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Climate Museum Pops Up in SoHo, Capital of Buying Stuff

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On a 60-degree Saturday in December — no longer unseasonably warm in Manhattan by today’s climate standards — hordes of holiday shoppers flooded the luxury shopping center that is SoHo. On a street lined with high-end stores like Chanel and Canada Goose stood a young woman handing out free coffee to lure people into a storefront that has nothing — or maybe everything — to do with conspicuous consumption.

The Climate Museum, after wandering from pop-up to pop-up in New York City for the past five years, has found a new temporary home (through April) at 105 Wooster Street in a 4,200-square-foot, 13-foot-high loft space with a skylight.

Using a blend of informational panels and artwork, the free museum hopes to educate the public about climate change, to create community and encourage people to take civic action. For its new exhibition, “The End of Fossil Fuel,” one lenticular map displays the world in shades of black, white and gray. From the left side, it shows which countries are producing the most emissions. From the right, viewers can see which countries are most affected by climate change. They do not align.

Another area of the exhibition displays a map of New York City, indicating the neighborhoods that were most affected by real estate redlining in the 1930s, where mortgage lenders did not want to make loans, further deepening racial inequality. When visitors move an overlapping panel, they see that those same areas are now the warmest in the city in summer months — sometimes 30 degrees hotter than more affluent white neighborhoods because of a lack of trees and air conditioning.

Visitors to the museum include accidental tourists, student groups and those making a pilgrimage to assuage their existential fears. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Stefanie Joseph, who came from Brooklyn to check it out with her boyfriend, Christopher Richards, a Queens resident. “But we are thoroughly impressed. I mean, this mural alone is phenomenal.”

Joseph waved up at the piece of art that anchors the exhibit, a dynamic 12-by-45-foot painting — three subway cars long — created by an author and illustrator in Stone Mountain, Ga., R. Gregory Christie.

The mural evolves from a black-and-white scene from America’s industrial past — featuring smokestacks and chains — to a more brightly colored present, with people breaking those chains, which are gradually transformed into vines. The last part envisions a utopian dream, filled with houses, trees and flowers, with a large hand sowing the seeds for the future.

When the museum contacted Christie last year to create a piece for the show, he told them he was too busy. The artist behind one of the Kwanzaa Stamps issued by the United States Postal Service, he was in the midst of illustrating four children’s books and working on a painting of Harriet Tubman for the Booth Western Art Museum in Georgia. But the Climate Museum’s creator and director, Miranda Massie, would not take no for an answer.

Christie, a former New Yorker who moved to Georgia a decade ago, visited for the show’s October opening and was overcome with emotion.

“Back when I was at the School of Visual Arts, SoHo was filled with galleries, not stores,” Christie said. “My dream was always to be in one of those galleries. Now I can say I’ve had a show in SoHo. But it’s more than that. It’s something to help change the world and how people think about the world. SoHo needs this.”

Massie, a former social justice lawyer, got the idea for the Climate Museum after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012. Though a similar museum existed in Hong Kong, this was one of the first in the United States. There are now climate museums in Chicago, Houston, Germany and the Philippines as well as temporary and permanent climate exhibits at science museums around the globe.

The nonprofit Climate Museum started out in a small Midtown East office space a decade ago, developing educational and art programs throughout New York City. Its first official exhibit was held at the New School and featured polar ice cores. The museum occupied a space on Governors Island, and then landed in SoHo at a smaller space a block from its current location, where it featured the work of David Opdyke, a Queens-based artist known for his critiques of U.S. culture and politics. But when this larger space opened up, museum officials jumped.

Sophia Lee, a sustainability strategist from Philadelphia, saw the museum on Instagram and took the train up for a visit with a friend and her 3-year-old son, who came to the exhibit armed with his toy Captain America shield. While he and his mother enjoyed a copy of “The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge” in one of the museum’s two reading areas, Lee discussed that challenge.

“It’s existential,” Lee said. “I was here for the wildfires when the sky was all dark and yellow. And I thought, ‘The dystopian future is here,’” she added, recalling smoke from wildfires in Canada that drifted over New York. “In a museum like this, we are in a bit of an echo chamber. People at Exxon who are causing the problem are not the ones coming to this. The question is how do we make our voices heard to those who can change things.”

