The full title of this excellent article by Kelsey Ables (Washington Post) is “In an age of worsening fires and floods, museums are reinventing themselves — and their mechanical rooms.” Among the museums discussed are the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami and the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico.
[. . .] When you think of a museum’s role in climate change, you probably imagine themed exhibits, but the Frankenthaler grants focus primarily on museum infrastructure and internal systems. The Frankenthaler Foundation seems to recognize that to be authoritative voices on climate, museums also must build trust by dealing with their own impact. That trust begins with the little things — eco-friendly light fixtures, sustainable waste management — and builds when museums show they will be there when natural disasters strike.
“We have an opportunity to help the public process what is happening, and not just from a knowledge point of view but from an emotional and psychological point of view,” says Sarah Sutton, principal at Sustainable Museums, a nonprofit group that worked with the Frankenthaler Foundation to develop the climate initiative. “It’s overwhelming to recover from a disaster, and it’s overwhelming to anticipate the disasters that are coming.”
The grants, which total $5.1 million, are one of the first major philanthropic efforts targeting museums dealing with climate change. That might not seem so surprising. After all, museums aren’t much more than glammed-up, oversized attics, right? How high could their carbon footprint really be?
Turns out, quite high. Take the chill you feel when you enter a museum. For decades, museums have kept their interiors at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity — even as new research suggests such stringent measures aren’t always necessary to preserve the art. As the days get hotter and the weather becomes more volatile, more energy is required to keep these metrics in the narrow, permitted window.
Consider exhibition objects that are lent from faraway museums. Many arrive with couriers — museum employees who take fossil-fueled planes and cars to transport them. Even display materials — cases, panels and pedestals that typically go unnoticed — are custom-crafted for temporary use and can generate enormous amounts of waste. [. . .]
These sustainability issues stretch across the museum world. The diversity of the museums receiving Frankenthaler grants — from the encyclopedic National Gallery of Art in Washington to small college museums in New England — is a testament to the need. [. . .]
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami will take on a similar project to beat the ever-intensifying heat in the coastal city. Alex Gartenfeld, the museum’s artistic director, says he admires the narrow focus of the grants. His museum’s temperature-maintenance goal, for example, is not the sort of thing you’d hype to high-profile funders. “Some of the things that are involved in this grant are the unsexy parts of climate change and carbon reduction,” Gartenfeld says. “It’s about practical application, and I think that’s incredibly important.”
It’s the practical things that matter during a disaster. After Hurricane Maria, Alejandra Peña-Gutiérrez, director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, was determined to reopen the undamaged museum as soon as possible. But doing so meant overcoming logistical hurdles. They had to get diesel amid an islandwide shortage and spread the word, without access to the Internet, that they were open. (Peña-Gutiérrez biked to the local radio station to announce it on air.)
When people came to the museum in those days, they came to use the restroom, to charge their phones, to be around others. They came because there was nowhere else to go, lingering in the gardens, pausing beside paintings and entertaining their children in the hallways.
They didn’t necessarily come for the art, but that didn’t stop them from being affected by it. “People have this need to express what they went through after something like this. Sometimes people are locked within themselves,” Peña-Gutiérrez says. “I think it is always helpful for people to come close to art, and somehow it helps them speak about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about.”
When another crisis arrived two years later, the museum wasn’t so lucky. An earthquake in January 2020 caused significant structural damage to the front of the main building, and the museum has been closed since. With the Frankenthaler grant, the museum will work toward making the building earthquake-proof with a seismic retrofitting and increase efficiency with wall insulation.
For museums that are able to keep their doors open during a crisis, the Ponce Museum’s 2017 response can serve as an example. [. . .]
[Photo above: The Museo de Arte de Ponce, the oldest museum in Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria in 2017.]