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The Green Museum
Feature by Christian L. Frock


Jim Denevan, 'Tunitas Creek, CA,' 2008, Photo: courtesy of the artist

There is a telling scene early in the popular television series 'Mad Men,' acontemporary 1960s period drama, in which the protagonist, the handsome and aloof Don Draper, is out with his nuclear family having a lakeside picnic. When it is time to go, he tosses his beer can in the direction of the lake while his wife, Betty, shakes the detritus--napkins, soiled food wrappers, etc.--from their blanket onto the grass. Then the family loads into the car without a backwards glance and drives away, while the camera remains riveted on the image of the quickly forgotten garbage settling into nature. Resulting from this type of past neglect, it was widely predicted that environmental concerns would be a dominant force in the 21st century. The message is simple: we must learn how to take care of the environment or watch as necessities, such as clean air and water, become a thing of the past. Artists and activists in particular have been sounding this alarm for quite some time; now the pitch is too loud to be ignored.

In 2001, a group of Bay Area artists loosely associated by their interests in ecology banded together to create the Green Museum (officially, greenmuseum.org), an online museum of sorts to represent environmental art. They had observed that while there were institutions that provide a historic record of other, more conventional art forms, there wasn't a single museum that historicized work about ecology. The sometimes temporary and remote nature of eco-art runs counter to the traditional institutional model of a museum in general: for example, how does one present such seminal work as Robert Smithson's earthwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), permanently situated in a Utah salt marsh, in the real gallery space of a museum exhibition? The decision to organize the Green Museum specifically under the auspices of a museum--as opposed to a network or archive--was a distinctly political strategy to legitimize an art movement that had been marginalized in the larger sense of art history. Its model of museum-as-website is in further keeping with the concerns of the featured artwork, with a low eco-footprint, minimal overhead and very limited use of materials, save for the occasional ream of paper.

Sam Bower, the founding and current executive director, explains the implementation of the website model as being 'less about picking things for historical record and more about supporting the evolution of art as a tool in service of our communities and ecosystems. It is as much about the presentation and display of the work as it is about the afterlife.' In this sense, the website functions more truly as an archive, or perhaps as a digital kunsthalle which holds no collection and mounts temporary exhibitions. The website features links to profiles and examples of work by more than 130 artists and collectives worldwide, from as far afield as Australia, Denmark, Germany, Iran, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and includes a significant holding of American artists. The featured artists can be sorted by name, country, or by an extensive selection of disciplines including conventional practices such as drawing, painting, photography and performance, in addition to multi-disciplinary categories such as Agit-prop, Community, Land Art, Natural Processes, Research, and Site-specific.

Additionally the website provides a calendar of events for the activities of relevant artists, extensive educational resources, listings for artist exhibition opportunities, residencies, and funding sources, alongside a series of specially commissioned online exhibitions and the TOOLBOX series of instructional resources for various community groups. At first glance, one might not be impressed by the site itself--the design is somewhat outdated and there appears to be a tremendous backlog of information that has yet to be added. But it is worth noting that the website receives between 3,000 - 4,000 unique visitors daily, driving home the evident value of the information itself over a slick user interface.

Vaughn Bell, 'Dust Mask,' 2009-2010
1.0-1.1, documents of performance, digital prints on diebond
16 x 20''
Photo: courtesy of the artist

Moving into 2010, Bower plans to make changes to the site's technical platform that will result in cosmetic enhancements and increased functional capacities by allowing more people to add information to the site, rather than depending on internal uploads by the core staff. Further expanding on his ideas about 'art as service,' the site will also offer open-sourced Creative Commons licensed (read: free and freely shared) instructions for ecological projects for various community and educational endeavors. Though the improvements to the site will mark a positive shift in the outward appearance of the Green Museum, the organizational changes that Bower implemented a year ago represent some of his most intriguing and radical ideas about sustainability on an institutional scale.

'Our first step was to get rid of the walls of the museum, then to get rid of the offices of the museum,' says Bower, 'then to move away from the conventional infrastructure altogether.' After years of operating within the standardized mode of a formally licensed 501(C)3 nonprofit organization--a model that requires tireless fundraising in the form of solicitation, grants writing, and events planning, including the ubiquitous and much loathed auction that requires artists to give away their work for free only to watch it sold for pennies on the dollar--Bower decided to switch to a fully operating gift economy. Inspired by the organization CharityFocus.org, Green Museum became an entirely volunteer-run organization and ceased all overt fundraising. Yes, you read that right--fundraising in the traditional sense, the bane of nonprofits operating in our market-driven economy, was completely eliminated from the agenda. At a time when the pillars of American business, such as publishing, banking and advertising, are having to reinvent new strategies for survival in the current post-recession era, the Green Museum would appear to be prescient in the decision to reevaluate their available resources--except that the gift economy model is thousands of years old, dating back to indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures. So, really, in order to move forward, Bower looked backwards. 'When everyone is a volunteer, the hierarchy is horizontal. Everyone contributes in the best ways that they are able. If you don't have fundraising, you are able to commit your time fully to the mission. Our goal on the meta-level is to support sustainable culture.'