“The oil companies want us to think, ‘If you recycle that plastic bottle, we can change where things are going,’” Lee said. “I want to say ‘No.’ ” She added, “They’re very smart and are pushing their agenda.”

Recycling, composting and using public transportation are all important, but without curbs to the fossil fuel industry and current food systems, the climate crisis will not be solved, scientists say.

Cynthia Rosenzweig, a Climate Museum board member and a senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that fossil fuels are about 70 percent of the problem. “People like to say there’s no silver bullet to solve climate change,” she said. “It’s got to be silver buckshot.”

Dr. Rosenzweig said that getting the science right in the exhibits is essential, but it’s not enough. “We as scientists have been talking about climate change for a long time now,” she said. “But science alone won’t solve the problem. I know that. I’ve lived that.” The science, she said, appeals to people’s brains. But art appeals to people’s emotions. “Then there’s the third component — creating a sense of community,” she said. “And the museum speaks to all three.”

Camilo Cardenas and Maos Gonzalez, artists from Colombia, stopped in not only to see the exhibit, but to find out if they could rent the space one night for a networking party. The science behind climate change is known at this point, they said. It’s a matter of appealing to people on an emotional level to force change. “Some days I feel like we are losing the fight. But we have to move forward and not feel like we’re doomed,” Gonzalez said.

“The planet is like a dog with fleas,” Cardenas said. “It’s going to shake us right off if we don’t do something.” He added that “the language spoken by scientists and regular people is different. A museum like this — and art — is the connection between them.”

Massie said the museum’s mission is to educate the public and to get them to take civil action — everything from calling elected officials to proposing a climate justice-themed book in their book groups to pushing for climate content in their children’s schools. However, the goal is not to encourage civil disobedience. Massie doesn’t think disruptive protests such as people gluing their hands to fine art in museums is the best way to empower the public — though she does understand the motivation behind them.

“We’re in the middle of a planetary emergency,” she said. “If we can start talking about it, we can move forward and make ourselves feel less paralyzed and more powerful.”

The final area of the museum includes a postcard station where visitors are encouraged to write to their representatives in Congress. (The museum pays for the postage.) On a recent field trip, a group of art students from Pratt Institute used the iPads provided by the museum to look up the names and addresses of their representatives to demand that they take the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, refusing large campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal companies.

Massie is open to a long-term lease in the Wooster Street space provided she can find philanthropists and corporate donors to help foot the bill. The museum is currently funded by the Mellon, Ford and Waverley Street foundations, but has also taken donations from Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Foundation, the Hilo Foundation and the Rockefeller family. Less than 2 percent of all charitable donations go toward the climate cause, Massie said. “It’s not part of the established portfolio.”

András Szántó, a museum consultant and author of “Imagining the Future Museum,” said financing was only one of the challenges the Climate Museum faces. Finding good art that can also deliver a specific message “in a poignant way” is not an easy task, he said.

The other challenge, Szántó said, is determining what kind of building the museum should occupy: “Should you even have your own building? It would be odd to build a big shining new building to tell the story of sustainability. That would be a deep disconnect. The notion of a pop-up is in itself an environmental statement.”

Massie also believes that any permanent new space needs to set an example for sustainability. “But we burn through a lot of carbon having to move every six months,” she said.

The museum’s current landlord, David Zar, who helps run his family’s real estate empire in Manhattan, said he would be happy if it stayed past May. He said he had turned down two commercial tenants for the space, including a Michelin-starred restaurant, even though they offered more in rent than the Climate Museum. (Zar didn’t want to disclose what the discounted rent is for the museum, but similar spaces in the neighborhood get upward of $100,000 a month, according to real estate brokers.)

“You have to care about the future,” said Zar, the father of five children, “whether or not you’re going to be around.”

The End of Fossil Fuel

Through April 28, 2024, The Climate Museum, 105 Wooster Street, SoHo, 917-551-6670; climatemuseum.org.

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