward hope and optimism. It’s exciting to watch people recognize that they have a role to play in fighting for a safer climate future,” said David Opdyke.

The bottom half of the installation is made of vintage landscapes that are right side up, and in the top half of the installation, all of the post cards are upside down. The two halves are meant to represent a dystopian view of the world being held together by the pink bungee cords that are stretched through the scene, holding each of the individual postcards together and making them part of the whole. Each postcard shows that climate change has not come about overnight nor is it all due to one factor – today’s and tomorrow’s crisis is rooted in the past that we tend to idealize as a better time, one that saw these landscapes as open frontiers to exploit. The piece asks us to reconsider how we understand the climate crisis and what we can do to change the narrative.      

The “action incubator” part of the Climate Museum pop-up has wonderful activities for all ages, including an art desk for children, an action wall with stickers pledging what you will do to take action, postcards with imagery from the installation to write to your elected representatives, a reading area with books and a living room with comfortable furniture for discussion, and a recording booth where you can leave reflections and comments on the exhibition. “99.9 percent of the scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening, so rather than focusing on the why or how of climate science, the Museum focuses on solutions, justice, and collective action. We are past arguing the science. We need to focus our conversations on the agency we all have to do something about it,” said Anais Reyes, the Senior Exhibitions Associate. 

Educate and Engage

The museum is intent on engaging and educating the public and building a community locally and around the world that really cares about climate and its impact on our globe. The Museum has done such a good job with fundraising and grant writing that they are able to offer their programming, exhibitions, art installations, interactive panels, youth programs, and advocacy tools for free. They also maintain a serious emphasis on community, justice, equity, and inclusion. 

To date, the museum’s work has been made possible by individual philanthropists; board contributions; small family foundations; nonprofit foundations such as The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Rudin Family Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; as well as additional support from New York City and New York State agencies. The Museum also receives substantial in-kind donations including pro bono legal counsel, government relations advisors, public relations advisors, and the services of a multiple award-winning graphic designer who provides services for a minimal fee, and more. All donations are screened for mission consonance.

“We want people to learn and experience something during a Climate Museum visit that leaves them feeling empowered and able to recognize their own agency,” said Tricia Brown, Director of Education and Engagement. “Our goal is to welcome a growing number of people who are ready to not only take action themselves but also to  inspire others. It can start as simply as having climate conversations with family, friends, and coworkers and that can lead to identifying the traction that each of us has and using that to motivate others to join a growing community of climate protagonists.”  

Additional programing this fall includes, artist talks; a presentation by philosopher Olúf??mi O. Táíwò; a kids climate science series with NASA – Goddard Institute for Space Studies; a climate justice Q&A with Chisholm Legacy Project founder Jacqui Patterson; an exploration of NYC climate policy and climate justice with Kizzy Charles-Guzman, Executive Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice; a discussion on climate migration with journalists Vann Newkirk, Somini Sengupta, and Sarah Stillman; the NYC book launch of The Petroleum Papers by Geoff Dembicki; a virtual visit to the JOIDES Resolution climate expedition ship with climate scientist Dr. Gisela Winckler; and youth climate arts workshops. 

Over the last four years, the Museum has presented six exhibitions and more than 200 events; engaged 400+ high school students in leadership, advocacy, and arts programs; and welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors. The museum has collaborated with organizations ranging from municipal departments international scientific research consortia to local community justice organizations. “Our expanding network of partnerships with cultural and mission-aligned organizations, universities, and schools represents the power that the climate movement has to invite each of us to raise our voices together for a just, climate-safe future. Through this pop-up and the ones to follow, we are excited to catalyze even greater levels of community engagement, dialogue, and action,” said Brown.

Their work has been supported by major arts and educational funders and favorably featured in peer-reviewed museum publications and respected mainstream media outlets. 

Busting the Myth

“Our goal is to spark a culture for action on climate,” said Miranda Massie, the founder of the Museum. “Most American adults support transformational climate policy–in fact we’re a supermajority of two thirds–but we believe ourselves to be badly outnumbered. This false perception feeds into hopelessness and self-censorship. Our programs mobilize the power of the arts to break that climate silence. We invite visitors to turn away from resignation and toward their own courage, connectedness, and resolve. It’s magical to see.” 

American supporters of ambitious, transformative climate action outnumber opponents 2 to 1; but the population believes that the reverse is true. This myth of climate indifference becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at the level of policy. At the Climate Museum pop-up, the public is invited to recognize their own agency and take action, busting the myth and shifting the public culture of the United States.  

This calm, beautiful and inviting location in SoHo is definitely worth a visit and bring your friends. There are activities for all ages and visitors can engage in many thoughtful and creative ways. The Climate Museum does have other locations from time to time and often has carried out exhibitions and programs on Governors Island thanks to donated space from the Trust for Governors Island for granting the Climate Museum a seasonal exhibition hub. There are also programs in public spaces citywide, including Washington Square Park and Apollo Theater and, since 2020, through virtual events. The Museum is currently scaling up to a permanent, year-round presence in New York City. The pop-up location is 120 Wooster, between Prince and Spring Streets, New York, NY 10012. Admission is free and it is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 to 6pm and 12pm to 5 pm on Sundays. Closed Mondays.

Victoria Larson, editor and publisher of Side of Culture

Top Photo: Visitors examining David’s Opdyke’s work: Someday, all this. Photo by Sari Goodfriend

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