Additionally, Green Museum has a modestly cultivated alternative revenue stream that supports its new, nimble infrastructure. Each year, they publish and sell about 15 thousand copies of an annual wall calendar of eco-art in collaboration with Amber Lotus Publishing. The price point is widely accessible--about 10 bucks on Amazon--and production is, of course, volunteer-driven. In keeping with their 'no solicitation' policy, you would be hard pressed to find any mention of the calendar on their website; marketing and sales of the calendar happen at an almost complete remove from Green Museum, quietly generating operational funds without detracting from the energies of the volunteers or the organizational mission.

The mission, to quote www.greenmuseum.org, is to help people create, present and appreciate art that heals our relationship with the natural world. While some may cringe at any mission statement about art that relies on the new-age, touchy-feely notion of healing anything, the featured artists and their work are as serious as acid rain. The site includes profiles and external links to the work of pioneering eco-artists such as Alan Sonfist, described as 'the ultimate purist of the Earthworks movement,' perhaps best known for Time Landscape (proposed 1965, planted 1978), the transformation of a Manhattan city lot into a site-specific forest of native plants that might have grown wild save for urban development; and Agnes Denes, whose Wheatfield - A Confrontation (1982) yielded 1,000 lbs of wheat from a two-acre field which was planted and harvested in Battery Park Landfill in New York, to comment on 'human values and displaced priorities.' The constantly evolving New Artists section features the work of emerging artists such as Santa Cruz-based Jim Denevan, who creates massive, temporary improvisational 'drawings' on the beach, and Seattle-based Vaughn Bell, who's installation and performance work integrates live plants.

Among the artists featured at the Green Museum is Sam Easterson. Easterson, who refers to himself as a video naturalist, is the curator and producer of the Museum of Animal Perspectives--or M.A.P.--a non-commercial new media project hosted on www.sameasterson.com. M.A.P. presents wildlife imagery captured from 'remote sensing cameras' that offer the animal's perspective from his nest or burrow. Here one can experience the true bird's eye view of a hummingbird nesting on a tree branch, or the perspective of a lobster in a burrow or a mountain lion in a den. A global map charts the various locations of Easterson's subjects, while his 'red list' displays a video gallery of threatened species up close. Animal-borne imagery presents videos from cameras mounted on everything from a tarantula to a nine-banded armadillo. Expect to be amazed and somewhat humbled, not only by Easterson's efforts, but also by the sheer grace of the animals themselves, many of which you would never encounter in such close proximity otherwise. Amy Balkin, whose recent project Public Smog (2006 - present) was featured in the curated online exhibition, 'Aer project,' on www.greenmuseum.org, and can also be accessed at www.publicsmog.org, engages cross-disciplinary research to critique how we impact the built and natural environment. Public Smog, to quote from the website, 'is a park in the atmosphere that fluctuates in location and scale. The park is constructed through financial, legal, or political activities that open it for public use.' Some of the actions around its production have included purchasing and retiring emission offsets in regulated emissions markets and an attempt to register the Earth's atmosphere for inscription on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The beautifully designed site is a wealth of information about air pollution and climate activities, educational resources and reading lists.

The museum's featured artists exemplify not only the organizational mission, but also the work ethic of the sometimes difficult to categorize 'eco-artist' whose practice draws from socially-responsible activism and various sciences, often across a wide and unruly range of artistic practices. Those featured here are just a few selected from the many recognized by Green Museum, among the many more who have yet to be included. Bower's approach to utilizing the internet to further the mission of this grass-roots organization represents a visible alternative to established models in ways that are unexpected--could we have anticipated that computers could have such an impact on the way that we engage with the environment twenty years ago, or that true sustainability would require moving away from conventional fundraising models?

Certainly there is a wealth of content that has yet to be added to the site and there are additional plans in the works for improving upon an already extraordinary organizational model. While the Green Museum, and many of its featured artists, may consider their web presence a work in progress, such progress seems inevitable: no simple task, though perfectly timed for this new era of experimentation and reinvention. 'Businesses and organizations that say that they are about the earth are really just about people,' Bower notes. 'And if you are really trying to shift something big, there is definitely a messy period in the middle of progress.'


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