The Whitney Museum won’t officially open its new home in the Meatpacking District until May 1st, but last night a group of environmental activists staged their own pre-opening ceremony for the celebrated institution.
Their goal was to call attention to the fact that the new museum sits right next to an underground vault where a recently constructed high-pressure natural gas pipeline connects with the city’s gas grid. Groups like the Sane Energy Project and Occupy the Pipeline, both sponsors of last night’s event, unsuccessfully fought the construction of the pipeline two years ago. They see the imminent opening of the new museum space as an opportunity to refocus attention on gas infrastructure, which they oppose on safety and environmental grounds.
As it turns out, Renzo Piano’s power-plant-like design for the new museum building makes for a perfect movie screen, allowing the mobile-projection team behind The Illuminator to project slogans and images of catastrophic storms onto the façade last night.
The Whitney doesn’t own or control the vault in question, but the activists say this physical juxtaposition of high art and the carbon industry is representative of a larger problem. Art has long been a means for the owners of ethically questionable wealth to launder their money into cultural capital, says Noah Fischer, a member of Occupy Museums, which also joined last night’s action.
“Museums are indeed temples of truth, reflecting the destructive policies of the one percent,” Fischer said, pointing to the labor practices undergirding the Walmart fortune that underwrote the Crystal Bridges museum, the indentured labor being used to build the new Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, and the fossil-fuel billionaire David Koch’s deep involvement in New York cultural institutions.
A Whitney spokesperson told the Villager last month that the museum is satisfied by assurances that federal agencies are monitoring the pipeline’s safety.
The coalition of protesters are calling on the museum to commit to an arts program addressing climate change, and to explain its plans to protect its artwork and visitors in the event of a catastrophe. More information can be found on their website.