The Case for Arts Institutions as Sites of Refuge from Environmental Injustice

Written by Nia McAllister

With thick blankets of smoke descending upon the San Francisco Bay Area from the Butte County fire–the deadliest in the state’s history, museums around San Francisco opened their doors as spaces of refuge from the hazardous air quality. During the past two weekends, MoAD joined SFMoMA, the Asian Art Museum, the deYoung, and other neighboring museums in offering full and partial free access to indoor gallery space. The act of providing of free museum access to those impacted by natural disasters is not a new concept. The city’s Fine Arts museums offered free admission during the Napa Fires in 2017.1 As spaces built to serve the public, it is crucial that museums make practice of responding to environmental emergencies in the name of safety and accessibility. But as we recognize the importance of these actions, we must consider what more we can be doing.

Accessibility cannot be conditional. Museums as institutions have historically been exclusionary. From the artists included in the galleries to the visitors welcomed in, these institutions have traditionally been for the white, wealthy, and educated. While these demographics are shifting to be more inclusive, those of us who are people of color, low income, or perceived as possessing less social capital still experience isolation from these institutions. Access to art and culture cannot be exclusive.

Environmental safety and healthy living conditions shouldn’t just be for the privileged either. It is no coincidence that the same low income communities of color missing from museum spaces are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental injustices such as food deserts, the redlining of neighborhoods, proximity to toxic facilities, and the resulting impacts of poorer air quality. Neighborhoods like Bayview/Hunters Point, located beside the freeway on the outskirts of the city, have a 14-year difference in life expectancy compared to areas like Russian Hill, due to accumulated respiratory health issues and disparities in environmental conditions.2

Unfortunately, it is only in these times of widespread crisis that the general public realizes the luxury of having clean air to breathe. This is not to downplay the intensity of the dangerous wildfires blazing throughout the state, but rather a call to action. With the clear overlap between the demographics who have historically been excluded from museums and those who experience environmental health challenges year-round, we must address how to sustain care for those facing environmental injustices that are less visible than the recent fire, but just as impactful.

As a cultural art institution MoAD not only provides a space where narratives of the diaspora are centered, but continues to engage with the intersection of social, racial, and environmental justice. Focusing on food justice and the diaspora, our Chef-in-Residence program led by Bryant Terry is a prime example where these issues become more than just discussion topics, but are instead transformed into tangible action. In conjunction with September’s city-wide Global Climate Action Summit, The Museum hosted the program Black Liberation and Climate Justice. Incorporating lessons on environmental racism, ecological justice, and plant-based recipes, the event transformed our lobby into a space for community building, collective storytelling, and brainstorming for a healthy future.

In the spirit of continued refuge and resilience, join us December 8th at Recipes for Resistance. This next Chef-in-Residence program “will highlight the power of plant-based foods and the powerful role that we can play in contributing to Climate Action and working towards a more healthy, just, and sustainable food system and world”. As we continue to hold ourselves accountable for responding to the needs of the communities we serve, we hope to create space where we can spark these challenging conversations and inspire learning for all.



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